Dear parents, families, and friends of our '00 summer China FSP participants:
It is hard to believe that eight weeks of classes have already gone by, and that in just two more weeks the academic portion of the term will be OVER. Students and teachers alike, over the past week or so, have directed their attention almost entirely to the strictly course-related areas of campus life, and what you are reading will serve chiefly as an "update". ====================
About one-third of the way through the term, a number of students experienced a period of what I term "anxiety/panic attacks." It happens frequently among participants in a language-focused foreign study program, and is triggered by the sudden realization that "total immersion" in a foreign culture or linguistic environment of the target-language at times might not expedite the direct acquisition of the foreign language--yes, you are in China now but this does not change the fact that you are still a *first-year* Chinese language student. Students would come to me and ask, "I've been here three weeks now, so how come I still can't read the menu in the school cafeteria? When will I be able to read the menu, so that I can order the food I like from it?" I always wish to respond, "Not for a long, long time, dear student of mine--and I myself cannot even do that...." (Even in the more modest restaurants--say, those having but 3 tables--the menu will most likely be three or four pages long, and will include a number of dishes whose names I do not recognize, hence cannot pronounce aloud, and at whose contents I would not even hazard a guess...). But I don't respond as I might wish to. Instead I usually say, "Start with the dishes you already know--didn't we include a section on "How to order food in a Chinese restaurant" in your China FSP Student Guide?"
It is sometimes difficult to explain to a student that his/her ability to order food from a Chinese menu is not an infallible indicator of one's "literacy" in Chinese--nor is it a sign to the Chinese community that this student should now be considered a "member" of that community. And it can be similarly difficult to lead a student to the understanding that many a "China expert" (including many Sinologists whose names may be recognized far and wide...) is unable to exchange with an ordinary Chinese even the most commonly encountered daily greetings (despite the circumstance whereby this same Sinologist might be able at length and in detail to dilate upon the "Book of Changes" or upon others of the Chinese classics, or intelligently to discuss the strengths/faults of the late Chairman Mao).
Two "realizations" can be disheartening (or uplifting...): 1) the realization that no matter where one is, or with whom one studies the language, it is still *the student* who ultimately must control--and who therefore is responsible for--the various tasks that are often lumped together as "learning/studying" and 2) the realization that "learning/studying" is a never-ending process.
But once a student gets over any initial stage of the multi-symptomed "anxiety/panic attack," s/he then is on the way to a truly rewarding experience in China.
Students are not alone in coming to grips with "realizations" such as those just mentioned--and their teachers as well (myself included) are not exempt from such attacks of reality--so that it can prove quite interesting, if not also illuminating, to compare the sorts of questions/comments that present themselves from the mouths of students and from the mouths of their professors. A few examples:
* Student: It's already the third week of classes, so how come I still can't even read the school cafeteria menu? Is our textbook really suitable for us? How come there is not even an "index" to our text? I think the teachers are too demanding/strict/casual/indifferent/non-caring/etc. There is too much/little homework. The teachers hate me.... Chinese people are rude/insincere/inscrutable/etc. The bus/city is too crowded/noisy/dirty/etc. I'm homesick....
* Teacher: It's already the third week of classes, so how come the students still have difficulty pronouncing even my surname? Perhaps the textbook is too easy/difficult/serious/silly/etc. How come there is not even an "index" to our text? I think the students fail to take me, AND their study, seriously. They don't prepare nor review their lessons. There is too much/little homework. The students hate me.... American students are rude/insincere/spoiled/etc. Ah, there are still seven weeks to go.... (In case you are interested ...by the fourth week of classes, we did manage to compile a vocabulary index to the Dartmouth textbook.)
I deem these anxiety/panic attacks a normal part of our China FSP, for students and for teachers. We are now into the final two weeks of our classes, with most of our students having come to an understanding that although they cannot and will not, in this three-month FSP term, become China experts nor even fluent speakers of the Chinese language, they can and will learn a tremendous amount that is new to them concerning China and her people. Of more importance, this: many students have now confronted some of the limitations--as well as some of the infinite possibilities--of their own intellectual potential.
I'll write again when I have a chance.
Hua-yuan Li Mowry