There was a time when mainland students felt inferior to their Hong Kong counterparts.
No more. Gone are the days when Hong Kong students could boast of having a deeper knowledge of their subjects and a wider perspective about the world.
Today, many a mainland student who chooses to study in Hong Kong is as good as any in the special administrative region. And with more and more of them opting for Hong Kong for higher studies, any remaining gaps are narrowing.
What is more, many of them have even crossed the difficult hurdle of language quite easily, and can speak Cantonese quite fluently now.
Two such students are Lin Tao and Xia Yuanyuan, both attending Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).
"I wanted to see Hong Kong and have a different university life," said Lin, who used to be a student of medicine at Nanjing University before. "And when HKBU was admitting mainland students, I was lucky to get a scholarship."
Every year, HKBU takes in about 130 mainland students, who pay annual tuition fees of HK$60,000 (US$7,737), against HK$42,000 (US$5,416) for local students. Most of the 3,620 non-local students admitted to the eight government-funded universities in Hong Kong in 2004-05 were from across the mainland.
Lin, who is originally from Sichuan Province, said Hong Kong had not surprised him as he had always seen it as a busy and dynamic city from "the movies." Language, however, was his biggest problem. "I didn't speak a word of Cantonese and I couldn't even ask for directions on the streets," he recalled. But that is all in the past, for he now speaks the local dialect well enough.
From January 2003, he studied a six-month foundation course that was offered by the university to help students adapt to Hong Kong.
Once he started attending regular classes, the 22-year-old biology major found "huge differences" between how lecturers conducted classes and how students took part in them on the mainland and in Hong Kong. He found that while most mainland students seemed to be more hard working, many did not like to read after classes.
Mildred Yang, Lin's supervisor and HKBU's associate professor of biology, described him as "intelligent." He added: "He works harder than many local students and is more attentive in class.
"He is willing to learn and search for information on his own initiative."
Though the general impression is that mainland students have a problem with English, at least in the beginning, Yang said Lin did not show any such difficulties. "In fact," said Yang, "many mainland students have good English language skills. If not better, they can be said to be on the same level as the locals."
But there was one factor that, according to Lin, still separated mainland students from their Hong Kong counterparts: job hunting. After spending three years in the special administrative region, Lin has realized that most Hongkongers do not have a clear goal, whereas he always knew what he wanted to do after graduation. "When I ask them about their future plans, they always tell me they will wait and see but a lot of us (on the mainland) come from villages and have to work a lot harder for a better living and that's why we have our goals set."
Just how meticulous Lin is about his goal is proved by applications for his doctorate to three universities in the United States. "I want to become a professor," he said.
Lin has spent the major part of his Hong Kong university life in a dormitory, but prefers the mainland ones because of their atmosphere. Back in Nanjing, four to eight students majoring in the same subject share a room. They get to know each other much better and can discuss their homework easily after school. "Here, two students studying different subjects can share a room. They have their own things to take care of and sometimes they can't meet even once a day." Many local students even stay in hostels. "I get to see them only for a few hours during class," said Lin.
But he is still happy to have come to the special administrative region because a Hong Kong degree increases his chances of being accepted by a US university.
Xia Yuanyuan had her own opinion about her Hong Kong counterparts. The final-year China Studies pupil said that although the local students may not be as "hardworking" as their mainland counterparts, they were more eager to learn things even once classes had finished.
"Many of them talk to professors even after class they like to learn things outside classrooms too," she said.
"Professors here are more down-to-earth and encourage students more to ask questions.
"Here, teachers and students often have a friend-like relationship teachers are very approachable."
But why did she come to Hong Kong for a degree in China Studies? "I wanted to learn things from a different perspective," she said.
"It is always enlightening to know how other people think about the mainland."
She chose the subject because she wanted to understand her country better, why it is the way it is today and what its future would be.
Unlike Lin, she is not thinking of going abroad for even higher studies.
"I want to work in Hong Kong for three to five years so that I have an edge when I return to the mainland, or go abroad."
Though she conceded that she had thought about all the priorities in life, being the daughter of a peasant her ultimate goal was to "make money and support" her family. "I'm not over-ambitious I just want my family to live a better life," she said softly.
Xia seems to have submerged herself into the local culture. She speaks Cantonese fluently and seems to have quite a few friends on the campus. In a computer laboratory where some of them are working, her friend Raymond Chung said Xia was no different from the locals. He added she was "a bit more hard-working" and "very serious in class." Having known her since their first year in university, Chung said: "She is just like us, except that her putonghua is better."
(China Daily April 24, 2006)