As China continues to emerge as a rising power and dominant player on the global stage, I encourage more Americans to develop and cultivate a curiosity and knowledge about this vast country that is so steeped in ancient history and traditions yet firmly implanted in modernity and sophistication. It’s no secret that we are increasingly faced with opportunities to compete and collaborate with China so now is a good time for us to engage with them to create meaningful partnerships and cultural exchanges.
It’s well worth exploring the land, people, language and culture of China because it’s absolutely fascinating! On my first visit in 2009, I toured the capital city of Beijing as a member of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. I enjoyed it so much that I returned to Shanghai the following year as a participant in a program called the New Century Project located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that subsidized native English speakers to teach English to elementary and middle years’ students in China. In addition to my teaching assignment that year, I also had the opportunity to visit the World’s Fair hosted by Shanghai. It was an amazing and unforgettable event!
In 2011, I returned to teach English at Guizhou University in Guiyang, China as part of a study abroad component of a Masters Program in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). This year, I was hired to serve as a mentor to Chinese-born graduate students attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Needless to say, China is in my bloodstream so allow me to share some of my travel and teaching experiences from the land of the dragon and the panda!
Chinese students of all ages are eager to learn English. They are very hard working and dedicate lots of time to studying our language. They are also delighted to teach you some Mandarin. But don’t be surprised or annoyed when students stop you in the streets to practice their English skills or ask to take a photo with you! Consider it a compliment!
Schools and classrooms in China may appear to be fairly sparse but the learning is non-stop and classroom management issues are practically non-existent. This is because Chinese society is so deeply entrenched and shaped by Confucian values which stress respect for authority, the importance of education, family honor and a strong moral code to guide behaviors and maintain social order.
While my Mandarin language skills improve with every visit to China and interactions with Chinese people here in America, it’s helpful to travel in China with a tour group or study abroad program that will designate a local bilingual guide to travel with your group. This will help to navigate and facilitate some of the language and cultural barriers that are sure to arise. For example, did you know that the Chinese language has four tones such that any given word can be pronounced four different ways and each pronunciation has a different meaning? Did you know that there are 53 different ethnic minorities in China and the Han people are the majority group? And would you believe that it is considered rude to leave a tip in restaurants in China? They’ll actually chase you down to return it!
Finally, China is not without its challenges. The stories about the air quality are all too true. Despite the thousands and thousands of bike riders on the streets, you’ll feel the effects of pollution with a mild scratchiness in the throat. It’s also recommended that you use only bottled water even for brushing your teeth. And for those of you who may need to answer the call of nature in a public bathroom, be prepared for non-Western style toilets that may take some getting used to! But don’t let this deter you from a wonderful and memorable adventure and learning experience.
The beauty and charm of China await you! Yes, there’s the iconic Great Wall, the enormity of Tian’anmen Square, the fascination of the Forbidden City and the splendor of the elaborate costumes and performance art at the Peking Opera in Beijing. There’s the breathtaking view of the skyline from the Bund in Shanghai and the battle-ready Terra Cotta Warriors in X’ian and so much more. But it’s the people, their history, traditions and culture along with their amazing “great leap forward” into the future that will captivate your heart and mind and leave you yearning to come back to China for more!