The largest number of Americans in China are students, and most of them are studying Chinese. Many types of programs are available; some are noted in Appendix B. In general, there are three types of options: programs organized by U.S. universities or other educational institutions where Americans study together as a group; programs at Chinese-language training schools where Americans study with students from all over the world; and attendance at a Chinese university together with Chinese students. (Possibilities for advanced graduate students to do dissertation-level research are discussed in Chapter 4.)
There is some debate over where Chinese language study is best undertaken. Many former students and language instructors in the United States would argue that if learning Chinese is your primary goal, the quality of language teaching on Taiwan will better serve most students' needs. Others would argue that introductory Chinese is best studied in the United States and that students should go to Taiwan or the PRC only after getting a solid foundation. Many language students in China, however, are there not only to improve their Chinese but to get firsthand experience of the country as well. If these are your goals, there are numerous programs available in the People's Republic, each with its advantages and drawbacks.
Many universities offer summer, semester, or year-long programs in the People's Republic. The quality (and longevity) of these programs varies considerably, but some are now well established and quite good. Of special note is the new Princeton-in-Asia program, based at Beijing
Normal University, which offers intensive Chinese training using the "total immersion" method. Your Chinese-language instructor or other knowledgeable China specialist at your university can help you decide which program would be best for you. In some programs, an American adviser, who is often a faculty member from the sponsoring university, stays with the students to supervise language training and other activities. You may want to call the program instructor with specific questions. Many programs include, in addition to language training, courses in Chinese culture and history taught in English by either American or Chinese faculty. Many also include excursions to nearby sights of historic and cultural interest and a tour to other parts of China.
The advantages of such a program (when it is well managed) include a structured, well-supervised program, the mutual support of fellow students, substantive courses in English, and a supervisor who both helps with problems students might have and works directly with the Chinese university administrators and teachers. Language instruction tends to be more suited to American needs as well, since course content may be jointly decided between Chinese and U.S. faculty, and more participatory styles of U.S. instruction may be employed. The style of a well-run program thus retains a certain "American" flavor despite the Chinese setting, and the supervisor can serve as a buffer and mediator between the Chinese liuban and the students. Students experiencing their first taste of China, and perhaps abroad for the first time, often have difficulty knowing how to negotiate the Chinese academic bureaucracy. Moreover, U.S-sponsored programs can work out rules governing dormitory behavior, including late-night noise levels, that less-structured programs cannot, allowing students more quiet time for study in the dorm.
U.S.-sponsored programs tend to be more expensive than enrolling directly in a Chinese school. You will want to inquire about what the package includes—international airfare and travel within China, for instance. Inquire whether course credit is given and whether your university will accept the credits. Find out as much as you can about who will be teaching, how the courses will be structured, and what materials will be used. You might then ask your own language instructor's guidance on whether the materials are suitable for your goals.
The main disadvantage of most U.S-sponsored programs is that while language instruction may be good, many of the potential benefits of absorbing a language through constant exposure are lost. Most interaction outside of class will be with fellow Americans, and unless students have pledged to speak only Chinese (which a few programs require), the medium of communication will be English. Students in such programs tend to be so isolated from the mainstream of Chinese life that interaction with Chinese students and administration is limited.
Unless you make a concerted effort to make Chinese friends and experience Chinese life, you will see China largely "from the outside in." Moreover, the level of language competence of students in the same class may be markedly different, making both teaching and learning difficult.
Such programs are probably best for undergraduates who want a structured and supportive environment that allows them to explore on their own if they want, knowing that a more experienced "China hand" will be available for guidance and help. For students who do not yet know how far their commitment to China studies might go, it is a way to test the waters and decide whether to take the plunge.
As a student at a Chinese-language institute, you make your own arrangements directly by obtaining application forms from the education section of the Chinese embassy or a consulate and then submitting your application directly to the school. Students are not necessarily guaranteed admittance to the school to which they apply. Once in China you will negotiate your living, study, and payments directly with officials at your school—a frustrating experience if your language skills are not yet sufficient for the task. Then you will become part of a class with students from all over the world who will have varying degrees of fluency in the language. The advantages of direct enrollment in a Chinese university are that tuition is much cheaper than most U.S.-sponsored programs, you are permitted considerable independence, you meet new people from far-flung parts of the globe, and school administrators often have decades of experience dealing with foreign students.
Reports on the quality of language instruction differ among schools and teachers. In the early years of exchanges, U.S. students (and their language teachers in the United States) were often disappointed in the quality of language instruction. Texts were uninteresting, vocabulary was often inappropriate for daily use, emphasis was on memorization, and learning was often passive. The quality of instruction in many places has improved considerably since then, but language instruction is still likely to be less participatory than that in the United States.
Moreover, while the international environment provides the opportunity to make many new friends, fellow students will not be Chinese, and making Chinese friends can be difficult. Some language schools have no Chinese students. Some students find that adjusting to the multinational foreign student community is more difficult than adapting to China. Many students discover that English is still the medium of communication outside the classroom, and some students serve unofficially as English-language tutors to students from other countries. Chinese friends hoping to study in the United States may call on you to
help with everything from writing away for catalogues to filling out application forms. Students in language institutes face similar problems of isolation from China as the U.S.-sponsored programs.
Moreover, with no adviser and no rules governing dorm life, some dormitories are livelier than serious students prefer. Noise from late-night parties is a frequent complaint, and occasional quarrels break out when cultures and values collide. Serious students complain that too many of their colleagues are there for fun rather than study. Conditions for study in dormitories are less than ideal, and libraries can be noisy and crowded, too. Moreover, the long-term experience of the liuban with fun-seeking foreign students can work to the disadvantage of the serious student.
If the perception of university administrators and teachers is that most foreign students are not really there to study, perseverance and hard work will be necessary for the serious student to convince them otherwise. This and the inevitably lower status of students can be a difficult burden for the hardworking student to shoulder.
But the difficulties of coping on your own may also be to your benefit. By learning to work with Chinese administrators and to negotiate your own way through China, you will learn much about the Chinese "system" and can apply that knowledge to many other situations in China. You will have had the opportunity to experience not only China but other cultures, too. And the experience may lead you to further study of the Chinese language and culture.
ATTENDING A CHINESE UNIVERSITY
The student with sufficient language skills can also enroll directly in a Chinese university. Some students who begin in language programs and become committed to the serious, long-term study of China find this a useful way to become more integrated into Chinese student life and to learn something of the academic environment in a Chinese university. Most such students continue to live in foreign student dormitories, but they are able to develop a life outside.
This type of program is an excellent route to "total immersion." But it has two major drawbacks. First, unless your Chinese is fluent (and many students do have fluency in Chinese), language can continue to be an impediment to full participation. As one student lamented in the last edition of China Bound, teaching is in "rapid, unadulterated Mandarin," and some teachers have heavy, almost incomprehensible, accents. Note-taking in class can be a challenge.
Second, course content, style of instruction, and approach remain very different from those in the United States. Some courses do not even have texts. As one recently returned student points out, it is a
mistake, despite recent press descriptions of China, to think that China is a capitalist society. Chinese values and perspectives are still very different from our own and those differences are reflected in the classroom. The graduate student steeped in Western theory and methodology often discovers that the motivating impetus of research in China is different. If you understand this, however, and take as your goal learning how your subject is taught in China, studying in a Chinese university can be an extremely valuable experience.
Unlike Chinese students, who usually take courses only in their major, foreign students are often allowed to take courses from other departments. You will want to choose your major carefully, however. Some specialties, such as anthropology, are available only at a handful of universities, and course content may be very different from what you have come to expect in your American university. Course catalogues are not widely available, so finding out what courses are being taught may take some probing of your liuban, your professors, and other students. Look on your department's bulletin board, too.
You may want special, more directed help as a student in a Chinese university, which can be difficult to obtain. Only advanced, dissertation-level graduate students are ordinarily assigned advisers. You must first prove yourself worthy of extra help from your professors, and this will take perseverance and dedication. Once you have made a commitment to a particular course, class attendance becomes mandatory because your professor may take personal offense if you do not attend. In time, diligence and devotion to your studies is likely to be rewarded with special attention from professors. Many are openly moved to discover a foreign student who has taken the time and trouble to learn their language, traveled so far to study, and remains diligent despite the obvious difficulties.
Thus, enrollment in a Chinese university is only for the serious and independent student who is willing to interact with the Chinese academic bureaucracy and with Chinese faculty with little outside help. The long-term advantages to such total immersion are tremendous. You will have experienced China as few foreigners have; the language skills you develop will serve you the rest of your life; and you will be able to return to China year after year comfortable in the knowledge that you will know how to behave and get things done with ease and understanding. And you are likely to have made several good, lifelong Chinese friends in the process.
As a foreign student, your daily life is likely to revolve around a small group of foreign friends and classmates, a few liuban personnel, teach-
ers, and, if your efforts have been successful, a few Chinese friends, too. Your dormitory is apt to be rather spartan, and at first sight, after a long and exhausting plane trip, may initially strike you as dismal. You may chafe at Chinese expectations of conformity just as you have broken with your friends and peers back home to take the daring step of coming to China for the first time. The top-down decision making of Chinese universities may not sit well.
The Chinese you learned in the United States may suddenly seem hopelessly inadequate, and what you are learning in the classroom may not meet your immediate communications needs. You may find the single telephone on your floor difficult to use and discover that when you finally connect with the number you are calling you don't know what to say or how to say it. You may be humiliated when the person on the other end of the line hangs up. Living with foreigners when you really want a Chinese roommate can be disappointing. The rules that require Chinese guests to register at the door, giving their names and danwei, can be irritating, and doubly so if visiting hours are limited. The food in the dining hall will not be the same as in your favorite Chinese restaurant back home. If you ordinarily take a shower at the beginning or end of your day, you may have difficulty adjusting your schedule if the hot water in your dorm is on for only two hours after dinner. The absence of your usual newspapers or television programs can magnify the feeling of isolation.
In short, expect to experience the normal signs of culture shock for the first few weeks of your stay. It may help to remember what is a nearly universal phenomenon—that the most difficult experiences usually prove to have been the most interesting and instructive.
Students can find rewarding ways of breaking out of what initially may seem to be the too restrictive confines of dormitory and classroom. You may not have a Chinese roommate, but most universities will let you participate in team sports. Even if you are not athletically inclined, every Chinese university has plenty of ping pong tables, and no skill is required to play. You will be beaten, of course, but you might make a friend or two in the process. If your sport is solitary, like running, try using the university track. You will quickly meet someone there. Or join an impromptu game of basketball.
If you play a musical instrument, go to your local music conservatory and see if you can participate in some of their activities. If you play the guitar, offer to teach. Find out if someone can teach you to play one of the ancient Chinese instruments, like the qin. The pipa is a nice instrument for people with guitar experience and teachers are easy to find in the Jiangnan area. Or just listen to practice sessions. Organize a singing group of fellow students and offer to perform for your Chinese schoolmates.
You can network, too. Before you go to China, ask friends in the United States to give you names and addresses of their Chinese friends. Find out if your hometown has a sister-city relationship in China, and see if you can do something to further it. Or offer to help establish a sister-city relationship. Contact the international trade division in your state, and find out about possible business contacts or other types of exchanges. If Chinese have studied at your university, find out their names and addresses and contact them in China. You are tongxue—schoolmates—which creates an automatic bond. If any of your American friends in China have Chinese friends, ask to be introduced or join them when they meet.
Go to church and stay after the service is over. One or two people will almost always come up and introduce themselves. Go to parks early in the morning and participate in exercise activities there. The same people return every day. Take a group course in taijiquan. Offer to teach English. Go to the town's "English Corner."
Find out about volunteer work. One group of students began volunteer work at a local orphanage. After several months, they put on a concert to help raise money for the orphanage and were able to contribute more than Y10,000. The concert was attended by local officials and broadcast over local television, and as a result the students have made many new friends. Writes one of them, "Volunteering at the orphanage has given me the feeling that I'm doing something real here in China, that I'm in some small part contributing to this society instead of just observing it and wondering about it from a distance."
Read the newspaper for announcements of upcoming events. Find out about the latest rock stars and go to their concerts. Bring a short-wave radio to stay abreast of news outside. Give your old Time and Newsweek to Chinese friends.
Travel. Take weekend bicycle excursions to local scenic sites. Invite your Chinese friends, and take a picnic lunch. Over longer Chinese holidays, travel by train alone or with a friend. Visit an ethnic minority area and try staying off the beaten path. Many students report that travel provided both the most difficult and rewarding experiences of their stay.
What you study and how many hours you spend in the classroom each week will depend on the program you choose. Most intensive language programs involve four hours in class a day, from 8:00 am until noon, Monday through Saturday. Afternoons are set aside for occasional excursions and provide time for special tutoring (fudao). While Chinese tutors may not be trained in teaching Chinese to foreigners, these pri-
vate sessions can provide an opportunity for more active involvement in learning the language. Make the best of the opportunity by bringing along your own textbooks and tapes (consult with your language instructor in the States before leaving) and asking to use them as the basis for your special instruction. If you are weak in conversation skills, ask to practice dialogues. Or practice writing or learn to read cursive Chinese handwriting. Be clear about your own language goals, and explain them clearly to your tutor. If your language is good enough and you want to work on translations, bring along your texts or explain what materials interest you most and ask the tutor to help find them. Prove your devotion to studies by regular attendance in class.
You are likely to find student-teacher relations to be different in China. They are more hierarchical, and students are not expected to disagree with or challenge their professor. Your teachers' interest in you is likely to extend beyond the classroom into aspects of your life that you may regard as personal. A visit from a teacher to your dormitory is not uncommon, and they will be concerned if you are obviously unhappy or ill, or if you are having problems in class. Some Americans find this attention suffocating, but by understanding that the concern is genuine and well-meant, most come to feel affection and respect for their dedicated, hardworking Chinese instructors.