Many Chinese students come to Norway with big ambitions. But everyday life can be hard and lonely. Some find solace in religion.
Student life: The Chinese international students now coming to Norway to continue their education belong to the “Balinghòu” or “post-‘80 generation”.
They were born after the Communists eased restrictions, but also after the one-child policy was introduced. They face high expectations from parents who invest heavily in their child’s study abroad. As an only child, they might be their parents’ only hope of having someone who can care for them in old age. The pressure can be huge.
So the Chinese often come to Norway to increase their chances for a better future, hopefully a future where they can travel around the world and build a career. Many come to obtain their master’s degree. They want upward mobility.
Nevertheless, daily life in Norway can be a letdown.
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Ambitions and everyday life
“Students often have lofty ambitions, but when they come to Norway, they suddenly encounter practical problems they have to deal with,” says Alexander Gamst Page of NTNU’s Department of Social Work and Health Science.
Gamst Page recently earned his doctorate with his dissertation on how Chinese students cope with their transition to Norway. At any given time 200 to 300 Chinese are matriculated at NTNU.
Everyday problems take time and energy to deal with. How am I supposed to organize these papers? Which store sells what? What do these Norwegian supermarkets carry? Where can I find ingredients for Chinese food? Where can I find a part-time job? What’s the best company to work for? Why don’t I have any friends?
Especially at first, the students often feel isolated, confused and lonely.
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The way most Norwegians and Chinese make contact is also very different, and perhaps all the more so in this student age group. Many of the Chinese study participants respond strongly and negatively to the fact that alcohol is so often part of the scene when young Norwegians get together to socialize.
“It’s a culture clash, too. But first and foremost students struggle with the practical problems,” says Gamst Page.
This is the situation a Lutheran-Evangelical church often finds students in. And it probably contributes to why so many Chinese students choose to join a church.
Gamst Page says “creating a social network is essential” for the students.
For quite a few of them, joining a church congregation is a simple solution. In Trondheim, one particular church seeks out Chinese students. The church already has several Chinese members, and they circulate around the university areas and connect with the Chinese students.
This is convenient for the students as well, because they don’t need to look for something themselves. Church members often come to their door and pick them up to bring them to church functions where the students meet other Chinese. It’s an way in to having a social life in Norway.
Earlier research has shown that students who come to a new country often end up socializing with other students from the same country or at least the same cultural background as themselves. They get together with people from the host country or from other nations to a much lesser degree.
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Advantage to being Chinese
Although the Chinese are not among the nationalities that are directly discriminated against in Norway, there are not many places where being Chinese has a direct benefit.
But “in the church there is an advantage,” says Gamst Page.
The Church sees it as an added bonus when people from a non-Christian culture choose to be baptized. And although the majority of those who join do so mostly for social reasons, and not necessarily as much because of the message, baptism is still important.
“Baptism is like a rite of passage into the social community,” says Gamst Page.
This helps students create a social life in Norway. Norwegians in the congregation also offer a doorway into Norwegian society, which can otherwise be difficult to become a part of.
For most Chinese students that Gamst Page spoke with, things go well after a while. The students make friends and other contacts. Maybe this speaks to the kind of people the Chinese students are overall, too.
The Chinese who come here are in fact often gifted. Maybe they don’t belong to the small percentage of students who enter Beijing University after taking the “gaokao”, the one big national higher education entrance exam that decides the future for millions of Chinese. But they were good enough to get out, and ambitious enough to want something else than staying at home.
“Access to higher education in China has increased a lot, but it’s not keeping up with demand,” says Gamst Page.
He believes Norway should help some of the students who come here find employment after they graduate, instead of the current “thanks for coming, hope you had a good time and now go home” situation, unless they have already landed a job.
The middle class
All the study participants are Han Chinese, who make up around 92 per cent of the Chinese population. Many come from cities in eastern China like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. They tend to belong to the middle class. More affluent families can afford to pay for their children to study at large, prestigious universities in England and the United States or in other, more familiar countries than Norway.
Chinese students usually stay in Norway only briefly before they move on, so the group Gamst Page studied was quite transient. He had a core group of 12 subjects, but spoke with 40-50 students in all. Gamst Page did not include PhD candidates or other employees in his study.