The “China of students’ imagination” is very different from the real picture.

Studying in China has become a viable option for Indian students in recent times. Since 2003, when China opened its universities to foreign students, the number of Indian students going to China has increased.

At present, according to a report, there are 9,000 Indian students studying medicine in China. Medicine and the Chinese language seem to be the most popular choices of students from India.

China would be a natural destination for those who wish to study the Chinese language, as there are few places in India where Chinese is taught well. “Except for a few good places such as JNU, Shanti Niketan and DU, I've hardly met students who are fluent in Chinese. This could pose problems if they are to study in China, says Rani Singh, Chinese language student at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), Beijing.

There are other difficulties in studying Chinese in India, such as non-availability of study material and books. Rani Singh says, “You hardly have any Chinese book stores (in India) selling Chinese textbooks. Even the library has limited resources. I got most of my books and dictionaries through favours granted by my teachers and seniors who visit China.”

The other favourite of Indian students aiming to study in China is medicine. A six-year medicine degree in China costs only about Rs. 25 lakh, including annual travel to India and back, which is much cheaper than a degree in a private college in India. However, there is a flip side to it. Unlike countries such as the U.S., students are not given work permits in China, and recently there have been reports of students finding it difficult to clear the MCI (Medical Council of India) exam to practise in India.

When asked about the experience of studying in China, Dr Binod Singh, Assistant Professor at Peking University, says “It is positive, overall… the main attraction is the culture, food, the discipline, and so on. Students cannot miss a single class.” He continues, “There are many students in China from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and areas surrounding Delhi.”

Although, food could be an attraction for some, others find it difficult to adapt to it, according to Saurabh Rajput, who studied language at Hangzhou, “A student needs to get used to food habits and the meal timings. This is the biggest problem that an Indian student faces in China. The best way to resolve this issue is to carry Indian spices and some food items which are not found in China, and also to cook your own food.”

Many students aspire to study in the major universities of China such as those in Beijing or Shanghai, but most end up in tier-two cities such as Chengdu, Shenyang, Xiamen, Wuhan, Kunming, Changchun, Ningbo, etc.

Rajiv Ranjan, who is a Ph.D. student at Changchun University says, “The biggest issue is the prejudice about China in India and the culture shock they (the students) get here. This phenomenon is not easy to explain, but when they come to China they get a different picture. It is different from the China of their imagination”

According to him, it is not language which is the major issue, but the freedom and the different value system they encounter in society which opens up many doors of opportunities and also brings in many new challenges.

There are other minor issues which Indian students have to grapple with. However, Ranjan is optimistic about this. He says, ““There are some issues concerning food, home sickness, etc. (which students tackle) with the commitment and help of the Chinese friends who are helpful. Interestingly, Indian-Chinese students have a special bonding which makes it easy for Indians to deal with their problems.

The educational system too is different. According to Ms. Singh, “The education system is more textbook-based in China or you can say the rote system is blindly followed. If you compare a university student from India to that of China you can feel the difference once you talk to them. The Chinese student will not talk to you about anything beyond his concerned field of study…”

Beijing and Shanghai are popular destinations of not just Indians, but Americans, Japanese and South Koreans as well. Dr Singh says, “It is not just medicine, but business education which is favoured by these students. In fact, students come to spend six months or a year in order to train in business. This is because the practical training they receive is immense.”

There is more to education in China than a cost-effective medical degree — it would seem.