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I know some of you have started doubting if I really came here to study – but here’s the long-awaited subject to prove it!

The first and foremost matter is that I’m supposed to be studying Chinese art history and theory at the China Academy of Arts, but as a foreigner I’m under the tender care of CAA’s International Centre.

The upside: International Centre means I get special treatment. I’m a hapless foreigner!

The downside: International Centre mainly deals with students that need to take a course in Chinese before their proper courses. I don’t need it, so in the eyes of the IC I’m a pariah.

The result: mix ups, disinformation, chaos.

On Wednesday I go and ask them about my classes.

The ladies: ‘Oh, so you’re going to study art history and theory.’

Me: ‘Yes, so you have special courses here for foreigners? I thought I’d be studying with regular Chinese students’.

Ladies (laughing): ‘No, no, don’t worry. Anyway, the classes start next week. Come  on Thursday and we’ll give you your schedule. By the way, do you have a phone number already? No? Well let’s us know as soon as you get it, we need to know it in order to keep you posted on everything’.


Me: ‘Do you have my class schedule?’

Ladies: ‘Nope. Come tomorrow. Oh goodie, you’ve got a phone number. Write it down here on your data form, please.’


Me: ‘Any sign of my class schedule?’

Ladies: ‘Yes, yes. Here, what’s your name? Lemme see… no, can’t find you. What are you supposed to be studying again? Art history? Oh, dear, we only do Chinese classes. You have to go the history department and sort it out with them. Say, did you leave us your phone number?’

A bit unnerved, off I go to the Uni. I locate a door on which it says, among other things, “Art History & Theory Department”. I ask the girls in some office which floor it is on and how to get there. The girls look at each other like they’ve no idea what I’m talking about. I show them my papers.

Girls: ‘Oh, this. Well, first of all you must go to the Finance Office and get a receipt from them. It’s over there.’

I go to the FO, stand in line (a bit confused as I’m a scholarship student and my fees are covered by the government of the PRC, so what do I need the FO for?), and when it’s finally my turn I explain the situation.

FO Lady: ‘Aaaah, yes, but you need to get a confirmation from the International Centre.’

I go back to the IC.

Ladies: ‘Yeah, sure you need the confirmation! Here it is. Are you quite sure we have your phone number?’

Back to the FO.

FO Lady: ‘Aaah, yes, you are indeed a scholarship student. You don’t need to pay any fees. We therefore can’t do anything to help you.’

Back to the Girls.

Girls (to each other): ‘Hmm, so where is this Art History & Theory Department? Have you ever heard of it?’

Finally I manage to locate the department (it is, by the way, in the same building the Girls work in. Only I find my way through a door on a completely different side of it). Oops, it’s 4 pm. No one’s there. The classes start on Monday.


I get up early and start lying in wait for someone to show up at the department office. After an hour or two I start checking out all the offices on the floor and asking if anyone knows anything about it. Finally someone takes me to the office of the Faculty of Humanities and after a few minutes they show me into a room.

Man: ‘So you’re here to study art theory & history and you don’t know your schedule yet. Have a seat. Here’s the lesson roster for all classes. We already have a tutor for you, Professor Bi, he’ll help you pick the right subjects for you. He should finish his class in 20 minutes. In the meantime why don’t you tell me something about yourself.’

(20 minutes later. A secretary comes in)

Secretary: Erm… Professor Bi is not here today. He forgot that the school year has started…

Man: Oh dear, really? (Thinks) Well, why don’t you take this week off then? Go and have a rest, explore the city.

Me: (head exploding)

Next week. It’s the Mid-autumn Festival. Everyone stuffs their faces with mooncakes (which, fyi, can be stuffed with fruit jelly, mixed nuts, but also – pork floss. Yumm). No classes.

On Thursday I get a phone call from Professor Bi (from now on he’ll be called the way everyone calls him here: Bi Laoshi, meaning Teacher Bi). He asks if I can come over. I can, so we meet up and start discussing my situation.

Bi Laoshi: ‘So you’re on a scholarship. What, just for a year? Oh, you’re finishing a Master’s in Poland? So do you have to write a thesis here?

Me: ‘Not really, I’m rather supposed to prepare all the information, find the right subject etc.’

Bi Laoshi: ‘But don’t the scholarship people want you to take some special exam or write a paper while you’re here?’

Me: ‘Not that I know…’

Bi Laoshi: ‘So what exactly are you supposed to be doing here, apart from attending classes?’

Me: (blank face. Pause) I know exactly as much as you do. Did they tell you anything, by any chance?

Teacher Bi: (blank face. Pause) ‘Why don’t we discuss your courses then. So I teach two classes on Monday, these should be good for you… (I nod eagerly and point to another one that seems interesting) Yeees, the subject would be okay, but this teacher is not very good. He’ll just confuse you. And this one. And this one. Oh, and you probably don’t really need classes in Western Art History, do you?

No. I probably don’t.

In the end I’m left with a Monday morning and afternoon class with Bi Laoshi aaaand… (trumpets) a Friday morning class on the appreciation of Chinese art. That’s it. Nothing else.

But surely – thought I – there must be some more lectures here! One timetable for 4 different levels of students, with one or two classes a day? Can’t be true! But everyone says it is too! Okay. I bought the story initially, but I now officially disbelieve it again. The students parade with heaps of books and keep talking how busy they are. Well, so part of it are English classes, PE and what not… but I still have a sneaky suspicion there must be some secret courses they keep hidden from me. It’s a plot. But I will not be defeated! Victory shall be mine, I tell you!

PS1: Despite Bi Laoshi’s advice I went to check out the other classes. He was right. They were useless.

PS2: In the meantime I moved out of the IC dorm, 2 days before the official moving-out date. They were supposed to let me know about the visa situation – which they didn’t – and also about my refund for the 2 extra days I paid for. After 2 weeks I dropped by and asked.

Lady: Oh, my colleague isn’t here today and she takes care of these things. Come back in a week, after the National Holiday. Oh, and you’d like to ask about your student id card? Go to that room and ask the teacher there.

I go and ask.

Teacher: No, no, it’s not ready yet. We’ll call you after the National Holiday. Say, I don’t think we have your phone number…