Campus Life

Bridging the gap between China and the US: comparative perspectives

Reflection about my exchange semester at MIT

I clearly remember my mood during my flight from Beijing to Boston this January, as an exchange student at MIT. As a student from Tsinghua, or “Chinese MIT,” I was excited about the coming semester in a school with possibly the best education in the world; as a student from China, I was curious and a bit worried about what I would see — especially in a time filled with tension between the world’s top two economies. Thanks to all my kind friends, I had a spectacular semester with lots of observations and reflections.

Firstly,  the education here was different. Last semester, I went to ESG every week for Christian’s Many Interesting Things (MIT) course, and the scenes I witnessed there were just amazing: many times, I saw students making trains, small robots, or other gadgets in the working room and discussing with each other about different topics. The vitality inside the room, the interest that students showed when doing research, and the chill and cozy environment all struck me deeply. In China, we have more courses to learn (for some majors, the graduate courses in MIT are required undergrad courses in Tsinghua), but the trade-off is that if you have more content to learn, you have less time to apply that knowledge. This creates a more “serious” campus atmosphere in Tsinghua, giving rise to the stereotype, “All students work so hard from day to night in China.”

Secondly, I was amazed by the focus on social innovation and poverty elimination on campus. Living in iHouse, I saw a significant number of brilliant fellow students with deep insights about international development. Poverty alleviation is always a topic of great concern in China: miraculously, during the past 40 years, the nation lifted over 700 million Chinese people out of poverty. The poverty elimination method is top-down, driven by government policy. So, when I heard the iHousers’ thoughts and passions about the grassroots projects, I was impressed. In Tsinghua, we have an “omnipotent” student organization system, led by the university — all student clubs, entrepreneurship groups, and sports teams are part of it. For a student wishing to get resources and start a project, the organization’s system is their first place to seek help. This brings about magnificent large-scale events (e.g. every year, the all-campus singing competition will have state-of-the-art stages, facilities and hosts, and it’s nearly impossible to get a ticket) in China. So, the abundance of excellent grassroots projects (like Middle Eastern Entrepreneurship for Tomorrow) amazed me. The two ways of event organization have their roots in the characters of the two societies — Chinese society focuses more on solidarity and collectivism, while the U.S. prioritizes individualism and independence. This can also partly explain the different notions of “government” in the two countries — a “big” government which “pools national resources to accomplish large undertakings”(“集中力量办大事”)is more welcome in China.

The third reflection is about the major issue of Sino-U.S. relations. During the past nine months, the trade conflict has put great tension on this issue, accompanied by Trump’s crazy and insulting tweets, including calling Chinese students in the U.S. “spies.” Admittedly, during the semester I’ve encountered some stereotypes about China (especially about the political system or the media) which echo U.S. mainstream media coverage (some of which is biased). However, what I noticed more often was that the bilateral relation was not a major concern for most students — rather, the difference of mindset resulting from different cultures is considered not an issue to “solve,” but rather a tool to facilitate critical thinking and problem-solving. This notion is vital for the future development of these two countries and deeply impressed me.

Because of graduation requirements, I can only stay in Boston for one semester. But the great friends I made here, the open minds I communicated with, and the creativity and interdisciplinary knowledge I received will stay for a long time. All in all, we are not two countries with fear and hatred towards each other, but global young citizens ready to make the world a better place. In the future, I welcome you to Tsinghua, to dive deep into the quickly-developing China!

Adrian Shaowen Wu is a Class of 2019 student at Tsinghua University studying Linguistics and Economics. He studied Entrepreneurship & Finance at MIT last spring as an exchange student.