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Living the college dream abroad

Marie Lamy / Khmer Times Share:
Phen Mab, left, with his classmates and teacher. Supplied

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Phen Mab from Siem Reap province tried in vain to obtain a scholarship to do his master’s degree in Thailand or Japan. Just as his hopes were fading, he stumbled upon an opportunity to study in China and grabbed it.

PHEN MAB had always dreamed of studying abroad. In 2013, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree at Build Bright University in Siem Reap, he applied several times for a master’s scholarship programme in Thailand and Japan. His efforts were in vain as his applications were rejected. However, his fortunes quickly took a turn in the summer of 2018, when he heard of the opportunity to study in China via the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC).

The CSC forms part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to numerous countries around the world which also provides a number of scholarships to potential students wishing to obtain a higher qualification in China. Currently, 185 Cambodian students have been granted the opportunity to study a major of their choice in a different city of China such as Kunming, Shanghai or Beijing, but for Mab it would be Nanjing.

Fast forward to September 2018 and for his very first time, Mab flew far from home to a city he had never heard of before. Nanjing, the capital of Eastern China Jiangsu province is a well-known city often praised for high-quality universities, research institutions and its significant history of contributing to Chinese culture.

Despite previous wars and disasters, today it is often ranked as one of the safest cities to live in China. Needless to say, it was a good choice for Mab to follow his instincts and accept the offer.


Hard beginnings

Apart from the doubts from his family and friends who worried that studying far from home is not so safe, Mab had his own fears about China before leaving Siem Reap, as it would be four years of commitment to obtain his degree. However, determined to follow his dream he seized the opportunity to go abroad and pursue higher education. His chose to study for a masters degree in education management and leadership at Nanjing Normal University.

Nanjing Normal University is known to be have the most beautiful campus in East China and is a pillar in terms of teaching the Chinese language to foreigners. The university welcomes, every September, around 700 eager foreign students for exchange, bachelor, masters and doctorate programmes.

Mab knew it was important to study with assiduity from the start. During his freshman year, he attended Chinese classes from Mondays to Fridays from 8am to 3pm, with additional hours of self-study. It is a common practice for students who are awarded the scholarship to study only the Chinese language in the first year, as they need to be fluent in order to study their major which will only be taught in Mandarin for the following years.

Mab admits he had many ups and downs and feelings of discouragement.

“Learning a new language at my age is not an easy task and I had no previous knowledge of the Chinese language before coming to China. All I did during my first year was study hard every day to pass my HSK 4 exam (the mandatory proficiency Chinese exam)”, he says.

Mab notes his gratitude towards the university and teachers over the help for new students like him despite the language barrier he encountered every day in class and outside.

“Teachers at my university have been a reliable source of comfort as they help any student in difficulty,” he says.

A section of Nanjing Normal University seen during winter. Marie Lamy

Culture Shock

Surrounded by the traditional architecture of Chinese buildings in the city center of Nanjing Gulou, Mab has had the chance to be fully immersed in Chinese culture as Nanjing is a much smaller city than Shanghai or Beijing.

“It was a culture shock for me to see how developed China is. Everything is so convenient and fast, I use my phone to pay for everything from my groceries, bus and metro ticket or to order from the online retailer Taobao. It is a very different culture from Cambodia where cash is still widely used,” he says.

As a foreign student, Mab is always eager to discover other culture and, with very few Khmers in his university, his circle of friends consists of people from all over the world like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Mongolia, Poland, Pakistan and Egypt. Most of the time they use Chinese to communicate as a way to perfect their language skills.

“Never did I imagine meeting someone from Egypt. It is so far from Cambodia and I think Egyptian culture is wonderful, from the stories my friend shares when we gather for dinner,” he says.

Being exposed to new horizons through meeting people without leaving China, helped Mab discover a passion to learn about other countries. He regularly participates in excursions to historical landmarks in Nanjing organised by a Foreign Talent association. A local platform aiming to create opportunities and unite people from around the globe, it has helped Mab get out of his comfort zone.



Almost 18 months after living in China, Mab has perfectly adapted to his new lifestyle. “I have a regular student life and routine, I attend classes according to my schedule, I go for lunch with my friends and visit the city during the weekends,” he says.

Mab and his friends often eat lunch and dinner together like a family. Gathering for Christmas and New Year to usher in 2020 were among the more recent parties they had.

Mab is not a huge fan of Chinese cuisine but rather an enthusiast of Khmer food and loves cooking a homemade meal whenever he feels homesick.A big concern of his are the weather conditions and pollution in China.

“In Cambodia, it is mostly hot throughout the year. Nanjing has all four seasons and I particularly enjoy winter. I had never experienced snow before and it was a magical experience to wake up in the morning and discover the campus covered with white snow,” he says.

Despite having a hard time adjusting to the colder temperatures in the beginning, Mab enjoys taking pictures to show his relatives and friends through his Wechat account and reassures them he is doing just fine abroad.

As for pollution, it can be foggy for several days, he uses a face mask when the air quality is hazardous.



As a former government school teacher in Siem Reap, Mab admits quitting his job was not an easy decision to take. But he is convinced a higher education from one of China’s top universities will help him acquire better knowledge in the field of education. After graduating from Nanjing Normal, Mab plans to return to Cambodia to help rural students in his hometown.

“For me, it is important to help the younger generation of Cambodians to get a better education. This can be done through the teacher being a mentor to the students who can inspire students to love learning,” he says.

Mab has faced difficulties owing to the language barrier with Chinese locals, but this has provided a good experience for him and a chance to develop a good bilateral relationship between Cambodia and China.

Currently enjoying the university winter break, Mab has returned to Siem Reap to visit his family and friends and also enjoy the landscape of his hometown.

Through regular strolls to the Angkor Temple, he has had the chance to meet Chinese tourists visiting the largest religious monument in the world.

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