By Duncan Gordon
Randy Ho’s first taste of China was as a 17-year-old on holiday with his family. His abiding memory was of the size of the country, in more ways than one. “Everything was big. The cities, the roads, the journeys, the people were tall and even the food portions were huge. I couldn’t finish a single meal!”
That trip was special for Randy, a Malaysian-Chinese, who had learnt about China during secondary school. He reminisces about that trip; “Everything that I had learned in secondary school came to life. The Terracotta Army in Xi’an and the mighty Yellow River at Zhengzhou; that 2000 year heritage and rich culture was suddenly real, right in front of my eyes.”
Randy says that he felt he was visiting China at key moment in time. The turbulent history of the twentieth century, from the suffering of the early part of the century, through the Cultural Revolution, until the incredible development of the last few decades, was laid out like a huge tapestry. He could feel the wheels of history in motion as China emerges onto the world stage as a major power.
That sense of being in the right place at the right time in China, coupled with the connection between Randy’s studies and the reality that he saw on his visit led to his decision to apply to study international relations at Peking University in Beijing. Almost three years later, he hasn’t looked back.
Regarded as the most prestigious university in China, the leafy lanes and grand lawns of Peking University ooze with excellence. Randy feels privileged to be able to study alongside and interact with the very top students from across the country, as well as benefiting from a fantastic environment for studying and impeccable facilities. He describes this optimized academic atmosphere as the “spirit” of Peking University.
Another of the advantages of studying at Peking University according to Randy is the diversity of the student body. There are a high proportion of international students at China’s original modern national university, which Randy believes creates a priceless opportunity.
He says, “Especially on my course, international relations, I get a lot of opportunities to interact with students from many different countries. Our classroom debates can be heated; there is often conflict. However, this is not a bad thing. These situations have taught me that the world is not always harmonious; we all have to work hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. Only after doing that, can we cooperate in order to overcome challenges.”
Outside of campus life, Randy enjoys exploring Beijing with his friends. A favourite pastime is hanging out in the hutongs (ancient alleys connecting traditional siheyuan courtyards). The hutongs are popular among foreigners and locals alike for their sense of community and historic atmosphere, something sadly lacking from many modern cities. Randy has some fascinating insights into the difference between the hutongs in Malaysia and Beijing. He explains,
“The culture in Beijing derives from the hutongs themselves. The siheyuan layout [four family homes centered around a single, shared courtyard] brings people together. The sense of community you can feel in the hutongs is a result of that.”
Many of the hutongs in Beijing have been modernized or commercialized, for example Nanluoguxiang Street is lined with tourist shops and snack bars. Nonetheless, Randy says that they still maintain their traditional cultural atmosphere. In contrast, he notes, the hutongs in Malaysia do not hold this connection between the physical environment and culture, having been built at different times and for different purposes.
Randy discusses how his time in Beijing has allowed him to upend some of the stereotypes about China that he had heard in Malaysia:
“Some people in Malaysia take a negative view of China because they have seen some bad behaviour by tourists. From living here I now know that it is a completely different society to what those people think. One thing that stands out for me is how hardworking people are in Beijing, especially young people, whose work ethic is to be admired. I am confident China will continue on the path of development in the future.”
With one year left of his degree at Peking University, and fluency in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Bahasa Malaysia and English under his belt, the future looks bright for Randy as well as China.