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December 24, 2011

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Expats adapt to Xmas in China

MORE and more foreign students are earning their degrees in China, hoping to be part of China's advancement in the globalized world. One often overlooked price that many of these students pay, however, is that they cannot go home during Christmas.

Instead while their families vacation, cook, eat, party and exchange gifts at home, they will cram for finals alone in dorms and libraries. While their Chinese classmates anticipate joining family for Spring Festival during the Chinese Lunar New Year in January, foreign students will make due by celebrating their country's most important holiday between study sessions.

Stella Kibet, a Kenyan undergraduate, is in her sixth and final year at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine.

"Almost all six Christmases, I had exams on that day," Kibet says. "Almost every Christmas, I'd rush to the exam room, finish, find friends, go out, get a drink, do something."

At least this year, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. A computer science student at Shanghai University of Electric Power recalled that in 2010 she was so upset about being forced to take a test on Christmas day that she complained.

"After the exam, I went to the teacher's office, and I told them it's not acceptable," Elyster Dzvinamurungu of Zimbabwe said. "They never did it again. They are quite understanding. Bit by bit they're beginning to accept Christmas."

Part of this new acceptance has to do with the increasing number of foreign students in China. More than 260,000 students from more than 190 countries and areas were studying in China in 2010. That is about a 20,000 increase from the year before, according to statistics released by the China Ministry of Education in March. The ministry said it plans to draw 500,000 to China by 2020. Most foreign students are from Asian countries but more and more are coming from Western countries, news sources reported in March.

Dzvinamurungu joined three others as the first foreign students to attend her university. Similarly, Kibet came to China as part of her school's first large group of 21. Since then increasingly larger groups have joined them.

She expects this Christmas will be more memorable than previous ones, and not just because this is the first year she doesn't have an exam on or after the 25th.

China is getting into the Christmas spirit, she feels. Already, Kibet has attended Christmas parties and concerts.

"There's so many more foreigners now, that Christmas is becoming more important to China," Kibet said.

Yvonne Mutua, a freshman Environmental Engineering major at University of Shanghai for Science and Technology is part of the first large group of the school's international students. Before her group numbering around 60 students mostly from Africa and Mongolia, there were only a couple of foreigners at the school, she says.

Last year, she studied Mandarin full-time with fellow foreign classmates, but her peers agree that it is their second year when they enroll as freshmen alongside Chinese students that is the real language challenge. It is difficult enough to study technical words, but when those words are in Mandarin it can be overwhelming.

"I go to class, but I don't understand what the teacher is saying," she says. "It's tough. It's very, very tough."

Although her finals start next week, Mutua does not expect to study over the weekend.

"It's a bit strange to read on Christmas weekend," she says.

Instead she planned a school-sponsored Christmas party for her foreign classmates on Friday. They celebrated in a Chinese style by performing songs from their homeland. That is not the way they would celebrate at home, but most students say that the sacrifice of their holiday traditions is worth the reward of studying in China.

Dzvinamurungu finds there are more professional opportunities here for her. At home she would only be working with Zimbabweans, but in Shanghai she can work with people from all over the world.

"Every country is coming here," she says.

Right now she is an intern at a German company. She would never have had an opportunity to study at a German University, so she's glad that in a city like Shanghai, she can learn from Germans on the job.

Cameron Huckabee, a master's student from the United States, said he is accomplishing his goal of understanding the Chinese viewpoint toward politics and diplomacy in his program at Fudan University.

Even though he feels the relatively new English-language program still has to work out how to handle international students, and even though a plane ticket is too expensive for him to fly home during the holidays, he would still recommend that people study at Fudan.

"There are a lot of good students. I got a lot more life experience," Huckabee says.

He and many others hope to find a job here after they graduate, even if that means more Christmases away from home.

"I like Asia," says Lyuben Kyurkchiev, a master's student at Shanghai University from Bulgaria. "Shanghai feels like home already."

Dzvinamurungu said she is glad she did not give up during her second year, when language and culture challenges almost drove her to go home. In fact, now after spending five formative years studying in Shanghai, Dzvinamurungu is facing an unexpected challenge while interning at a foreign company.

"I have been around Chinese people and a way of doing things that is Chinese," she said. "Now I'm finding it very hard to communicate with foreigners."

Deep down, however, one part of her will never be fully Chinese. She will never be able to accept not being able to celebrate Christmas.

"You never get used to it," she says. "It's like your birthday. If you don't celebrate, you really don't get used to it."

(Meredith Rodriguez is a Shanghai-based teacher and freelancer.)


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