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The University of North Carolina at Pembroke
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University Newswire
PO Box 1510
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510
Date: August 3, 2004
Contact: Amber Rach
Email: amber.rach@uncp.edu
Phone: 910.521.6863
Fax: 910.521.6694
 

China trip proves memorable

By Scott Bigelow

James BassJames Bass is assistant director of Student Activities at UNC Pembroke and composition instructor in the Department of English, Theatre and Languages. This summer he traveled to China to teach and learn at UNCP partnter university, the North China Institute of Science and Technology in Yanjiao, a suburb of East Beijing. Bass, who is a Lumberton native and 1994 UNCP graduate, learned a lot about Chinese people and culture. Here are some of this thoughts:

Cross Talk: Sharing knowledge, language, culture and friendship

Cross Talk is the name of one of China's most beloved forms of entertainment. Two comedians bounce jokes off each other, and tell old stories to the laughter of an audience. This entertainment is the closest thing to American standup comedy, and what makes it truly funny is the comedians' use of provincial dialects, which is basically the same as telling a joke with a "Southern" or "Northern" American accent to achieve a comic effect. Cross Talk is quite popular on Chinese radio stations, and students at colleges throughout the country enjoy performing for their friends in talent shows and student activities events.

Students Cross TalkLearning all about Cross Talk was very important for me since I was in China to find out more about student programs at North China Institute of Science and Technology while teaching English to students and faculty there. I got the chance to see Cross Talk performed by students at the university, which was quite funny, even if you can't understand everything they say, however, by the end of my visit in China, "Cross Talk" took on a new meaning for me. Cross Talk is the best expression I can think of to sum up my exchange experience with one of UNCP's international education partners. It's the best way to describe the sharing of knowledge, language, culture and friendship.

Culture

Bass at Great Wall of ChinaChina has thousands of years of culture and history. For Westerners, it is a country full of curious customs and practices. One month (the duration of my stay) is not long enough to see all of the sites, learn all of the history, and understand the connections they have to the people. In fact, trying to understand many Chinese customs from a Western perspective is very difficult. Take common etiquette for example. Did you know that pointing the spout of a teapot at someone is considered bad luck? And did you know that sticking your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice is considered bad manners? And did you ever wonder why American Chinese restaurants sometimes have numbers in their names? Like the China 8? Well it's because the number eight is one of the luckiest of all. And the number nine is the most supreme because it's the largest single-digit number. The number four is considered unlucky because, when pronounced in Chinese, it sounds like the word for death, and sets of four are considered unlucky.

Students/Teaching

Bass with studentsThe Chinese learning environment is a little different from our own. First of all, if you attend a university, then you are required to live on campus. Each morning, students are awakened by a loud-speaker and music, then they must get out of bed and spend about an hour engaging in exercise before breakfast. Then, they attend their classes. While in class, the students must remain quiet unless the teacher calls on them, and if they are called upon, they will respectfully stand and ask their question. They remain standing until they are finished being addressed by the teacher.

Teaching English to foreign language students presented its challenges, but with my background in teaching freshman composition, coupled with my experience as student of Spanish, I felt well prepared.

My assignment was to work with the English faculty twice each week for about an hour and a half and to teach a couple of English writing classes for students once each week. Composition classes in China last for almost two hours - two 50-minute sessions divided by a five-minute break.

The Chinese are hungry for knowledge, and the evidence was right in front of me - teachers and students with lots of questions and curiosities about American culture, and the use of everyday English in conversation.

One of my typical classes usually began with a few minutes of questions and answers that ranged from "What is your impression of China?" and "How do you compare your students in America to Chinese students?" to "Do you like Christmas?" and "Do you have a car?" Other students wanted to know things about how easy it is for Americans to buy guns, what the general opinion of the Bush administration is in America, and why was I interested in coming to China…

Before I began working with the Chinese students and faculty, I did my homework. I arranged a meeting with the Chinese teachers to find out what kinds of things they wanted to learn from me, and what ways I could help them. Then, I scheduled times when I could visit English classrooms and observe Chinese teachers and students in action. My final preparation was something that I thought would be beneficial for my students and me - I decided to get a Chinese tutor.

Learning the language

Since my days in high school, I have been learning things about foreign languages, and my interest has grown as I learned more. I studied Spanish for two years in high school, and last year studied Spanish here at UNCP. While I was an undergraduate, I studied German one semester, and even learned a few phrases in Korean and Japanese from international students. But learning Chinese seemed difficult to me, and I was intimidated to learn at first because I discovered that learning Chinese was unlike any other language I had ever encountered. You see, in Chinese, some words have different meanings, based on their pronunciation and the tone of the words. The classic example is "ma," which can mean "mother" when pronounced one way, or "horse" when pronounced yet another way. "Ma" is also the sound that follows a sentence and lets the listener know that a question is being asked. So naturally, one might imagine my fear of calling someone's mother a horse!

Before I left for China, I found some Chinese lessons on CD on the Internet, and tried to learn as much as I could. But without practice, I sounded very awkward, and I had very few opportunities to practice. One of my first requests when I arrived at North China Institute of Science and Technology was to get some help. No sooner had I asked than I was teamed with a personal tutor and offered as much help from the University staff as I could handle. I quickly became friends with my assistant, Zhang Xing, an employee from the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose English name is Chuck. Chuck helped me find a tutor and get lessons once per week, and frequently he tested me, and taught me new words.

During my lectures to Chinese faculty, I told them that the best way to learn any language is to throw one's self into circumstances where communicating in another language is essential (I was speaking to them about theories of immersion that are popular in America). Very soon, I found myself practicing what I was preaching, as I attempted to go shopping for myself and to learn how to get by day to day. Before I knew it, saying hello (ni hao), asking how much something costs (do sha chen), and saying thank you (shei shei) came naturally, and to my surprise, I was easily learning a language I thought inscrutable.

Conclusion

While I was in China, I got to visit a lot of the famous sites, like the Great Wall (every tourist visits the Great Wall), the Forbidden City, and Tianamenn Square, which were all interesting. For me, the biggest thrills came from taking strolls through the streets and markets, where I got to see everyday Chinese life up close, and where I (a stranger in a strange land) learned something about diversity from the other side of the fence, by being "the foreigner." It was interesting to be in a place where no one could understand my language, and where I was referred to as "Mei Guo Ren" or "the American." For many, such an experience might feel uncomfortable, but I embraced it - and I am glad that I did. And to all of my new Chinese friends, who helped me learn the language, introduced me to new kinds of food, showed me the sites, taught me the history, and made me feel at home in their country…thanks for the Cross Talk!

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The University of North Carolina at Pembroke Updated: Tuesday, August 3, 2004
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