Have you ever heard the stories of the students of Gilgit Baltistan (GB), who consider China their second home? If not, let us delve into the rarely discussed topic of the relationship between China and the students of GB.
As the second decade of the 21st century dawned, students from GB began to flock to China. This surge in admissions to Chinese universities was largely attributed to a desire to learn the Chinese language, as jobs associated with the ever-growing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) were becoming increasingly attractive. Moreover, these students had long been inspired by the Chinese workers and engineers who had been renovating the Karakorum Highway (KKH) and were eager to learn their way of living and working.
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Pre and Post-CPEC: Status of Chinese Language in GB
Prior to the establishment of the CPEC, interest in the Chinese language and culture amongst GB students was not particularly high. To gain a better understanding of the pre-CPEC interest in China and the Chinese language, I had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Shaukat Ali Khan, a professional electrical engineer with over a decade of experience of working with Chinese. We met in the dimly lit backroom of a quiet fish restaurant in Islamabad, where clouds of cigarette smoke swirled through shafts of sunlight. Mr. Shaukat shared with me that “he had learned Chinese back in 2007, and at that time people in Hunza, a district bordering China, would often make fun of the country and its language”.
Upon the official announcement of the CPEC, a multitude of GB students hastened to secure their places at the National University of Modern Languages (NUML) to pursue learning the Chinese language. In 2014, during my final year of high school, I had the opportunity to observe firsthand how our hostel had been almost completely filled with those who had enrolled in the NUML’s Chinese language program.
The NUML, Islamabad has been a catalyst that has enabled thousands of GB students to gain entry to universities in China. Furthermore, the China Study Center of Karakoram International University, Gilgit in partnership with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has been providing yearly scholarships to GB students to assist them in realizing their aspirations of studying in China.
Amidst thousands of GB students currently studying in China, I had the opportunity to converse with Sobia Alam, who is from my village of MayoonHunza. Currently, she is doing her undergraduate program in Chemical Engineering at Beijing Technology and Business University (BTBU).
Her story is both heart-wrenching and uplifting, signifying the indomitable spirit of millions of women worldwide. Ms. Sobia’s journey to China began with the arduous challenge of overcoming social and economic disparities in her home country of Pakistan.
Journey to China
A young girl with aspirations and dreams, but with no idea of the struggles of life, graduated from a small college in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and embarked on her journey to higher education. Realizing that her parents could not afford to finance her education, she felt a responsibility to take care of her siblings and decided to cease her studies and seek employment. She managed to secure a job, but still kept her dreams of education alive, applying to a university in Pakistan.
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Unfortunately, her financial situation was not enough to get her in, so she began to look for need-based scholarships abroad. After two years of perseverance, she was offered a scholarship to study in Australia, but it was only partially funded and the risk was too great for her to take. Her last hope of continuing her education came in the form of a fully-funded scholarship from China, and with a combination of struggles and determination, she was successful in her application.
The commencement of her life may have been the conclusion of the preceding chapter, but it was the inception of a vibrant, exploratory journey. With a desire to further her studies in China, she embarked on her voyage, her luggage filled with the prospects of life and the obstacles she was to face. New destinations inevitably come with a plethora of challenges, such as language barriers, unfamiliar cuisines, culture shock, homesickness, and a lack of participation in important family events, to name but a few.
Foreign Food and Language – Major Challenges
In a foreign land, the initial challenge that she faced was the unfamiliarity with the cuisine. Unaccustomed to the food of China, it was a difficult adjustment for her to make in the beginning. She managed to subsist on noodles and biscuits for a few weeks until she encountered some Pakistani acquaintances.
Upon acknowledging the prevalence of the Chinese language in her environment, she made the decision to devote an entire year of her five-year bachelor’s degree to learning the language. Initially, she felt disheartened when she joined the language classes and saw that her Pakistani colleagues had already mastered the language. However, her perseverance and hard work ultimately paid off, as she received the highest mark on the CSC test among two hundred students. This monumental accomplishment was the first step in her success story and set her on the path to success as she continued to rise to the challenges that awaited her.
Traits among Chinese
The Chinese nation has been particularly impressive in its strict adherence to governmental rules; this has been the primary factor in influencing her view. The government of China is held in high regard by its people, who perceive it to be akin to a benevolent mother figure.
Additionally, the Chinese lifestyle is an example of true freedom: there are no boundaries to joy and happiness, and no one is judged for how they choose to live. This is encapsulated perfectly in the saying “exercise is the celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for something you ate”. Exercise is just as important for the Chinese people as food and water, and is embedded into the routine of their daily lives. This is an important lesson for all of us to learn from.
Chinese are Hospitable like the Pushtuns and Baloch of Pakistan
To my astonishment, Ms. Sobia shared her experience and said that the Chinese are renowned for their hospitality, comparing them to the hospitable Pushtuns and Baloch of our nation. She stated, “I found them as our country’s fellow Pushtuns and Baloch in hospitality.”
Lastly, the communication between Sobia and the Chinese revealed that they have a great admiration for Pakistan and its people, which was beneficial for all Pakistanis as China and Pakistan have good relations. This connection can open up various opportunities, such as business startups, with China and its language being a base, and having the potential to be a translator.
Sense of Freedom in China
Ms. Sobia noted a stark contrast between Pakistan and China, emphasizing the sense of security she has in the latter. She spoke of the freedom to use valuable iPhones in public places without fear of theft or robbery, and the ability to practice her religious beliefs privately and without judgment.
“Being a girl, my sense of security is ten times higher in China than in Pakistan”. Ms. Sobia added.
The Chinese are renowned for their work ethic; this was evidenced during a recent visit to Hunza. To gain further insight, I spoke to my schoolmate, Muhammad Shabir, who had spent four years in China and is now working for a Chinese company in Lahore, Pakistan. Shabbir commented that he had begun to feel very uncomfortable in Pakistan after having spent so long in a country where every hour was valued and there was no room for wasted time. On the contrary, in Pakistan, he found that people spent half their day engaging in idle gossip and other unproductive activities. After four years in a well-ordered and orderly environment, he was taken aback by the lack of respect for the law, general indiscipline, and pollution.
Shabbir, who has accumulated a staggering Rs 4.5 million through working in various sectors of the Chinese over the course of the last four years, highlighted the abundance of employment opportunities available to students who are willing to undertake part-time work while studying.
Changing Trends in Chinese Learning
Shabbir posits that the trend of studying the Chinese language in Gilgit-Baltistan is in flux, with two primary factors contributing to the shift. Firstly, the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has cast doubt on the future of the region’s involvement in the project, leading many to forego the pursuit of Chinese language proficiency. Secondly, the prevalence of freelancing opportunities has seen a surge in the number of younger individuals engaging in remote work, as opposed to translating for Chinese businesses.
Having conducted further research on the topic of Shabbir’s claim of declining enrollment of Gilgit-Baltistan students in Chinese language and Chinese studies in general, I carried out a conversation with Dr. Faqeer Muhammad, the Director of the China Center at KIU. According to Dr. Faqeer, the Chinese Embassy of Pakistan has been offering scholarships for KIU students in all the areas of the university.
This year, the Ghizar, Hunza and Diamer have been the recipients of a generous grant of five million rupees from the embassy. Dr. Faqeer has further mentioned that the students at the undergraduate level in the KIU are required to have three credit hours of Chinese language as a mandatory part of their curriculum, with the Confucius Center established in 2014 acting as a platform for its implementation.
Additionally, DR Faqeer has reported that the Main Campus of the KIU is home to a total of 40 faculty members who have completed their Doctoral Degrees from renowned universities in China.
Lastly, Dr. Faqeer said that the drastic decline in the enrolment of GB students in China, as a result of the ever-worsening situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, was not due to any delays or shortcomings in the implementation of the CPEC.
The writer belongs to Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan. He writes for the BRINFAITH Project at the University of Hong Kong. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.