The Difference Between Chinese and American College Life


“Laoshi, what is a keg stand?” one of my students with the English moniker "Bob" asked me. 

I stood before the class slightly dumbfounded. This was sure to be an interesting discussion on the differences, and hopefully similarities, between Chinese and American college life. Their preconceptions of college life in America were often comical: “American guys flirt with girls very well.” “All students have cars in college.” “The students are always too drunk.” Their interest in certain aspects of American college life provided some clues to the differences in their own collegiate experience. Some of the most notable differences lay in the social realm as Chinese college life outside the classroom shares few similarities to that in the U.S. 

Partying and drinking do not play a noticeable role in Chinese colleges. While some students do drink at dinner or have the occasional baijiu, it is the exception rather than the rule. And while these observations are based on life in just one university out of thousands across China, it provides an interesting lens into the reasons for the distinct social atmospheres.

In both countries, college students are busy, but, from what I have witnessed, Chinese students are overly so. After speaking with many of my students, it seems like they are always either in class, studying, or participating in extra-curricular activities, with little time for anything else. I have Bob and his classmates on Saturday afternoon and it’s their fourth Saturday class, the first starting at 8 a.m. Many students only have Sunday off, and it is often dedicated to catching up on sleep, homework, and extra-curricular activities.

In lieu of bars and fraternities, there are clubs, student organizations, and nation-wide competitions which are very popular with students. Many students volunteer for or participate in large competitions held in colleges across China that range from performing Shakespeare plays, Model UN, and innovation challenges. While many students are genuinely interested in these extra-curricular events, their participation is also motivated by a desire to distinguish themselves from their peers. In a country of 1.3 billion people with a fiercely competitive job market, the students feel an obvious pressure to pad their résumé. 

In addition to their busy academic and extra-curricular schedule, university policies factor into their dissimilarity with U.S. college social norms. All dorms are closed and the electricity is turned off at 11 p.m. Even if students do venture off campus to grab a drink, they have to be back before lights-out lest they be locked out for the night. Being able to “party,” in the American sense, is almost impossible.

Yet, it is the societal structure that serves as the main reason for the absence of a drinking culture. Due to the One-Child Policy, many students are the only children in their family. In a country with a strained pension system, parents often rely on their children to support them in retirement. Both sets of grandparents need to be provided for as well. With this in mind, college is viewed as the best means to get a high-paying job to support an extended family network. Going out and drinking until all hours of the night would seem to jeopardize not only the students' futures, but their families' futures as well.

The distinction between college life in China and America seems profound. In China, students often have to think of their family’s well being, whereas in the U.S., students can generally focus on themselves. It should be emphasized, however, that the American college culture, typified by parties and heavy drinking, isn’t necessary to have a fun social life. One way is not better than the other. Chinese students undoubtedly enjoy their social lives. There are endless games of basketball, ping-pong, soccer, tennis, and badminton and a constant succession of entertaining, university-sponsored talent shows, and performances. That is to say, keg stands aren’t a college requirement. What is required is an environment in which one can be surrounded by friends and, more importantly, enjoy new freedoms away from the comforts and also the restraints of home. This forces students to become more independent and is crucial to their social development. These are fundamental tenants of college life that both American and Chinese students share.

Photo Credit: ® Ryan_xm