INSIDE Chico State
0 February 17, 2000
Volume 30 Number 13
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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First Semester in Beijing Termed "Double Success"

Semester in Beijing students enjoy a traditional Chinese meal in the countryside, fall 1999. According to colloquial Chinese, the semester in Bejing was a "double success." (photo Frank Li)
Semester in Beijing students enjoy a traditional Chinese meal in the countryside, fall 1999. According to colloquial Chinese, the semester in Bejing was a "double success." (photo Frank Li)

 

Professor Frank Li, director of the first Beijing semester, billed it as a "once in a lifetime experience." It was, not only for the fifteen students who went, but for Li as well.

The program, modeled on the London semester and run jointly through Humanities and Fine Arts and Asian Studies, initially faced a setback when, after an onsite visit, the founders' original choice of a host university fell through.

Going back to the drawing board, Li resorted to the Chinese way -- connections -- to find another host. "I had my wife call her close friend in Beijing," he explained, "and ask for help." It worked. The friend was able to route them to the Beijing Language and Culture University, a school with the longest and most experienced hosting record in China.

"We were impressed with the language and computer labs," Li said, "the quality of the faculty, even the dorm facilities. We liked everything." After that it was just a matter of negotiating the long paper path and student recruiting.

In a country where Americans need a permit from the Foreign Affairs Division to leave the city, perhaps the most difficult part of the Beijing semester for the Chico State students also offered the greatest opportunity for real cultural understanding.

"They might not have liked it," said Li about prohibitions that were not only travel oriented but sometimes moral (right down to cohabitation rules), "but by the end of the semester they were saying, 'now I know what it means to have true freedom.'"

Such clashes offer a chance to bridge the gap between China's socialistic society and our democracy, an increasingly important lesson in a shrinking world.

"The Asian countries are growing more and more influential," explained Li, himself native Chinese, transplanted via England and the East Coast to Chico State. "Especially the Pacific Rim. We've talked about it coming for a long time, and now it's happening. We're realizing its power, so exposure to Chinese culture is very important."

And exposure is what students got. From the bureaucratic nightmare following an eaten ATM card to an elaborate banquet with government dignitaries held in their honor to several phenomenal sightseeing trips, the semester was loaded with language, history, art, and architecture.

There were some surprises, such as a China that seems as free-market and profit-oriented as America, including a modernized Shanghai that has changed so rapidly in the last ten years it could be any industrialized city in the world.

While colliding with the new millennium, China is also alive with history, and a list of field trips -- including a ten- day extended trip outside Beijing -- reads like a world-class tour.

Li planned it as "culture in a broad sense," exposing students to everything from museums and traditional houses to a modern theme park representing fifty-five of China's diverse ethnic groups.

Grand sites such as a gilded Buddha, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and sacred Mt. Tai were not only inspiring, but also reflected China's changes down through the centuries.

"Contrast the burial rights used in the newly opened Hang Tomb," explained Li, "with those practiced during the Qin Dynasty." In the Qin Dynasty, the towering Terra Cotta Warriors were lifesized, but by the Hang Dynasty, they'd shrunk to miniatures. "This is a change from the representation of real life to a symbolic representation, from a luxurious style to a practical style," Li said.

Being plunked down in a city of 30 million where everyone was speaking Chinese and few spoke English was a difficult adjustment for the students. But here again, Li stressed, learning and growth took place. In a matter of weeks, said Li, students had mastered enough phrases to get by, and after a semester's worth of Chinese (none of them spoke it on their arrival), one young man read, in Chinese, a touching farewell speech to his hosts.

"I think most, if not all of the students," said Li, "felt it was an incredible, life-changing experience."

Li, who had to wear several hats between teaching, nursing, and counseling students and acting as go-between with administrators, relied on his own background to get him through. He understands the experience from both sides, having interacted, as assistant director of ESL in Buffalo, New York, with students from all over the world.

In the end, he was pleased and proud of the work students did, especially projects on such subjects as martial arts, Confucianism, calligraphy, acupuncture, and the Chinese economy.

The newly established Beijing semester will continue next fall under Aiping Zhang, Department of English, and is open to students from all disciplines.

Soon, Li said about the program he helped launch, "It will be set up so that anyone can direct it, whether or not you speak Chinese. Many other universities have similar programs, and I think it is time we do, too." -- ZV

 

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