Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Culture Shock: Dealing with Chinese Agencies

Applying for my scholarship has, honestly, been one of the most awful, gruelling things I’ve ever done. Partly it’s my fault: I’m bad at dealing with stress and uncertainty, especially when they’re all mixed up in a noxious cocktail. And partly, it’s because the Chinese system operates very differently from what I’m used to.

Quick recap of my situation: Along with a team of two other girls, I won a Chinese language competition and (I believed) a nice, juicy scholarship. I had much to learn in the radio silence that ensued. For about a year, I had no idea what I was entitled to, how to get it, or who was in charge. There seemed to be no information to be had, and nobody who could tell me where to turn. It did a real job on my nerves. But somehow (read: the neverending patience of my mom), some kind of clarity was finally gleaned from this ordeal, and I’ve learned a lot, too. Here’s a look at what to expect when you’re dealing with a frustratingly obtuse Chinese agency.

Don't let this be you.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

When I “won” my scholarship, I made the mistake of assuming that whoever was in charge would contact me first. If I just waited patiently, I’d get a nice fat envelope containing all the information I’d need to unlock my new and glorious future (driven largely by the fact that my, uh, questionably professional teacher told me this was going to happen).This was not the case (and, as I later found out from my teammates, it wasn’t for them either). I was the one who had to take the first step and make contact with the Chinese embassy. The moral of the story is, do not expect a Chinese agency to reach out to you. It’s going to be your job, and calling and emailing are key. If you know who you need to reach, spam them until someone answers. If you don’t, contact your local embassy or Confucius Institute, and they might be able to point you in the right direction.

Internet, Retro Style
Nowadays, our kneejerk reaction when we don’t know something is to google it. So be warned, all ye who enter here: Chinese websites are a pain in the ass. A lot of them look like they were designed for Internet Explorer by a middle-aged computer illiterate in 1997. Often, they’ll be slow or buggy. Equally often, the information you find will be outdated. Usually it’s only by a couple years, but hey, if 2012 is looking dark for that unfinished fanfic you’ve been waiting for, it’s even worse when we’re talking application dates and term schedules for a particular year.

To top it all off, a lot of times most of the information is going to be - you guessed it - in Chinese. Since Google Translate is unreliable on good days and sent straight from Babel on bad ones, you’re better off downloading a widget for your browser that translates individual words. I use the Zhongwen Chinese-English Dictionary for Chrome. When you highlight a word or phrase, a pop-up appears with a translation exactly like the ones found in MDBG, the best online Chinese dictionary I’ve found to date. This can be a huge help for understanding contexts, or at least where all the buttons in the menu actually go.

The Answer is Maybe
Ever gotten that shifty-eyed look when you’ve asked someone a question they don’t really want to answer? Yeah, me too - even over the phone. As I found out, what I had actually won was the embassy’s support in applying for a Chinese Government Scholarship - I wasn’t getting it handed to me like a prize, which was what I originally thought. It took a lot of badgering on my part to figure out exactly what the deal was, since the people at the embassy - understandably - didn’t want to make any promises they couldn’t keep. Unfortunately, the means used to this end is often avoiding the issue altogether. I had to keep asking “So do I have a scholarship or not?” over and over in order to finally get an evasive, “We can’t guarantee you anything.”

Chinese agencies seem fond of doing it backwards. Whether this applies to sex, I don’t know, but official procedure? Definitely. Don’t be surprised if the steps you’re asked to follow seem all out of order. For me to even apply for my scholarship, I had to take the full (and expensive) foreigner’s health examination - before I had any guarantee that I would even be allowed to enter the country! Later on, I got an email from Jiao Tong University telling me to register for a dorm with my student ID - which I didn’t have, because I was still waiting to hear whether or not I’d been admitted!

So, there you have it: some of the biggest conundrums and frustrations I’ve faced when dealing with Chinese authorities. Of course, this is not to say that it’s always like this, or that it’s better or worse than any other system. It’s mostly a question of what I’m used to, with the experiences I have, and how the Chinese way of doing things differs in an often vexing way. And if I can alleviate the stress of just one other person with similar experiences, let ‘em know they’re not alone, I’ve done my Superman deed for the day.



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