The beachfront of Qinhuangdao
In today’s interview we’ll be talking with Chiara Romano, who is 22 years old and since last August has lived in Qinhuangdao, where she is studying Chinese thanks to a scholarship from the Confucius Institute.
What is necessary to obtain a scholarship
Chiara, what are the minimum requirements to obtain a scholarship from the Confucius Institute?
Hi Furio! Getting a scholarship from the Confucius Institute (which is actually promoted by Hanban, the “head office” of the Confucius Institutes worldwide) isn’t too difficult. First of all you have to choose what sort of experience you’re looking for: there are various scholarships, offering periods of study between six months and a year, as well as scholarships to graduate both with a three year degree or teaching degree in China, or still other scholarships centered on the teaching of Chinese.
All in all there are a lot of possibilities! To apply for any of these scholarships you must be between the ages of 16 and 35 and must pass the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, Knowledge of Chinese Language for Foreginers Test) exam and the HSKK (similar to the first one, without having to write Chinese characters).
Each scholarship requires different levels of mastery over the language, but as for the annual scholarship, the one that I received, you must as a minimum pass the HSK3 exam with at least 180 points and the HSKK成绩 (in other words the elementery level) with at least 60 points.
What is the procedure and timing necessary to apply for a scholarship?
To apply for a scholarship all you have to do is sign up at the Confucius Institute Scholarship site and fill out the form with your personal information. You’ll also need to upload a number of documents:
- A photo of yourself in passport format;
- A copy of your passport;
- A ‘brief’ sample of at least 800 Chinese characters to justify the scholarship request;
- A photocopy of your HSK e HSKK test results;
- A photocopy of the diploma from the highest level of instruction you have;
- A photocopy of two letters of presentation, written in English or Chinese, from Chinese instructors (I believe you can directly ask the Confucius Institute for membership);
- Your written signature.
For this application you’ll also have to indicate two universities you would like to be accepted to, choosing them from a list on the site itself.
The deadline for scholarships is around the first week of May (in 2014, for example, the deadline was May 10th; dated by Beijing’s time zone).
The entrance of Yanshan University
When do you find out the results and when would you leave for China?
Between the closing of the deadline and the release of the results it takes about a month: in 2014 the deadline closed on May 10th and the results came out June 16th. Personally it was the longest month of my life, I was torn between the anxiety of not being accepted by the university and the anxiety of finishing my Italian university exams to graduate in time to leave for China without rushing. On June 20th, 2014 my dream came true: an email from 燕山大学 (Yanshan University) of Qinhuangdao, a port city 300 kilometers from Beijing, advised me that they had accepted my application.
From that point it all went by so quickly that, looking back, it seemed impossible that I’d be able to get everything done: since here in China schools and universities begin classes September 1st, and it was necessary to get all documents before the end of August. In fact, attached to the email from the university there were already a few documents to be filled out within ten days and re-sent via email: the university enrollment form, a document to be signed by your doctor to ensure you don’t have a dozen different diseases (among which are psychosis, HIV, syphilis or drug addiction, all documented by blood tests, urine tests and even an ECG and chest X rays) and a form asking for your study and work experience (a sort of resume so to speak). Only with these documents can the university send the invitation letter (on paper) necessary to obtain a visa.
How much is a scholarship from the Confucius Institute worth? Besides money, what other benefits does the scholarship offer?
The scholarship varies according to the type applied for: the annual one provides 1,400 Yuan a month, that is exclusively deducted from a Chinese account (the memory of TWO mornings spent at the bank surrounded by curious Chinese still torments me). In addition, for the first month, the university (or at least my university) provides a contribution of 600 Yuan for medical insurance and 1,500 Yuan for initial expenses. Here you’ll find the current Yuan/Euro exchange rate (at the time of writing 10 Yuan = 1.3 Euro).
Is a scholarship enough to live in a city like Qinhuangdao?
I believe this type of scholarship is very convenient, since it covers everything: university tariffs, lodging and the necessary books. The air ticket is not included, and neither is food.
That said, to live on campus the scholarship is suffucient; besides the cafeteria (where you can eat a ton for less than one Euro) on campus there are supermarkets where you can buy everything; obviously just Chinese products. If you prefer to eat imported foods instead, the scholarship probably won’t be enough, but it helps: since I discovered the existence of 家乐福 (Jialefu, or Carrefour), I spend a large portion of my allowance on pasta, sauces, cheese and cookies (holy Barilla and Mulino Bianco!).
Do you get to choose the Chinese university that you wish to attend or does the Institute?
The good thing about a Confucius scholarship, in my opinion, are the choices they offer to the applicant. On the Confucius Institute Scholarship web site there’s a list of some 142 universities spread throughout all of China that you can choose from! There are even options in Hainan, in Inner Mongolia and in Xinjiang! Here’s the complete list.
Making a decision, in fact, was rather difficult. I knew that Beijing and Shanghai would be full of foreigners and most likely I would speak very little Chinese, so I eliminated them right away (looking back, I wouldn’t let Shanghai get away!). After viewing the sites of several universities I decided to apply to the Yanshan University of Qinhuangdao, as a first choice, and a university in Guizhou.
I chose Yanshan University primarily for two reasons. The first is that it’s a medium sized city (by Chinese standards, obviously: for me, coming from Foggia, it’s enormous!), where I wouldn’t find too many foreigners; second, it’s pretty close to Beijing (only two hours by train) and therefore near an important transit hub. That’s an important feature for me, since I want to visit as much of China as possible this year!
Chiara in Shanghai
Moving to China
Besides the scholarship, what help does Hanban give you (that is, the head office for Confucius Institutes worldwide)?
The filling out of the application, the documents, and contact with the preselected university, all depends on the scholarship applicant: nevertheless the Confucius Institute of Macerata, the one I applied to, has always been available for any explanation or translation request, since I’m studying there.
In April 2014 this Institute had also organized a meeting for scholarship applicants, to explain in detail the various characteristics of the scholarships and advice as to what would be best for us to do regarding timing, etcetera.
What type of visa did you get? Did you have any problems?
When the university sent me an invitation letter, it specified in the letter to apply for a X1 type visa. Personally to apply for the visa I preferred to use a travel agency, which sent my passport, invitation letter and a document with all my information to the visa office. Two weeks later I had everything in order for me to go!
Within a month of my arrival in China, however, I had to go to the police office to convert my visa into a temporary resident permit, a procedure that took two weeks more or less. I didn’t have any major problems, other than the fact that at the police office they forgot to give me a “substitute” sheet for my passport that indicates that my passport is with the police for a visa conversion. Fortunately my roommate, who’s been studying in China for three years, suggested that I return to get it, otherwise I would have left for the Golden Week vacation without a passport…
And you wouldn’t have lasted long, since you can’t even get on a train without a passport! What advice would you offer someone who is about to move to China on a scholarship?
Having the opportunity to study in China is surely something you wouldn’t want to miss out on, and having a scholarship undoubtedly makes things a lot more comfortable. In short: I recommend leaving without thinking too much, without too many worries or fears. Sure, you’re not going to be ten kilometers from home and no one says it will be a walk in the park, but if you’re truly sure that you want to have the experience of discovering the “real China”, without being left on your own, getting a scholarship is without a doubt an alternative to consider.
Where are you living?
The scholarship provides for lodging on the university campus: at the moment I live in the 留学生 building (liuxueshang, foreign students). Here we are all foreigners coming from all parts of the world: some on a Confucius scholarship, some on a government scholarship, and also those without a scholarship. I like living here very much,because every day you learn something about a different culture.
Among other things I can easily say that here we live in luxury compared to the conditions of the Chinese dormitories; to begin with, we’re two in a room, while the Chinese are six to a room ( and the size of the rooms are the same) moreover, we have bathrooms inside the dormitory, on each floor, while they have to shower in public bathhouses. Up until summer that would work just fine, but now that the air is freezing I imagine it would be a torture! We 老外 (laowai, white devils) even have a kitchen with hot plates and toaster ovens, while they have no means to cook, and lastly while we can keep our lights on the entire night, in Chinese dormitories the lights go off automatically at eleven thirty. It’s absurd!
The only thing we have in common with the Chinese students is the curfew: we must all be in the dormitory precisely by eleven thirty at night, with the closing of the dormitory gate. For us foreigners who are used to a different lifestyle, it’s a real pain. “Fortunately” in Qinhuangdao there’s not much to do, so those rare times that we’re out later than eleven thirty we climb the wall or wake up the custodian who lets us in reluctantly and yells at us in Chinese.
These scenes remind me of my stay in Beiwai, the Beijing school where I attended for six months in 2010. It can be said that there they’re much more liberal and the caretakers certainly wouldn’t yell at you… at the most they’ll light another cigarette and spit on the ground as a sign of disapproval. Or appreciation… who knows?
Studying Mandarin in China
How many students are in your class? From what countries?
All the students here to study Chinese are divided into five classes on the basis of the HSK test results and (I believe) based on the documents we sent about our instruction and experience with the Chinese language. I’m in the 中一 class, or intermediate one. There’s about fifteen of us in class: some have a Confucius scholarship, others with scholarships from the Chinese government. There are many Russians, some Koreans, one from England and me… the only Italian in the whole university!
In the beginning this frightened me, because I saw others speaking their own language with their fellow students. Then I realized that being the only Italian is a blessing: in fact, as you can imagine, I only speak Italian with my family and friends in Italy, while here I communicate solely in Chinese and English!
Ahh… learning Chinese in a class full of Russians is one of my fantasies that is sadly, yet unfulfilled. But getting back to us… Can you describe for us a typical day? What do you do in class?
Classes last from Monday to Friday, from 8.00 to 12.00, then two afternoon classes from 14.00 to 15.45. For each subject we always have two hours of lessons. Intermediate students have to take classes in grammar, conversation, listening, culture (my favorite!), reading comprehension and Chinese (namely reading text, learning vocabulary, doing exercises). All classes are held exclusively in Chinese.
At times it’s really hard to follow due to the subject or because the instructor speaks too fast, but for the most part I’m able to understand. Other than culture lessons, I really like the ones on conversation: the instructor pairs us up with another student and we have to reenact a situation similar to the one we read in the day’s lesson. It’s helpful because we practice our Chinese, but also fun because often my usual partner and I start talking about our own things, completely deviating from the lesson!
Do you feel the study methods are different than those in Italy?
The methods used are very different than those in Italy, but this doesn’t always mean that it’s better. The class being held entirely in Chinese is surely a good thing, but often certain subjects are hard to understand even if explained several times with different phrasing, because our knowledge of vocabulary is still quite limited. Fortunately the majority of the time we’re able to understand, rarely using English and gestures in a few cases.
In Italy I began learning Chinese with the goal of becoming an interpreter, so the lessons were focused more on the grammar and the translation.
Here I’m trying to learn Chinese focusing on learning new vocabulary and ways of saying things, but to me it would be better to increase the amount of conversation and cut back on just reading and explaining vocabulary words. In fact, along with some of my classmates, we’ve been in contact with several Chinese students, and often get together for a few hours to help them with their English and to improve our Chinese more or less by chatting.
Ok, it seems that in general you’re clearly getting by better than Sborto!
Living in China
Three things that have struck you about China.
Before coming here I checked things out, reading Sapore Di Cina from top to bottom: I remember that when I read “Reasons to hate China” or “You know you’re in China when…” I laughed and said: “Come on! What an exaggeration!”.
Well: Chiara 0, China 1. The first thing that struck me about China is that everything mentioned in those articles are definitely TRUE!
The other thing that struck me is that China is way bigger than I imagined. And I don’t just mean that it’s an enormous country or anything like that, but that it’s big even in the “little things”. To give an example: to get from my dormitory to the main entrance of the university takes fifteen minutes by bus (when you don’t have to wait on line for a half hour in the freezing cold), and if you want to go into the town center it takes about an hour. For someone used to living a ten minute walk away from everything it’s a big difference!
Third: in China (almost) everyone is helpful. If I have a problem, all I have to do is ask somebody and right away I’ll get a fairly accurate response. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch someone who can manage to spit out a few words in English without feeling embarrassed!
Your favorite Chinese dish.
Without a doubt 猪肉饺子 (zhurou jiaozi, ravioli with pork meat). I learned to love them in Italy and they were the first things I ate here in China the night I arrived. There’s a bond of affection between us!
Do you think you could stay in Qinhuangdao for a long-term work experience?
I don’t really like Qinhuangdao as a city, but if they offered me a good job as a translator, perhaps in a bigger, fast-paced city like Shanghai (can you tell I’m in love?), I’m pretty sure I’d accept without a second thought!
Chiara, thanks for the wonderful interview and best wishes on your endeavors in China!
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/kycheng/]