No international student exchange in China would be complete without attending or at least witnessing a university graduation ceremony. Such ceremonies as well as the plethora of extracurricular, on-campus clubs are part and parcel of the university culture in China: which is all about fostering a collegiate atmosphere and strong sense of community around universities. At Shanghai University international exchange students are invited to take part in a mini-graduation ceremony to experience this rite of passage for Chinese students. Curious to gain a deeper insight into the university culture and experience that shapes the lives of Chinese students, I decided to accompany some exchange friends attending their graduation.
The atmosphere is decidedly formal at first, with a parade of teachers and the long-term exchange students graduating decked out in full academic garb. The ceremony is conducted completely in Mandarin with speeches from the international exchange coordinator and a number of senior teachers. Then the long-term study graduates and academic prize and scholarship winners pose on stage for photos.
However, the formality soon breaks down when a group of international students take over the stage with a ‘thank you’ performance for the university. They perform a series of short comedy skits and original songs in Mandarin – at one point making the entire hall to stand up and sway along in unison to the music. This graduation ceremony perfectly captures the blend of formality and fun characterising the international student experience in China. Making the most of an international exchange in China is ultimately about achieving a balance between respect for the Chinese way and immersing oneself in the dynamic international student community.