Li, Y., Zou, Y. & White, C.(2021). “Living with solitude”: Narrative of a female college student from rural China. British Journal of Sociology of Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2021.1962244.
While rural–urban differences are the most important predictor for the level of social inequality, higher education in China has long been considered a levelling playground for rural people to climb the social ladder. However, rural students’ backgrounds having a detrimental effect on their college experiences. In view of the constraints rural students are reported to have on college campus and the possible transformations they may achieve, I conducted this narrative study to explore in depth the experience of one female rural student. Adopting the thinking tools of habitus and reflexivity, the paper offers a lens into her own narrative in China’s social and educational milieu and to gain a better understanding of the detailed approaches through which she navigates the urban college. This study focuses on two major research questions: What constraints has a female rural college student experienced? How did she mediate those constraints?
I used my personal network to recruit participants in order to guarantee the solidarity and rapport between the potential participants and the researcher. Ying (pseudonym) was one of the participants who came from rural poor areas in China and were engineering seniors at a university located in a metropolitan area in northern China. She came from a village located in a nationally designated poor county in China. I conducted open-ended, in-depth interviews with her in Chinese and translated them into English when quoting in the paper.
To analyze the data, this paper used narrative as the method and form of representation. It first delineated Ying’s learning trajectory from her childhood to college and presented a full map of her social mobility with her family, schools and society placed in the background. The findings highlighted the restraints and gains Ying had experienced and how she constructed her own narrative of conflicts and agency in China’s higher education.
The first finding was how the participant experienced pride and inferiority at the same time due to her appearance and her excellence in learning. She was very self-conscious of her appearance since “a young girl ran after [her] and called [her] a ‘fatty’” in her childhood years. On the other hand, Ying’s excellence at learning since childhood gave her a sense of “pride near arrogance”. The mixed feelings of pride and inferiority largely led to her earlier failure to blend into the campus culture. When the researcher asked her about how she felt at the time of the interview, she claimed that she “had grown out of that sentiment of caring much about outer appearance”. In addition, she added that she was going on a diet at the time and claimed that society always placed too much criteria on women.
The second finding was how the rural-urban educational disparity was affecting this rural college student. The narrow scope of knowledge posed a great challenge for her as a student from rural China and resulted in her lack of confidence. She was feeling inferior at the beginning but was trying to broaden her knowledge scopes in the university. She was also taking a critical stance towards the view about talent. In the college, she spent much time in the university library and read books she had no access to in her previous school years. Reading and learning in college broadened her mind and enabled her to critically examine her own strengths and those of others. She elaborated on her change of feelings:
I was filled with inferiority, complaint and dissatisfaction at the beginning concerning the urban-rural divide and my narrow scope of knowledge. However, currently I believe a better way for me is first to realize the gap and also learn from my friends who come from affluent backgrounds.Ying
While she was not as versatile as students who received training in music, dance or arts in their childhood, Ying was starting to appreciate her own experiences with crops and farm work.
The third finding was how Ying was seeking for financial self-reliance in order to walk away from the stigma of rural poverty. She did not apply for scholarships the university set up for needy students. She believed these were for students who were “really in dire need”. She mentioned her high school experience:
When I was a high school junior, my teacher advised me to apply for scholarships for students from impoverished families. She might have noticed my unstylish dress. When my father learnt about it, he declined the offer, insisting we did not need it as long as he could support me financially. My father is a very hardworking man with high self-esteem. I am so proud of him.Ying
The last major finding was how she thought about the meaning of college life to her. In her senior year, she was preparing for the graduate entrance exam to a very prestigious university in eastern China but did not meet the benchmark score. When the clock of college life for her was ticking its last days, Ying was preparing for her graduation, continuing her tutoring job while doing another internship at a marine engineering company. She had not found a job yet. She planned to take the graduate entrance exam for a second time in the coming year. Facing all these uncertainties, Ying revealed that she had a “sense of anxiety, powerlessness, and failure” but still tried to calm down and made the best of her final time in the college.
This paper employed the concepts of both habitus and reflexivity to interpret the research participant Ying’s educational experience. As a female student from rural China, Ying has felt the constraints placed upon her by the intersection of gender and rurality, experienced the sense of inferiority as a consequence of lacking financial and cultural capital desired by the urban campus and society. While higher education has confronted her with all those constraints, it also served as a venue for her to examine these factors and to search for her own self-worth and self-improvement through internal conversations. With the unfolding of her story, this paper illustrated her reflexivity when she was exposed to a world larger than herself and experienced the dislocation of habitus. Reflexivity is also constantly exhibited as a regular practice for her self-cultivation. While Ying’s story underscores the importance of agency showcased in reflexivity, her struggle and “feeling of powerlessness” reveals the fact that agency is socially embedded and relational. Meanwhile, habitus transformation also comes in tandem with resistance and acquiescence through reflexivity. It might also be reproduced without the agent being aware of it. The research suggests the important responsibility of our society and our education to challenge the unequal social structures and to level the playground by providing more resources to rural areas.
Yumei Li is currently an assistant professor in Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute in China. Her research centers on international education, language, culture, and social justice in education.