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December 16, 2009

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Advice to expat learners: be sensitive but get a thick skin

SHANGHAI had 34,886 foreign students in 2007 and every year more learners are drawn to the cosmopolitan financial hub of 18.88 million souls. Despite the modernity and Western facades, it takes some getting used to.

Some jump in with both feet, some find security in the expat "bubble," some ponder the mysteries of Chinese society over a warming bowl of 6-yuan (88 US cents) noodles and consider each little cultural collision an opportunity to learn. Everybody loves the food.

Be sensitive but develop a thick skin is the advice of Christine Tan, a Malaysian-Chinese studying for her master's degree in communications at Fudan University.

"Try to pick up on people's facial expressions and the tone of their voice - if something displeases them, very rarely do they voice it," she says. "Plus, little things, like commenting on your hair, age or job, may be deemed rude or insensitive where we are from, but here those comments are often thought of as observations, not criticisms or attacks."

For her, being a Westerner or other foreigner in China could be difficult, even in a sophisticated "Westernized" city.

"I feel that I automatically entered the expat club even if I don't want to be the stereotypical expatter who only hangs around other expats in an English-speaking circle," says Tan who speaks some Chinese.

As much as she wants to make local friends and live more like a local, it's almost impossible without a more advanced grasp of the language.

"It's too easy to feel lonely and alienated and thus seek out more people like yourself: foreigners in Shanghai," she says.

For Julia (not her real name), an Italian-American who studied Chinese language in Tianjin and spent two consecutive summers teaching English in Shanghai, the biggest challenge was finding the space for thinking outside the box and being creative.

"In China, that (kind of thinking) is not really rewarded, so I always had a hard time with 'being on the same wagon as everyone else.' I posed too many questions, I was too critical," she says. "In the classroom, I often pushed some more controversial subjects; sometimes I would directly talk to my students about different education systems. And at times at work I had to 'follow the book' or be boring and too repetitive."

This observation about Chinese reserve and not airing critical points of view was shared by other foreign students at Fudan University who were interviewed for this article.

A number declined to speak candidly on the record; some marveled at the restraint and the quietness of their Chinese peers.

One ex-UC Berkeley student says she was "surprised by how sheltered many Chinese students are, how stereotypes from a history mired in complex past still factor into a need for a stronger learning."

As Julia and other foreign students found, the teaching style they have experienced in China has been very narrative, repetitive and rarely infused with debate.

"Chinese students are more content to sit back and have material delivered to them; they tend to be more 'obedient' and absorb what they are being taught without comebacks or questions, or if they have questions they don't voice them," Tan says.

For Dr Meng Bingchun, a lecturer at the London School of Economics who has studied in China and the United States, educational exchanges with the West are crucial in helping to improve the learning environment and encouraging Chinese students to ask more questions.

"It is also good to see Chinese Western-educated professors going back and taking Western styles with them, not in terms of the West as being superior, but the interaction is helpful to allow Chinese students to step back and question many previous assumptions."

But in any case, Shanghai has no shortage of reverse traffic. Julia observes that "it was great to re-invent yourself and live outside the confines that are set when you live in the same place for too long." Another American student says: "Culturally, just by living in any foreign country, you gain a better understanding about it and about yourself."

Meanwhile, Chinese-American Sarah (not her real name), a Fudan post-graduate student in communications, admits she and her course mates had assumed their dual-degree program would pose few surprises.

"These aren't our first degrees," she says, "but the system is totally different, none of us have our feet under us yet."

What she had at first perceived to be administrative inefficiency was in fact Chinese politeness, she says, noting that sometimes she received no response rather than a negative, but necessary, response.

Yet, these initial culture shocks are to be expected for Westerners and other foreigners reorienting themselves in the different world of China.

Some students were expecting Shanghai to be far more like their former stomping grounds of London, Los Angeles and a host of other cities. One example is the barrage of stares received from locals, from the supermarket to the Metro and everywhere else in between.

One Hong Kong student reflects: "There's always a part of me that's the 'other.' It felt very out of the blue ... You'd expect that people would be used to new faces, it's 2009!"

Sarah, the Chinese-American, was not expecting general administrative inefficiencies in her daily life, from running errands to going to the bank.

"You see all this structure and modernity just from driving through Shanghai. This is what is being sold to you, the idea that Shanghai is every other cosmopolitan city in the world. But living here, what you see is not what you get. It's a facade of modernity on a very traditional China."

In handling these surprises, it can become all too easy to fall into an expat bubble of Western bars, clubs, shops and media, and dismissively moan about the cultural difficulties encountered daily.

A French economics student, who has spent two years studying both in Hong Kong and Shanghai, says: "Something I can't bear with the Chinese is the impoliteness," referring to the usual complaints: spitting, shoving, queue-jumping, littering.

Tan, the Malaysian Chinese, says: "I read that people are very warm, but only after they learn a bit more about you, get to know you for more than 15 minutes; they are not interested in being civil to a complete stranger."

But, for Tan in particular, who is familiar with Chinese customs, this can be handled again by being sensitive to local customs but also having a thick skin when interacting with locals.

Julia says: "The key is to keep an open mind and not place Western standards or judgments on everything. It is too easy to be critical from an outsider's perspective."

Shanghai is indeed booming and setting the standard for China's modernization, but does so at its own pace. The Western way is not the only way.

In some areas, meanwhile, there were few surprises. "I expected the food to be excellent," Tan says. The hole in the wall serving a batch of eight dumplings for 3 yuan, 6 yuan lamb skewers and huge bowls of steaming noodles that abound have provided much comfort in patience-testing times.

In the midst of acclimatizing difficulties, the students interviewed all wanted to be able to look back fondly on their years in Shanghai. Julia expressed her desire to "be involved in the growth phase of a new up and coming world power. It is an exciting time!"

Although few people can be prepared for the intensity of a city like Shanghai, by approaching it with an open mind and a cultural awareness that there's a method behind every madness, the road of culture shock will be a lot less bumpy.

In the meantime, hunkering down in dumpling houses and escaping the bitter chill seems a good way of reflecting and warming up.


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