For the past two-and-a-half years Carol Struthers, 18, has been the youngest Western student at Peking University—one of a tight little island of 100 Western students surrounded by a sea of 7,000 Chinese. It would seem to be the ultimate in exotic student life abroad. But for Carol, daughter of the Canadian embassy’s military attaché” in Peking, the experience has been a mixture of sweet and sour.
Peking University, by her account, seems to be a combination of monastic retreat and Ding Dong School. “Roll call was taken in every class,” Carol says. “Classes were compulsory, and if you missed more than three times you had to produce a doctor’s note.” There was no choice of academic courses; once a student elected his field, all study materials were prescribed by the faculty. “Intellectual stimulation,” says Carol, “is lacking.”
The school day began at 6 a.m. at the sound of reveille and ran until 4 p.m., broken up by lunch at 11 and by an obligatory noon-to-2 p.m. siesta. After classes, Carol studied martial arts until dinner at 6. Evening entertainment was provided by a TV set in the foreign students’ common room, the programming mostly newsreels of the latest technological advances or propaganda drama and operas. There was also Ping-Pong, of course.
“At Western universities,” Carol recalls, “things are always throbbing at the seams. In Peking there is not the same gaiety and freedom.” Men and women live in segregated dorms and must sign in and out. There are no room checks, though, apparently because it never occurs to Chinese students—even though they are usually several years older than the Westerners—to indulge in any hanky-panky. “The Chinese are like high school kids in their sexual relations,” Carol says. “The girls wear very little makeup and no backless things or platform shoes.” Perhaps with reason: Chinese students are forbidden to marry, and two foreign students who became pregnant were permitted abortions only after considerable negotiation with government authorities.
“Peking University,” Carol says with wry understatement, “is just not the spot to enjoy life.” But, she admits, her academic training was “most worthwhile,” even though her present intention is not to return to the university. Instead she expects to marry a British journalist and live in London.
Carol’s Chinese is near-fluent but, as with all students, she had to prove herself not by exams—there are none—but by her political consciousness. Once, during a three-week stint in a Peking factory, where she operated a metal lathe, she came close to flunking out. “I asked a few embarrassing questions about Tibet,” recalls Carol. (The tiny country was taken over by the Chinese in 1951.) “Later I was called into the head cadre’s office and told I was interfering in Chinese internal policies and that my attitude was both wrong and unfriendly. Eventually, we both saved face. I wouldn’t take back my questions, but I said I’d look more closely into that situation.”
Despite the relative camaraderie she enjoyed with her Chinese socialist colleagues, she failed to make one particular cross-cultural Great Leap Forward. “They just couldn’t understand that the boat and cottage we have on a lake near Toronto are just for our family to use—and not for the entire community.”