逆流上水 Paddling Against the Current: On Rethinking Asian Language and Culture Studies and on Re-Orienting the Study Abroad Experience

Asia is the world’s most populous and diverse region. So why aren’t more students coming here?

Right now, the population of Asia makes up around 60 percent of the world’s total population. If you count just India and China alone, these two countries have nearly 2.5 billion people and will be reaching 3 billion in the near future, which is roughly 40 percent of world population (3/7=4.2). The United States at around 300 million only makes up around 4 percent of human population, while Europe is around 10 percent, so together they total 15 percent or so of world population. If you look at human population statistics, we are living in a very Asia-centric world. So why is our world view and our understanding of history, culture, media, power, and global politics still so Euro-American-centric?

This past year in 2017, through my recruiting work for Duke Kunshan University, I traveled extensively through China and also to nine different countries or places in Asia outside of Mainland China. I visited around 30 different cities and many smaller towns and villages. Because I was visiting schools, I often had to travel to remote locations outside of the large cities, in which the best international and national schools or universities are clustered. Overall, as I’ve written in other journal entries on my website shanghaisojourns.net, this journey has been a real eye-opener for me. Using a Chinese phrase, it has “greatly opened my field of vision” (Da Kai Yan Jie 大开眼界) to the enormous range and diversity as well as the interconnectedness of this world region. (In a previous entry, I wrote about how most of these international schools are gearing students up for going abroad to America, the UK, Canada, and Australia for their higher education, and argued that Asia needs more liberal arts colleges and universities to keep them here.)

While I have lived in the Asia Pacific region for over twenty years now, most of my experience has been with East Asia. I have lived in China for most of that time, except for five years in Australia, and I have also lived in or visited Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Until this year, my travels to other parts of Asia had been very limited to say the least. This year I experienced my first visits to Indonesia and India, the other two massive and extremely diverse countries in this part of the world. I also visited Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. 

Everywhere I went, I made an effort to visit local temples, markets, and other cultural sites and to interact with some local people whenever possible. I came out of the journey with an appreciation for how little I know about most of these countries and their histories, cultures, and languages—an embarrassing admission for an Asian Studies major! I also came out with a much deeper realization of how interconnected these places are, and how much cross-fertilization of Asian cultures and societies there is and has been for centuries if not millennia. In other words, you can’t really understand the individual cultures and societies (if individual is the right word for such great diversity) without understanding the others. To use the analogy of world historian William McNeill, it’s a web, a vast and deeply connected network of humanity, and not a discrete set of different entities that can be easily compartmentalized into countries and cultures.

A few years ago, while working for Boston University Study Abroad in Shanghai, I found that BU Study Abroad places a heavy emphasis on Europe, and especially on English-speaking countries. Their London program is by far the largest with several hundred students attending each semester, followed by programs in Australia and New Zealand. There are also relatively popular programs in Paris, Rome, and elsewhere in Europe, where at least the students get exposed to different languages and cultures. By contrast, we were struggling to get students to join our BU Shanghai program, and we tended to average only 15-20 students per semester. (This is also true of many other study abroad programs I’m familiar with in China). This was an uphill battle, since most of the resources of BUSA were dedicated to sending students to the UK, Europe, and Australia. BU had put enormous investments in building infrastructures for these sites and had to keep them filled. Other study abroad programs—and there are dozens of them for BU alone, which sends close to 3,000 students abroad each year—struggled to maintain even a small number of students.

I believe that BU is fairly typical of the way that US study abroad programs work in general. So why are study abroad programs so skewed towards this 19th-century model of learning, where one completed one’s education in the UK or continental Europe, where the seat of civilization was located—think Greece, Rome, Paris, London—and where the best universities were then located—think Germany? And why do so many American students choose to go to an English-speaking country for their study abroad experience? Also, why do more women choose study abroad programs than men? These were issues that my BUSA colleagues and I grappled with during our annual gatherings in Boston.

The fact is that not only is the global human population centered around Asia, but also the center of economic, and yes, even cultural gravity is shifting ever Asia-ward. There are many indicators out there to support this trend. And with 60 percent or more of the world’s population, Asia will also bear the brunt of the consequences of globalization, which include pollution—think of Chinese and Indian cities and rivers today—and environmental change—think of all the coastal cities and populations in this world region that will be affected by global warming and rising ocean levels. Meanwhile, in addition to the “China rising” story that is now pervasive in the global media, other Asian countries are also on the rise. Really, this is an “Asia rising” story, in which China just happens to be the biggest boat in the rising tide. 

In other words, if you want to know where the world is heading, Asia is the place to be. So why are so many American students still heading to Europe, the UK, or sunny Australia?

Certainly there is nothing wrong with American students studying abroad in the UK, in Europe, or even Australia. I taught for five years at UNSW in Sydney, and among my students were hundreds of US study abroad students, who had a great learning experience there while enjoying the beaches and the beer. The problem that I have with study abroad is not with students going to these places, but with the sheer numbers of students who choose these experiences above others. We need to seek a rebalance to these numbers, and we need to find ways to bring more students to Asia for their study abroad experience.

Another example is Duke University. Thus far, we have managed to attract around one or two Duke students per semester to our undergraduate Global Learning Semester at DKU, even though our facilities and our teachers are world class (many of them come from Duke, so needless to say). What does this situation say about the ability of a top-flight American university to send students abroad to learn about a very important part of the world? Of course Duke has other study abroad programs in Asia, including one in Beijing, but I’m willing to bet that the numbers of students coming here as opposed to Europe or Australia is comparable to those of BU and other American universities.

Is language the Great Wall that keeps us out of Asia?

Part of the problem with study abroad in Asia, particularly though not exclusively for China, is the sheer daunting task for people from Europe and America of learning Asian languages and cultures. All those strange scripts, and, for Chinese and other East Asian languages, those thousands of characters, require a great deal more effort than learning Spanish, French, or German! Not to mention all of the cultural and historical knowledge that one must absorb in order to really understand Asian societies. It seems that a Great Wall of language learning lies between American students and Asian societies and cultures—not so true perhaps for those Americans whose families are originally from Asia, but still intimidating nonetheless.

Thirty years ago, when I was a freshman at Dartmouth College, for some inexplicable reason, I chose to study Chinese language. I had no idea at the time what I was getting into, and certainly neither I nor anybody at that time could have predicted the extent of China’s rise in the world. My father recommended that I take French instead, citing the proverb “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. He warned me that it would take a lifetime to master this language, and indeed it has. Thankfully, I chose to ignore his advice and plowed onward, spending my first study abroad experience in Taiwan in the summer of 1988, where I studied Chinese language at the excellent Inter-University Program located on the campus of National Taiwan University. I then spent several months living on my own in Taipei, where I befriended many Taiwanese people and spoke Mandarin Chinese every day. 

To cap off my first study abroad experience, I ended up that winter traveling extensively in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and even Thailand. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and in many ways, it shaped the person I am today. This was just the beginning of a much longer and harder journey of learning. I went on to continue to learn Chinese language, literature, culture, and history at Dartmouth, and after graduating in 1991, I studied both Japanese and Chinese at Columbia, where I embarked on a PhD program in East Asian Languages and Cultures. I eventually returned to the IUP program (otherwise known as the Stanford Center) in Taipei for another year of intensive language training in 1993. Thus, it took several years for me to reach a level of functional fluency in the spoken and written Chinese language, while picking up Japanese along the way. 

Looking back on my own path of language learning, I wish I had done it another way. First, I should have taken Japanese at Dartmouth, since they began offering the language in my junior year in 1989. Then I could have had two Asian languages under my belt by the time I graduated from college. As everyone studying these languages knows, once you know Chinese, it’s relatively easy to learn Japanese because they share the same cognates, which known in Japanese as kanji, in Chinese as hanzi 汉字. Then at Columbia, the ground would have been cleared for me to study Korean as well. For the same reasons, and also because Korean grammar is roughly identical to Japanese, it would not have been difficult to pick up this third language. Doing so would have given me functionality if not total fluency in three important Asian languages. Every time I visit Korea, which is quite often these days, I regret not having studied Korean language, and I’m always flustered and stupefied by my inability to read the signs!

For those of us in the field of Asian Studies, I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree that we normally if unintentionally encourage our students to go deep into one language and culture at the expense of others. So we end up being either China specialists or Japan specialists, or more rarely, Korean specialists (this is very rare in my field, and usually only students of Korean heritage take that language). Others become South Asianists, or even more rarely, they focus on Southeast Asia. There is no question that the study of China dominates our field, followed by Japan, and then perhaps India (though I’m just speculating here based on my own observations).

Inspired by my recent travels, I believe that we ought to be encouraging Asian Studies majors to study more Asian languages and cultures and to study across national and regional boundaries, which are largely artificial to begin with.

Languages versus dialects

In the narrower field of Chinese studies, I believe we also do too little to encourage our students to study local dialects. While in Taiwan studying at the Stanford Center in 1993-1994, I chose to study Taiwanese language as well as Mandarin, and I also learned several Taiwanese folk songs. Taiwanese is really a version of a larger dialect from Fujian province known as Min nan yu 闽南语. While I wasn’t able to achieve any sort of fluency with just a few months of training, nevertheless learning a local or regional dialect gave me many additional insights into local cultures, opened up some interesting doors, and also made me appreciate more the enormous diversity of China. It also made it somewhat easier for me to pick up some of the local Shanghainese dialect (really a localized version of the regionalect of Wuyu 吴语)after I moved to this city, where I’ve been living off and on for the past twenty years. Having a Shanghainese wife and family helped as well and indeed made it a necessity to learn some Shanghai dialect, if only to understand what they were talking about at the dinner table!

The obvious dialect for us Chinese speakers to learn would be Cantonese 粤语 or 广东话, which spoken by hundreds of millions of people (a slight exaggeration perhaps, but well over 100 million) in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere around the world. I wonder why we don’t make more of a collective effort to do so, and to encourage our students to do so. Is it because learning Mandarin is hard enough, let alone a dialect? Is it because we insist upon students learning hundreds if not thousands of characters? 

Recently, Beijing-based China scholar David Moser, author of A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, gave a book talk at Duke Kunshan. One of the points he made was that we spend way too much time teaching foreign students to read and write Chinese. Perhaps if some of that effort were put to other purposes, such as training students in dialects, we could also accomplish the larger goal of broadening our students’ knowledge of China. I also sometimes wonder whether the effort to learn thousands of Chinese characters is really that worthwhile, especially since even seasoned China scholars don’t use the written language that often. Yes, many do so to read Chinese texts for research purposes, but precious few who aren’t Chinese to begin with actually write and publish in the Chinese language. And in a field in which native Chinese speakers are really beginning to dominate, and where hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are now studying in the USA which means that competition for jobs in Chinese language and culture studies will be even more severe for non-native Chinese learners in future, does it really make sense for the majority of non-native Chinese learners to spend so many years studying the characters?

At Duke Kunshan University where I now work, Dr. Donald Snow, Director of the DKU language and writing program, teaches our GLS academic writing course by focusing on the theme of language death. Don is a master Mandarin speaker (he’s lived here for 30 years now), and also a speaker of several dialects including Cantonese and Wuyu, and he is a firm believer in the need to preserve dialects or at least to spread awareness of the dialects and languages in China and around the world that are rapidly disappearing. So why are we Chinese studies folks focusing on learning Mandarin and not on other Chinese dialects, which are for most practical purposes, languages in their own right? In essence, we are perpetuating the national government’s drive to enforce Mandarin Chinese learning (not an unreasonable national goal given the size and linguistic diversity of the Chinese population) but also reinforcing the unintentional effect of erasing the enormous linguistic and cultural variety of China.

Why limit ourselves to one language, country, or region? Let’s learn other languages as well!

Since traveling to Thailand recently (next week will be my third visit there), I’ve taken an interest in picking up some Thai. I realize that I’ll never be able to achieve any sort of fluency unless I live in that country for a long time, which is unlikely. Yet it would enough for me to learn some basic grammar and vocabulary and to be able to read some words in the beautiful Thai script. So I picked up an introductory Thai language textbook and plan to learn a few things before I go back there next week. It won’t be much, but it’s a start.

While recruiting in Asia, I was assisted by officers who work for a company that specializes in recruiting students for American universities. Working closely with these officers, I came to appreciate their linguistic and cultural skills. One American officer in particular with whom I worked in Hong Kong particularly inspired me. He had learned Mandarin in college and speaks it well, and then while living in Hong Kong he went on to study Cantonese. I admired how he insisted on speaking Cantonese to everyone we met in Hong Kong, whether taxi drivers or restaurant folks, even though they often tried to switch to English on him. This kind of dogged persistence is what’s often required in a world where people of all backgrounds learn at least some English. 

It’s what I call “paddling against the current” or in Chinese Ni Liu Shang Shui 逆流上水. The global trend is for people to learn English. When they encounter somebody going the other direction—that is, a native English speaker learning another foreign language, particularly a relatively obscure dialect, they are usually thrown off at first. Some rise to the occasion, while others can’t process the dissonance. Learning dialects is even harder, because the bar is much higher (at least for Chinese—I can’t speak for others), since there are so many more tones and linguistic variations to master. It helps that the officer I speak of here studied linguistics in college. This gives him an edge in acquiring new languages. Later, I asked him how he goes about acquiring new languages. Here’s the advice he sent me:

I strongly suggest you take a look at italki.com which is a platform where you can have tutors/professional teachers help you learn or practice online. What's great about italki is that you can customize based on your preferred pricing and also schedule. I personally like going through textbooks on my own and then using italki to schedule practice sessions where I can speak freely or ask any questions. I also would greatly encourage using media (movies, tv shows) to work on listening. It's by getting hooked on a tv drama or other program that listening can improve very quickly.

There are many methods of acquiring new languages and dialects even without any formal training or study. I know many friends who picked up Chinese or Japanese on their own, just by living here and devoting time to study, though often they did so with a tutor. Of course, many people will joke about the need for a “living dictionary,” and having local girlfriends or boyfriends helps, but it isn’t a magic ticket to fluency as some might think, and the local boy or girl usually ends up learning a lot more English than you learn of their language, especially since they usually had a big head start studying English since they were small children. 

So there’s nothing left but the hard road of putting one’s nose to the grindstone and studying the language, and then going out there and Naoxiaohua 闹笑话 or make a fool of oneself for a while as one picks up the new grammar and vocabulary. I admit I’ve never learned a new language that way, but as I approach fifty, I’m adopting a new philosophy that it’s never too late to try.