Leslie Dong is a junior from the University of Colorado at Boulder and currently an academic year 2013-2014 participant in the CIEE Advanced Chinese Studies program at Peking University (PKU). Unlike language programs, ACS students enroll directly into one of PKU’s many departments taking undergraduate content courses in Mandarin Chinese, and indeed, to be successful, a participant must not only possess superior Chinese language skills, but also strong intercultural skills as well as the ability to adapt to new social environments all while navigating an academic environment that is much different than what they are used to at home. As she is majoring in International Relations, Leslie chose to enroll in the PKU School of International Studies. We asked her to talk about her experience in the program thus far, making comparisons to her academic experience in the US as well as what she.
Here is what she had to say.
It's like the first major exam during freshman year all over again. It's the same dread for the dark unknowns of the test, the same late-night cramming the night before, and the study sessions that only make you feel more nervous and unprepared. Much of all these sentiments are the same, only this time it's in a room filled with 300 elite Chinese students, at one of the most prestigious universities in China, and tackling a 2-hour written exam in complete Chinese. And did I mention that this midterm is worth 30% of our overall grade and the final is worth 70%? Well, then welcome to my life at Peking University this semester! As stressful and emotionally-draining as this may seem, I've waited for this opportunity for a very long time and have never regretted my decision in enrolling in CIEE's Advanced Chinese Studies (ACS) Program at Peking University. Despite having lived in China for 3 years of my life and devoting an additional year to studying Chinese at Tsinghua University, another top university in China, I still felt so unprepared and incompetent when I first started taking International Affairs classes alongside Peking University students. Thankfully, my CIEE tutors and CIEE-taught writing course have made handling coursework a bit less daunting, but as I like to think about it, with greater challenges, comes even greater rewards. Up to this point in the semester, to me, the two most meaningful things thus far have been experiencing firsthand, the differences between Chinese and American universities (through frustrating at times). The second has been getting a chance to understand a subject from a different point of view, shaped by dynamic factors like history, politics, and cultural identity – something I surely would not have been able to achieve by sitting in classroom in Boulder.
In terms of class organization, China and the US both have professors and TAs, but that may be where the similarities stop! In the US, for example, classes tend to be very efficient and student-centered with the focus being on teaching content effectively and clearly. An average undergraduate 4-credit course in the United States is likely to meet 2-3 times a week for approximately an hour or so. Although each class session is relatively short, professors tend to be very organized and can efficiently disseminate large amounts of information within a short amount of time. For large lectures with 150 or more students, the classes are often broken up in discussion sections where students receive more individualized assistance in reviewing the class material. The repeated meetings during the week also help cement a student's understanding of a subject.
In my time at PKU, on the other hand, an average 4-credit course will only meet once a week for 3 hours straight in the same room with the same professor. Additionally, there aren't organized discussion sections for lectures with more than 150 students and thus, the responsibility of learning the material clearly rests on students’ shoulders, having to do all of the assigned readings and learn the entire semester's class material on their own. Chinese university students – my classmates – have grown up in this environment and are accustomed to exams where there is no partial credit, and consequently, have adapted to being extremely precise and detailed in their studies.
So how do the professor’s teach? Well, it is different than the US system in myriad ways. What surprised me and other foreign classmates was that while professors have more time to explain class material, compared to my classes in the US, the pace of the class is often very slow and sometimes seems to be unrelated to our readings. Instead of teaching material that I feel is relevant to the class, most professors spend the entire class time lecturing on different topics, going off tangents, or just voicing their own personal opinions about a subject. While this is indeed valuable as I’ll talk about below, some professors may never teach what will be tested on both the midterm and finals. I definitely have found this to be the case in some of my classes, and indeed, it has been a challenge in adjusting!
To be honest, coming from the US academic environment, the academic experience and uncertainty, for example, trying to figure out when my final exam is, or what will be on said final exam, can be downright frustrating sometimes. However, coming abroad and experiencing the same thing as I did in the US would be a waste of my time, and although it has challenged me, I know that it ultimately has been rewarding. One experience that has stuck with me was during a class in modern Chinese history, and the in-depth examinations of history we cover in our class. As an International Relations major, we come to realize that history is subjective and is something that is defined given current political climates for the needs of the time. Thus, what I study in the US will have biases or focus on certain aspects of history that perhaps someone in China would downplay or view as irrelevant. While Chinese professors and courses may provide many challenges and may sometimes seem dry, the experience I lay out below was anything but.
As I stared at my professor, I realized that I was traversing history simply by being in this room. Not only was I staring into Peking University's past, I was also peering into the scholarly side of modern Chinese history. I started to wonder how many people that have changed the course of Chinese history started their careers in this room, or better yet, right in my chair.
I listened attentively to my professor talk about China's engagement in the Korean War. But he would always catch me off guard whenever his Fujianese accent surfaced up or when he threw in a few professional terms or slang jokes that I just could not understand. While the entire class would burst out in laughter, I glanced over at other foreign students and exchanged looks of confusion. Even after a few months of class, these moments still made me feel like I was playing a game of hopscotch, skipping across select words or phrases trying to maintain balance and understanding the gist of what he was saying.
But nevertheless, these things never masked the liveliness and the humanness that my professor was able to give to history. While it is impossible for any foreign policy course to cover all the details and complexities of history, my professor chose to focus on explaining the decision-making processes that lead up to the Korean War instead of the major events during the war. So for two and a half months, he explained China's involvement through a use of stories, narratives, telegrams, and conference minutes. Not only did he uncover the complexities and underlying currents that create history, he also restored color and animation to the “意识形态” or the ideas, beliefs, and aspirations of that era. For the first time in my entire college career, I felt like I was living history, breathing in the traumas of the age and finally thinking in the shoes of the Chinese people.
With a better understanding of the China's psychology, I started to reexamine and reinterpret the Korean War. While the United States believed that it was against China's interests to intervene in Korea, my professor illustrated that from the Chinese perspective, intervention was perfectly rational. As the United States carried out its policy of containment, it unknowingly made itself a direct threat to China's borders. By providing aid to Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and the Taiwan Strait, the United States had surrounded China from three different directions and was rapidly increasing its influence in these areas.
He continued telling us that in addition, the United States also lacked a general understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and ideologies that characterized China at that time. For example, the United States underestimated China's resolve to intervene and ignored China's warning about not crossing the 38th parallel. What the United States did realize was that this was a direct insult to the Chinese people. Despite being destroyed by decades of political unrest, consecutive wars, and social instability, China was tired of being victimized and humiliated. The United States' actions as a result, motivated the entire Chinese society to go to war. A closer and deeper understanding of the Chinese psychology or 意识形态 (ideology) has enlightened me in the events of history as well as China's view of the world. And while a psyche of an era, a society, and a generation of people is the hardest thing to recreate in a classroom, I think it is by far the most important thing to take away. Historic events will pass, generations will move on, but the psychology of a nation will be inherited and continue to play a role in the course of history.
Though I still face challenges and find myself comparing US and Chinese education systems, only by stepping into the shoes of the Chinese and examining their perspective, could I gain a more complete and genuine understanding of the world. As an International Relations major, this is absolutely crucial to understand different points of view. By having my professor paint a literal tapestry of Chinese history, one that I can compare to the one I have painted in my US education, I have gained knowledge that perhaps may not show up on a midterm grade, but that will stay with me for the rest of my life.