Beijing is notoriously known in China for its harsh winters with sub-zero temperatures, icy winds and high pollution, thanks to many houses still using coal-powered heaters. I was quite excited to experience this season here, as it seems so central to what Beijing means to many people. I knew it was coming when in November I found a new, extra-thick blanket on my dormitory bed, and today when I stepped outside, huddling in my coat in -8 degrees, I wondered if my excitement had been misplaced. For me winter always goes hand in hand with Christmas, but despite Christmas not being celebrated in China, the season gives the city a certain charm. We have been very lucky – snow here is very rare, because even though Beijing is cold, it is also very dry. But in December alone it has snowed twice, and the many lakes around the city are now thickly frozen. I am still waiting for the Peking University ice rink to open on Weiming Hu, the campus lake, but until then I have had to make do with ice skating in a mall in the eastern part of the city.
Spending Christmas away from home was a little bittersweet, but it brought together many international students from PKU. We were all in the same situation: because Christmas is not a holiday here, exam season falls right at the end of December. Going home was therefore not an option. Instead, we had Christmas dinner in a little restaurant serving Beijing-style hotpot in the Hutongs, the traditional alleys of Beijing, and then gathered at one student’s apartment to listen to Christmas music, drink homemade mulled wine and celebrate together. All together in the small apartment, the night felt much more festive than I would have expected!
Studying at Peking University
Other than exam season being so unfortunately timed for us international students, there is a lot to say about my study experience here! My first semester has almost concluded and overall, I enjoyed it very much. Except for my Chinese language class, all of my lectures take place in the School of International Studies, one of the few departments offering international and English-taught programmes. I will write more about the role of English here in the future, but most importantly this means that the majority of my classmates are other international students. As I had hoped, all of the classes focus, at least to a certain degree on China and helping foreign students to understand the Chinese worldview.
My favourite class this semester was a lecture on Chinese Demographic Policy. It was a small class and our professor had personally lived through many of the most decisive events that shaped the Chinese population in recent history. Learning about the development of the policies was intertwined with his personal anecdotes and the experience of seeing the unprecedented growth China has experienced in the last decades. I think that of all my classes and experiences in this country so far, this class has improved my understanding of the scale its development is on the most, because it related big numbers back to the individual lives affected by the policies.
Another way the school lays focus on allowing students to learn about and experience China is by offering a variety of field trips. Some are day trips to companies or factories in Beijing or close-by, some are weekend trips to adjacent provinces. But the most memorable one I have been on was a one-week trip to the southern province of Guizhou in November. Sponsored by Kweichow Maotai, the most well-known liquor producer in China, which is based in Guizhou, we spend the week touring the province. Other than the hilly landscapes near Xingyi and the largest waterfall in China in Huangguoshu National Park, we also saw the factories the liquor is produced in and learned about its cultural history. Overall, we covered almost more than we could process in one week but bringing the impressions of the trip back to school is one of the advantages of this way of learning.