Being a college classmate may not be a “big deal” in America. But it comes close to “BFF” (best friends forever) in China.
School ends in early July and it is graduation time here for college seniors. Across campus, on the steps of each department, students assemble in their academic regalia for final pictures. Their group identity has seen them through four years of study and sacrifice. They worked together as a unit to survive. Their four years together will make them classmates (“tong xue”) for life.
When they arrive at college as freshmen, Chinese students serve a brief 3-4 weeks in quasi-military training, somewhat like our ROTC on campus, but very brief. They don uniforms, carry packs, march and drill. Our U.S. military calculates all of these students as a huge potential pool for call-up, but these are not a two-year trained, hardened Israeli student militia. These kids are more giggles than guns. They leave this behind for the rest of their four years of college; they are like college kids anywhere.
During this short drill experience, they selected group leaders from among those who volunteered. After a few weeks working under those leaders, they have seen them in action and are ready to vote for their more long term class monitors or “ban zhang.”
This position is loaded with responsibility.
These student groups are pursuing the same major and will attend the same classes, much as our middle school students travel class-to-class as a group. When teachers note a student’s absence, the monitor is called in and told to get the student back in class. When a classroom projector breaks down and it will take a few days to replace it, the building manager notifies the monitor who tells the class to go to an alternate room. It is faculty who show up to an empty room and have to hunt down our classes!
Class schedules in China can change at a moment’s notice. The provincial government waited until the last moment to announce the holidays off for spring grave-sweeping festival: they told us Friday that Monday was a vacation day! To make up for this missed Monday class, we needed to meet the following Saturday, and in a different room.
“How will they know were to go?” I asked a colleague.
“No problem,” was the reply. And sure enough, every student was in the right room on Saturday. The class monitor got them there. Unlike American students who work and often have a spouse and children, Chinese college students only have one duty in life. They cannot get married until they are older, so they do not have children to care for. And they do not hold down part time jobs. Studying is “Job One.” Class met on Saturday.
Most come from far away to attend university. So their classmates become their family. They help each other by sharing notes and studying together. They provide the academic support that American faculty provide our students. They are everpresent to encourage a classmate who might be “down.”
For Western teachers who assign graded homework to Chinese students in the U.S., this can be a problem when they all turn in identical papers. China invented “cooperative learning” long before Western education schools did. Students help classmates. But their graded work is on individual tests in China. Western teachers have to work hard to get Chinese students to do their own outside work stateside.
Working together in the group, to help the group, is how the Chinese make it through life in society. Your identity is your identity in the group. With family at home. With classmates at school.
There may be a student or two absent from that graduating group taking pictures in their regalia today. I know not to discuss them in public. Privately you can learn that one dropped out and went back home—or elsewhere. A few commit suicide. Classmates stoically move on.
These classmates graduate to disperse across the country and even the world. But they will always be “classmates.” If they come to live in the same city, they will share their special classmate status by trading discounts in whatever businesses they run. “Guanxi” which is often translated as “who you know” is pervasive in the fabric of Chinese society. Being classmates is an important guanxi relationship. And when classmates come together in formal or informal reunions, what they think of you really matters because of your four-year journey together.
In the U.S. we often tell our graduating students to “write home” to us, for they are “family now.” But our graduates go off in individual directions. They attended different classes in our independent culture. Only our fraternities and sororities offer a distant comparison.
Here, “staying connected” goes unsaid. They are classmates forever.