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Article written for Grinnell student magazine

August 30, 2011

Learning Chinese at Grinnell, Teaching in Chinese in China

My experience in China this past summer is an excellent example of what one can achieve, what one can experience, because of a Grinnell language education.

Last year, I wrote about the daily rigors of taking Chinese classes at Grinnell. The early mornings, the windowless classroom, the endless memorization. But as a famous Chinese saying goes, “The sharpness of a precious sword comes from grinding on the millstone, the fragrance of a plum blossom emerges from the bitter winter cold.” In other words, it was worth it.

This past summer I participated in the Associated Colleges in China (ACC) Summer Field Studies Program. This Fulbright-sponsored scholarship program run by Hamilton College consisted of three parts, over seven weeks. The first part of the program was three weeks of intensive Chinese language study at Minzu University in Beijing. The second part consisted of traveling to north-eastern Inner Mongolia Province, to teach summer camps to Chinese children, using Chinese. The third part of the program was a presentation, in Chinese, at an educational conference at Harbin University in Heilongjiang Province.

Through this program, I was able to hone and utilize my accumulated Chinese language skills to communicate and interact in China in ways I never could have imagined four years ago. My Grinnell Chinese language education prepared me to utilize my language skills in a practical setting. I was able to use my accumulated Chinese vocabulary and grammar knowledge base to write a polished, formal presentation on the American sports education system in Chinese, and feel confident that I would be communicating both my meaning and my emotions in an effective manner. I was able to use my accumulated Chinese oral skills to not only present this topic fluently in front of a Chinese audience, but to teach elementary-aged children astronomy and health classes in the student’s own language. This program truly was a rare opportunity to immerse confidently in a foreign culture, and it was made possible not only by my own personal commitment to the Chinese language, but by the opportunity to learn that has been afforded me at Grinnell.

Aside from the more tangible aspects of the program, many powerful experiences were ingrained on my mind over the course of the program. We made friends with a cheery shop-owner and his young son in a town where they have never seen a foreigner before We played drinking games with a group of mangy, boisterous Chinese guys ten miles from the Russian border. We listened to and came to appreciate the tribulations of teachers in a Chinese education system that emphasizes test scores above all else. And I was compelled to encourage a young, desperately poor child of migrant workers to persevere when with tears in his eyes he told me that he was not smart enough or good enough to make anything better of his life. These are the kinds of experiences that enlighten one to the manifold expressions of the human condition. One of the greatest lessons I have learned over the course of my college education is that these expressions of humanity, these humanistic interactions, are what define all people and their relationships. A place can have a different “culture”, different “customs”, but if one can get past the basic problem of the language barrier, one comes to realize that the human experience, both its sufferings and its pleasures, manifests itself in the same ways all over the world. The more one learns about and experiences another culture, the more one comes to realize that in essence we are all the same. That national boundaries are artificial constructions. That no man, in fact no people, is an island. That these so-called “differences” that people define themselves by, and are all too often overshadowed by, are mirages constructed by the human need to create identity. It may seem ironic, although I view it more as inevitable, but the more I submerge myself in this “foreign” language, this so-called “foreign culture”, the more I realize that we are all the same. That one need not look any further than the person standing next to you to get all the confirmation of one’s own identity that one needs. It is this barrier-breaking power that my Grinnell education has given me that has made me truly appreciative of the education I have received. Thank you.

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