Language and Culture

The view from Kinshasa, 2005: My family think I’ll return a PhD in snake-eating Buddhist kungfu

Dear Daoshi,

Nobody forced me to go to China. Rather it was my personal decision. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to go and experience another country. I wanted something different from the usual western countries. Another society. China was the right choice. The choice coincided well as China is increasingly an economic power participating in, leading even, a sudden change of world economic order. 

Landing in China at the time, 2005, was a great immersion into a major transformation, politically and economically. This was worthy to me as it helped to see and observe the change live. I feel lucky for that. Although excited to visit China the decision was not an easy one at all as it was a new world I was going to discover. Before going to China I had almost no information about what was going to happen there. I didn’t have enough knowledge of China, nor of Chinese or even English. I knew few things about this country, except of Chairman Mao and kungfu.

In war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2005, China was so unknown that a friend of mine thought that Chairman Mao was still president. My family and most of my friends warned me not not fight with Chinese people (either men or women) as they all have kungfu skills and will beat me. The fight could even be dangerous. Since at that time most of media in Congo about China looked at economics. It seemed everyone therefore presumed that China remained a land of tradition, old architecture and was undeveloped.

Even me, in applying to study in China, I knew little of the Chinese education system and universities. I was lucky to be selected for Peking University, because in advance I personally did not know which university to choose and which specific programs and specialities in universities.

By the time I arrived in China I had troubles to cope with life, studies and culture as I all but completely ignorant. The adjustment to my new life was slow. It took a long time to understand the society and university system mostly called “Xitong”. That’s for another entry. For now, I share what I wish I knew from Kinshasa, before I left for China, and from the safety of Kinshasa, where I now work in the Ministry of Finance with my new status of PhD in Economics, Peking University: 

  • Chinese people live in sky-scrappers, and students too, live increasingly in quite comfortable dormitories, if you are lucky to be in a new one; 
  •  Snakes and dogs are eaten for dinner – but not very often. They are easy to avoid, as are fights with kungfu masters; 
  • Not only are Chinese not walking around as Buddhists, they have almost no religion at all. It is possible however to go to church on Sundays in Beijing.

For students leaving for China in 2012, a lot more is known, but still not enough to maximise their educational opportunity right from the start of their studies. Korean students in China have an extraordinary network and understanding that other foreign students don’t have cultural or institutional access to, yet.

For me, I have now returned to Kinshasa, unable to do any more kungfu than when I left, and only having learned to fight with words – and characters – as PhD students should. I hope this series of articles will help more students to do so, in Chinese. 

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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