Teaching Chinese overseas from a multicultural perspective | Horng-En Wang

Published (HKT): 2021.04.14 09:35

Last week, I was invited by a university on the East Coast of the U.S. to participate virtually in a Chinese Mandarin course. The class focus for the week was on cross-Strait politics and Washington’s cross-Strait policy. I used academic surveys in Taiwan and China over the past 20 years and shared how the people of Taiwan and China view each other. In the end, I had students discuss in Chinese over what the cross-Strait interactions will look like in the future. Although it was a language class, the English-speaking students showed strong interest in cross-Strait politics, asking questions over Taiwan’s status as a nation, Taiwan’s popular baseball sport, and how people on both sides view a reunified China.

“Why does a language class have to be political?” It is no surprise that most of the textbooks for U.S. university Mandarin Chinese courses feature Pinyin along with simplified Chinese characters. However, many of them mention Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional Chinese characters. And some of the expressions are different across the Strait, like 打車(call a taxi) in China in oppose to 搭車 (take a taxi) in Taiwan. Such comparisons mainly appear in the textbooks compiled with the help of Taiwanese professors to achieve a balance.

Help understand the cultural differences in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

However, if you flip through the textbooks, you will find that many of them feature a large map of the People’s Republic of China on the back cover, including Taiwan and the nine-dash line’s territorial claim in the South China Sea in its control. Some textbooks list the translation of each province, and Taiwan is one of the provinces. None of the textbooks, whether deliberately or not, mentions the political relationship between China and Taiwan. Instead, they consistently highlight different lexicons and written characters in both places since 1949. Why different? No explanations. Many American university students lack the motivation and find it a hassle to learn one more version of expressions.

How to improve motivation? Of course, it is unrealistic to expect learners around the world to study only Zhuyin and traditional Chinese. Nor does it make sense to use Chinese textbooks to promote Taiwan. Despite the pressure, teachers from Taiwan can at least explain briefly in class why the written characters are different after 1949. They can also find a way to explain, from a multicultural perspective, the cultural differences across the Strait, including election campaigns, baseball, boba milk tea, public opinion, gay marriage and beyond. In fact almost all Chinese textbooks include Chinese culture and thought in their content, like filial piety, marriage, higher education exams and others. Offering students a way to understand the cultural differences in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan may help increase their motivation to learn different expressions.

At the very least, teachers can remain academically neutral while explaining that not everyone agrees with PRC’s map featuring the nine-dash line and Taiwan under its control. This is not an exclusively China-Taiwan issue. I was invited last week to give a speech in the aforementioned Mandarin learning course, where the multicultural approach did work well.

China is increasing its crackdown on academic freedom, from pressuring journals not to publish articles on the Tiananmen Square massacre and Taiwan, to forcing academic papers submitted by Chinese scholars to attach a map incorporating the nine-dash line and Taiwan, to recent sanctions against Western academics and institutions (which led to a joint declaration of protest from thousands of scholars and think tanks), to the closure of the Universities Service Center for China Studies (heralded as the Mecca of Chinese Studies) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to the description of the Sunflower Movement as a racial conflict in academic papers and beyond. In such a climate, pursuing and sustaining academic diversity is the only way to achieve what is called academic neutrality.

Chinese teachers from Taiwan are in short supply

The U.S. political climate offers a better prospect for Taiwan’s teachers to teach Chinese in America. Over the past decade, Beijing has spent more than $100 million to support the Confucius Institutes in the U.S. universities, once over 100 such centers established in the U.S. But according to the estimates by non-profit organizations, only about 50 Confucius Institutes are left in the U.S. as of March 2021 while over 500 Confucius Institute-related agencies remain running in elementary and secondary schools. Despite the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, the demand for Chinese language courses at all levels remains high. In many of English-Chinese bilingual schools where a two-way immersion approach is adopted, there is a high demand for teachers. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) announced earlier this year that 60 Taiwanese Chinese teachers would be coming to the U.S., but the shortfall is still there.

Last week, a number of Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to boost U.S.-Taiwan educational partnership to teach Mandarin on college campuses in the hope they can take the place of Confucius Institutes. De-facto Ambassador to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-Khim supported this proposal. In a recent meeting by a Washington-based think tank, the one who liaised with the White House specifically mentioned the White House’s desire to develop more talents who can speak Chinese or other Asian languages. After the pandemic is under control, those who are interested in going to the U.S. can pay more attention to the new opportunities.

(Austin Horng-En Wang/Assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. )

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