For many second-year students of Sinology at Leiden University the exciting and nerve-wracking period to apply for China scholarships is about to commence. The lucky few who are granted a year’s study in China will most likely go to one of the big universities in Beijing. Because it is the capital city, I suppose it is a logical choice for most students, but I can’t help but wonder why there are not more students who decide to study in other parts of China. I can understand the appeal of being near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and at the centre of political power, not to mention Wudaokou. Beijing has its own peculiarities and charms, such as the hutongs and pirate Putonghua, but there are also many disadvantages to living in Beijing: pollution in the capital is some of the worst in China, winters are freezing cold, while summers are scorchingly hot, traffic is heavily congested, and public transport is overcrowded.
Of course, my primary reason for studying in Shenzhen is because I can combine it with my research at Shenzhen Museum. But even if I would be in China to only study the language I would probably have come here. For those who have heard of Shenzhen, their views are generally quite negative about this city. The city is supposedly sterile, unpleasant, unsafe, and it has no history. In the seven years that have been coming to Shenzhen, I have certainly had a different experience. Being one of the largest migrant cities in China, Shenzhen is a fascinating place. It is also a good place to practise your listening skills, because you are likely to hear accents from all over the country. It is a planned city, so can feel a little like SimCity, but is also very green and spacious.
The campus of Shenzhen University is a city in itself, which is about as large as the city centre of Leiden. The university is right next to the Hi-Tech Park, where large companies such as Tencent Technology (QQ, WeChat) have their headquarters. Although the buildings are a little old and worn out, the campus grounds are really beautiful. It feels like you are in a botanical garden. Cute open mini-buses take you around the campus.
There are nearly fifteen types of Chinese cuisine to choose from at one of the twenty canteens. There is an Olympic-sized in- and outdoor pool, with matching stadium, lakes and forests, and even a golf course! You could probably spend your entire studies on the campus without ever leaving as everything is provided for. The teaching level is rather good, at least in the advanced class. We have comprehension and spoken Chinese classes three times a week. Additionally there are classes on Chinese writing, reading newspapers, history and society, and language and culture. There is no special listening class, but then, keeping up with what the teachers are saying will give you plenty of practise. Furthermore, in the higher level classes the Westerners are hugely outnumbered by Koreans (there are only four non-Asians in my class), which means you are less likely to switch to English during the break, or after class. The university has set up a programme with local primary schools where foreign students are invited to give a talk about their country and culture, which not only is a great opportunity to practise your speaking skills, but you even get paid for it.
Beijing is not the only place in China where you can get a good language education. It is definitely worth considering universities in other cities, especially when you are an aspiring Sinologist. You might be surprised what you can discover whilst taking a road less travelled.