BEIJING — Closely guarding an answer sheet and a half-eaten cheeseburger, Katie Planey ’09 cranes her neck as if to lift above the bar din — European accents discussing European football, Chinese mouths garbling “mojito” — to hear what’s next:
“All right, kids,” an American accent says, “Question seven is ‘Name the northernmost province in China.’ ”
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Planey’s hand gyrates over the paper while her seven teammates whisper into her ear. Suspiciously eyeing the surrounding teams at Lush — a noisy I-banker watering hole — tonight’s Yale configuration returns to protect last week’s first-place title (“Did you see our prize? It’s that bottle of Jack in the common room.”).
After repeating the same sing-songy Mandarin geographies over and over, they ultimately come up short.
Giving up, they pass the sheet to their teammate who had been curiously sipping a margarita, Peking University sophomore Zhang Borang, one of the only contestants in Lush who is not an expat. He quickly jots in the answer as if it was make-or-break to passing a final exam.
“We’re totally on a roll,” Planey says.
Four weeks into the Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program, Wednesday night has already become an established routine for the 14 Yale students relocated to Beijing for the semester: a handful of hours studying, text-messaged plans for Lush quiz night, and a grand finale at Propaganda — or, as they all begrudgingly call it, Beijing Toad’s.
The Yale-PKU program, now in its second semester, still remains an amorphous test tube project. Balancing the trappings of Yale — course credit, professors, master’s teas — and the experience of living in Yale’s bosom buddy, China, the program offers an unprecedented cross-cultural experience for undergraduates of all backgrounds, as Yalies room, eat and socialize with students from PKU’s elite Yuanpei honors program.
But given a breezy workload and an exchange rate that makes yuan bills like Monopoly money, it’s as though the American college ethos isn’t lost in translation — it’s just spoken with a heavy accent. Even as Beida wunderkinds sample cosmos at Lush and relationships develop between the Yalies and their roommates, at the end of the day (noon Eastern Standard Time, mind you), the program participants still face the temptation to avoid the problems of being a Yalie in China by creating their very own surrogate Yale in China.
As the quiz winds down and more state school baseball caps file in, Borang catches an early taxi to PKU (colloquially referred to as Beida) in observance of a self-imposed midnight bedtime. Meanwhile, the Yale crowd mingles with newfound facebook Friends:
“Do you like my top?” screams a tanorexic San Diego State caricature, gesturing towards a swag of jersey cotton. “They don’t do ‘slutty’ in China, so I had to adjust it myself.”
‘Living like peasants’
Yale students occupy a two-floor slice of Building 42, a concrete slab part of a larger graduate student housing complex, located just past the student laundromat and a central gulf of rusted bicycles. Two sets of chrome and glass doors lead past the wet stink of the public bathroom (“Isn’t it disgusting?”) to the Yale students’ living quarters, segregated by gender, accessible only by ID, and home to the only Western-style toilets on campus.
The set-up is spartan: Each Yalie rooms with a student from Beida, and each room is equipped with a desk, a closet and bedding (a wooden board, a quilt-like mattress, and a pillow filled taut with buckwheat) in a room that would normally house four Beida students.
Yale also provides students with a battery-operated lamp, as Building 42’s in-room electricity cuts off at midnight — a luxury, considering undergraduate dorms lose power at 10.
“We want immersion,” explained Charles Laughlin, the on-campus coordinator of the Yale-PKU program. “Our first principle when we set up this program was that we did not want our students living in the foreign student complex, which is where all of the other foreign students from all of the other programs are living. We wanted to give Yalies a little closer to the experience of undergraduate college life for a Beida student.”
Yet for students babied by James Gamble Rodgers architecture and dining hall quiche, this presents a harrowing prospect.
Life for a Beida student is the antithesis of convenient. Students obtain hot water — usually for tea or ramen noodles — at a central water heater for a minimal fee, and transport it to their rooms in sun-beaten thermoses that circulate the student body. Showering is also a public venture, and most Beida students can be seen making a 4 p.m. pilgrimage to a mildewed central bathhouse.
“This is the Harvard of China,” Cisco Liquido ’08 said, “and people here live like peasants.”
In establishing the program, Yale assessed the limitations of immersion, given the fact that students continue to pay full Yale tuition to attend school in a developing country. So though students are still required to throw away soiled toilet paper in wire mesh trash cans so as not to overwhelm the Beijing sewer system, stateside standards of comfort and hygiene are at least partially preserved: Yalies’ housing features common rooms with 24-hour electricity and private showers, unique to the PKU campus.
“It’s still a third-world country here,” Laughlin said, “and we wouldn’t want to force that on Yale students if they’re not comfortable with it. We had to learn where to draw the line with comfort and convenience in their dorm that they’re sharing with Beida students. But whenever possible, we didn’t want to give Yale students special privileges or special circumstances — we’re using the same furniture, the same bedding set.”
Yet the program also poses a new scenario for Beida students as well: Never before in the university’s history have its students roomed with Americans, or worked alongside them in a living environment.
‘Is there any reason not to be ridiculous?’
The Yale students currently in the program will readily admit that its hallmark feature is not only the opportunity to study in Beijing for Yale credit, but also to do so with some of the most quantifiably intelligent students in China.
Liquido’s roommate Yu Hong, or Basil — each Chinese student adopts an English name — was first in his province in college entrance exams. He also heads up a glut of on-campus activities: tennis team, student government, the Yuanpei newspaper, where he is editor in chief. This semester, Basil and the rest of the PKU participants in the program are limited to seven classes to encourage more interaction with their roommates; the standard courseload of 10 left last semester’s students with little time for anything but studying.
“I now have more time to communicate with the Yale students,” he says. “We talk about traveling in China, Chinese, food, girlfriends….”
“Sex!” Liquido jokes. Basil retorts with an awkward laugh buried behind polite hands.
Because of potential cultural incongruities, the roommate system was simultaneously the biggest attraction and the biggest liability of the program, students said.
“When we got here, they organized a panel in which they informed us that we wouldn’t get along with our roommates at all,” Planey said. “So I think a lot of us were coming into this expecting the worst … but I thought that they were a little too serious about it.”
Often times the common rooms witness the majority of the students’ cross-cultural engagement. Aside from being the only rooms in the hall with 24-hour electricity, the rooms also feature two public-use computers and a smattering of IKEA furniture and pixelated bootleg DVDs.
One afternoon, Ben Jacobs ’09 and Liquido decant a Jay-Z baseline into the men’s hall, which nearly reverberates into the courtyard. Borang occasionally steps in for rounds of online Warcraft. The room often sees the most activity, however, in the minutes after the midnight power outage, when wide-awake Yalies file in with Nalgenes and designer laptops.
“The most apparent difference between the Chinese and American students’ behaviors was their working times,” residential adviser Alan Jueby Herbert (Zhu Xiaoyu) noted. “Most American students prefer to stay up late.”
“I think the biggest social difference that causes me a little bit of paranoia is that the Chinese students wouldn’t tell us if something was bothering them,” Planey said. “So I think that’s where most of the problems would arise.”
But as Herbert explained, this is more of a Chinese cultural gesture than anything else: “Chinese students are indirect when expressing themselves — it’s just Chinese culture. The Yale students, however, seemed to prefer to go to clubs or bars … Some Chinese students might not prefer that, but they’ll go because they’re good hosts.”
Nonetheless, Yalies frequently hit the usual expat circuits without their Chinese roommates, who sheepishly refuse invitations because of homework for one of their seven classes. For students used to inflated New Haven prices, the experience of living in China — where their Chinese roommates get by on roughly $3 a day — is decadent. But the financial divide is often a source of contention; bars and clubs are cheap by U.S. standards, but still too expensive to be a part of the Chinese students’ daily regime.
“Family nights,” ostensibly funded so that Yalies and Beida students will eat together, are comprised almost exclusively of Yalies. On one such “family night,” at Houhai, a lakeside neon crescent where Chinese vendors hawk trinkets to tourists still talking about their afternoon trip to the Great Wall, tens of plates crowded a pool table-sized surface, adding up to $4 a head. As they wander past Houhai vendors offering squirming puppies for $2, the group is split on what to do next: A handful want to return to Beida, but some want to go to another expat district for drinks.
“I don’t understand,” says Marisa Reisman ’08, with both excitement and frustration. “We’re both in college and Beijing. Is there any reason not to be ridiculous? Because if there is, nobody has told me yet.”
In between planning weekend jaunts to Shanghai and Hong Kong, spring break ideas are a persistent topic of conversation. At a Yale-PKU luncheon in a glass-and-marble dining room two floors above a frenetic Beida dining hall, students tossed around Carmen San Diego gems: Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Hainan (“It’s the Hawaii of China!” they swooned).
Haley Warden ’08, who has studied in China in high school and on a Light fellowship, wanted her classmates to experience “the real China” instead.
“We’re in China!” she said. “Go to the far Western provinces or Tibet … Go to rural farms and hang out with rice farmers. Why do you need to go Hainan?”
Of yak meat and bureaucracy
Eschewing a Yale-organized trip to regions of China that test your typhoid vaccine, Chris Schmicker ’08, one of last semester’s Yale-PKU participants, instead opted for a villa in Bali with fellow Yalies. When they made plans, details were scarce about the Yale-organized trip — one of many of a blitzkrieg of annoyances experienced by last semester’s group.
“I was definitely frustrated with the organization of the program,” Schmicker said. “But I knew going into it that it was going to have problems — Chinese bureaucracy is notorious, and PKU is no different. I think the program had a really hard time establishing itself. The PKU administration can be quite elusive.”
Given the considerable communication — and cultural — barriers, last semester’s students nearly declared the program a failure for its frustrating lack of organization.
But not all students shared this assessment. Alexa Verme ’08 “left with very fond memories” and now works for the Yale-PKU program in the IEFP office.
“It was one of my best decisions at Yale,” she said.
While a lack of sufficient pre-orientation was one concern (“We’re currently compiling our first-ever student handbook,” on-campus director Cameron Gearon said), perhaps the most pressing problem was the students’ own inability with Chinese. Sans any program support for basic day-to-day necessities, such as opening a bank account or ordering food, Yalies’ roommates became their only resources.
“They were completely dependent on their roommates for their daily needs … which created an anxiety that was unfortunate,” Laughlin said. “Americans in particular like to feel self-reliant, so … they found that there are lots of things to do in Beijing that don’t require any Chinese language ability — like entertainment or bar-hopping.”
Since last semester’s students had little, if any, exposure to Mandarin, one or two Yalies would reliably make the rounds of the expat bar circuit every night, and Yalies often coalesced into cliques disinterested in the program’s cultural offerings. One victim of this phenomenon, students said, was a dumpling-folding tutorial held in the dining hall last semester. Of the 25 Yale students in the program, only four showed up. This semester, most of the program participants have studied in China before on Light fellowships, though a small contingent entered the program with little to no exposure to Chinese.
“This term, people are really communicating and spending time with their roommates,” Warden said. “It’s definitely a very special treat that we get to live with these people, and it’s easy to forget that.”
For last semester’s group of 25 — nearly twice as large as this semester’s group of 14 — it was easy to become resigned, as a series of organizational disasters nearly lead to mutiny.
Students reported that on a trip to the rural Sichuan region, the group contracted food poisoning from portions of yak meat. And despite the waves of nausea that ensued, the bus driver — commissioned by the program — insisted on forcibly removing everyone from the bus at every tourist stop.
“One of the biggest regrets I have is that last semester’s students had to patiently wait while we dealt with problems that we had not anticipated,” Laughlin said. “The bottom line problem last semester was that we were doing stuff that we had never done before, and doing stuff that Beida had never done before either.”
The grand experiment
As another plate is delivered to a crowded lazy Susan in yet another red silk and gold leaf dining room, two students are oblivious to the feast. Chopsticks on the table — perhaps already bored with the gluttony — they find something else to talk about. Like, say, Tiananmen Square.
“Tiananmen Square!” the Yalie said, his sarcasm slowly revealing itself. “Like, bang bang!”
A Beida student — American irony lost on him — keeps things earnest: “We don’t talk about those things … we don’t have all the facts.”
While Yale students are notoriously argumentative and opinionated, it’s a characteristic that’s begrudgingly treasured. But Beida students are often sidelined by loquacious Yalies, a phenomenon that’s particularly evident in the classroom.
Exporting prominent Yale faculty to Beijing — History of Art Director of Undergraduate Studies Anne Dunlop, International Studies DUS Pierre Landry — the Yale-PKU program gives Yale students the familiarity of established Yale courses, but with a noticeable difference: the cohort of Beida students in each of their seminars.
“It’s one of the most fascinating teaching experiences available,” Landry said. “It’s a very experimental design — a unique situation to have two different sets of students from two elite institutions and observe their interactions through controlled discussions and assignments. It’s an unbelievable learning experiment for a professor.”
The classroom environment in China is decidedly less participatory than that of American universities: Nearly all courses are lecture-based, and conversation is minimal. Therefore, in the Yale-PKU classes, Yale students have to make a concerted effort not to speak with their usual rhetorical bravura. This semester’s program is particularly vulnerable: more than half of its Yale class participated in Directed Studies, and Laughlin consciously encourages students to “think of themselves as sources of quality language input.”
Though the program challenges the Mandarin abilities of its Yale participants, in many ways, the Yale-PKU classes are more of a learning experience for Beida students accustomed to a higher courseload but light reading. Basil complained that he does more reading in a week for his Yale class than he would for a month of PKU coursework. Yet the reading — reported to average at 50 pages a week per class — is negligible compared to most Yale courses offered stateside.
But while conversations about monuments of Western art in one of Dunlop’s seminars might be primarily Yale-centric, Landry argues that it is more a matter of introducing discussions to which everyone can contribute. For example, he said, a recent discussion on a government scandal in Shanghai produced the most participation from Chinese students that he has witnessed all semester.
“I’ve been incredibly pleased with the extent of the classroom participation,” he said. “If you find a way to engage the students in cross-cultural conversation, then they’ll certainly talk.”
Concluding their class presentation on Confucius in an Eastern philosophy seminar, Warden and Eric MacEvoy ’08 pose a question to the class: “Now that we’ve said all this, we’re interested in hearing from the Chinese students how Confucianism fits into Communism.”
After a prolonged silence, the professor unfurls an awkward smile. “Time for our break.”