Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Will Americans ever learn Chinese? Or any other language?

In recent years the amount of Chinese language teaching in schools in the world increased from zero to a few percent. In the US there is a lot of public opinion about teaching children and teenagers Chinese - know your enemy (just like learning Russian during the Cold War, learning Japanese in the 80s and learning Arabic after 9/11).

The New York Times recently covered this subject in an online debate.
The debate's main outcome was that it is questionable that Chinese language will be succesful as America is strongly monolingual and language learning is not as important as math or science.

Apart from this argument however, there are a few other things to consider. First of all, the level of language teaching in the US is not very high. There are no experts in teaching Chinese language at all, so through contacts with China and Hanban, Chinese teachers are imported along with their archaic teaching methods. If I have come to realize one thing over the past years, it is that the Chinese teaching system and way of learning, does not work for European (or American) pupils. Cultural differences such as teacher-student hierarchy, individualism, etc are all part of the game here.

Therefore, huge developments are still necessary for teaching Chinese to children. I am not sure it is worth the investment. Why?

First of all, English is still the dominant language in the world.

Second, although basic Chinese grammar is fairly easy, Chinese is not an easy language to learn. One has to learn to pronounce and recognize four tones and learn to read and write the Chinese characters. The Chinese pronunciation and writing system severely limits Chinese as an active language. It is almost impossible to successfully adapt loan words and new characters cannot be invented.

Third, in comparison it is easier for Chinese people to learn English, especially because currently language learning starts at a young age in China. If most Chinese in the academic and business community already speak English, it is not really necessary for all these American kids to learn Chinese, or is it?

Fourth, it may all just be a hype. Yes, China is important and will be important, but so are Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Arabic World. And we will see more of India, Vietnam, South Africa and Nigeria in the years to come.

Finally, many university students successfully learn Chinese in their Asian Studies curriculum. They are driven by the joy of learning, the fascination of the far eastern culture and the love of knowledge. These motivate them to continuous efforts on a daily basis to apprehend this language and culture fully.

Based on these arguments, I belief that it is not worth the million dollar investment needed to bring Chinese language to the American school curriculum. I also belief, that without a deep fascination for this vast and fascinating different culture, learning Chinese (or any other language) is of no direct use. Language and culture are so intertwined in China, you need to appreciate both to understand and learn the language. Simply shipping your kid to a bilingual school will be of no use at all. Americans seem to be proud of their international ancestry, but seldom do you see immigrants learn their mother language. Why not send your kids to Russian, German, French, Dutch or Gaelic classes to learn more about their own background and culture?

Chinese schools already do exist successfully in the US, for the children of Chinese immigrants who hold on to their history and culture while also learning to adapt to their new homeland. I recommend that American parents who want their children to learn more than one language, should refer to the language and culture of their ancestors first. If a fascination with China does develop at a later age, the child can make its own commitment to learning Chinese, many have done this successfully before by attending classes in China for one or two years or studying Sinology at university.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Liberty - a human right?

Recently I visited Philadelphia, a beautiful city with enormous historical significance: here the first ideas of an independent United States were voiced, which led to the declaration of independence, the revolutionary war and the first constitution of the United States. The leaders in this period were enlightened for their time - and would probably be so still in our age - they believed in the power of the people and liberty. Liberty, such a simple word, so many interpretations. US History can be proud of its independence and its constitution, but what does it mean to live in the land of the free? What does freedom mean to the Americans? And is it so different to what freedom means to others? How about China?

There are many monuments to Liberty in the Eastern US. The Statue of Lady Liberty and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia are probably the most famous.

There is a famous poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus, called The New Colossus, which inspired me to think about this topic:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates she shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips, "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse from your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Philadelphia's famous father of the city, Benjamin Franklin, said They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. I learned a lot about Benjamin Franklin and some of his famous colleagues from the revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Richard Stockton and so on, and it opened my eyes to some fundamental US values, that are universal, but were voiced out and acted upon in the US before anywhere else in what I would like to call our modern age (I guess starting in the 1600s until now).

So what does it mean to live in the land of the free? For many years, it was a haven to immigrants, people starting anew, building their own fortune, this we came to know as the American Dream. However, not all achieved the dream. Nowadays, especially in the large cities, I see a lot of poverty and bad health. I also see charity, but is it freedom to be homeless?

What about China? Up to the 19th Century China was ruled by Imperial Dynasties. Most Chinese were farmers or merchants, few were officials or civil servants. Liberty in this period is hard to judge for me. In the later Ming Dynasty (16th Century) the first Westerners came to China, leading to trade without trust and understanding and to two Opium Wars that left China defeated and humiliated. In 1912 the Chinese Republic was announced under leadership of Sun Yat-Sen and later Chiang Kai-shek. This was a turbulent time, with a growing communist revolution, a Japanese invasion and a civil war that ended in the so-called Liberation by Mao Zedong. What the Chinese people had to live through since the late 19th Century was nothing compared to the hardship under the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In 1976 with the death of Chairman Mao an era ended in which the people had been at the whim of Emperors, War Lords, Presidents, Invaders, and Tyrants.

The Great Reforms of 1978 allowed farmers to sell above quota produce at local markets, allowed farmers and workers to conduct economic activities and start businesses and allowed foreign parties to trade in Special Economic Zones. A beginning was made in what we now have come to know as the Chinese Miracle. To become rich was more important than sharing poverty. Wealth has brought freedom to many Chinese people, although those who have built the economy - the farmers - are again the poorest and least free in China.

The differences between the rich and the poor are enormous in modern China, most urban Chinese who have a medium-high level education and a job will say that they are free - free to spend their money, to travel, to eat well, to be healthy. Freedom means that they are less at the whim of their rulers, who have outsmarted their people with a successful sunshine policy. Nationalism is on the rise, the Olympic Games took away many basic rights from the people in Beijing - such as driving a car three days a week and a crackdown on civil activities and journalism, however, on the surface no Chinese complained. Those who did either had to move out of China, send secret copy to blogs and foreign newspapers and were labeled dissidents. For most farmers, this was of no interest, they combated drought, flood or illness and their voices are not heard.

But what to do about it? The rich are the powerful, they all accept the status quo, they call themselves free, because they have a better life than their parents, they close their eyes to the poor and the ill and share in the nationalist pride of the Olympic Games, the Asian Games, the Shanghai Expo. I do believe that for many Chinese this is really all the freedom they need, but...

...is it fair, that if you want something else? If you want to write about atrocities, about crackdowns on minorities, about civil sorrows, health care, and above all corruption, that you will not be able to do so without consequences? The US are the foremost fighter for the free in the world (even though this has meant invading sovereign countries in the past...let history judge their actions) and they are being ignored by an ever growing China, a China that wants to keep the power in the hand of the communist party above all.

And is that bad? Do we want a China that loses control? Do we dare to risk world stability to that? I fear that we are close to a US - China stand off. This stand off is not wanted by the American people, it is not wanted by the Chinese people, it is not wanted by the people of the world.

So maybe we should accept our interpretations of liberty for the time being. Let us foremost be free of worries and strive and whims of our leaders. That is true liberty.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Politics: Guanxi and Sponsorship

I visited Washington DC for the first time end of December. I toured the Capitol, visited the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and of course had a look at the White House. I toured the national Air & Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of National History.

Visiting Washington DC was quite an eye opener. Such a city, such importance, such political and state history (albeit a short history). The White House is actually quite smaller than expected - I guess the name and the office are so great, one would expect the White House to be some kind of grand palace, it is no more than a very big mansion.

So, politics. Trying to fit American and Chinese politics in so many words on this blog. I am quite sure I don't grasp everything, especially about American politics, but some things are not so different as they seem. In the US it is very expensive to run for a government position (senator, governor, congress, president) and maybe just as expensive to stay in office. You need many funds to run campaigns and to inform your voters and the public on your efforts to represent them in Washington or in the respective State Capital. Also, through sponsoring organizations or companies can be part of a campaign or political development. As far as I can see there are very few limitations to sponsoring campaign, representatives or political parties, although there are some, especially with regard to foreign funds. (See this article about an Indonesian Sponsor to the Clinton Presidency in today's Washington Post).

In China many important decisions from local to national level are also influenced by many actors and stakeholders, often referred to as guanxi (关系). Chinese politics and lobbying can be far more subtle than the American capitalist approach, especially because as soon as funds are exchanged one talks about corruption, which is in many cases a capital offense. The problem of corruption is big and real (in both the US and China) and the thin line between influence, endorsements and extortion, corruption is not easily defined.

Then, what really is this guanxi? Many Chinese, researchers and other experts have tried to explain this before. I like to give my contribution as well:

Guanxi: Linguistically in modern Chinese one can translated it as "relation(s)". The word consists of two compounds guan and xi, which I would describe to you meaning "close; inside" and "ties, bindings". It binds two people to what was discussed behind closed doors or it ties a group of people to each other as if the belong to the same 'house'. In modern China most of the results of guanxi that you see are polite exchanges: if you do something for me (i.e. pay for my dinner), I will do something for you next time (i.e. pay for your lunch). My opinion is that Chinese have a very strong sense of obligation towards people (friends, family, strangers) that have supported them in any way or have promised support for a future moment. If you have a good relationship with a Chinese counterpart, it is good to know that they always keep their word and will go out of their way to help you if you have provided support in the past (or promised your support in the future). This can make dealings with China somewhat complicated - you should really keep track of your guanxi. It can help you, but misused it can work against you!

Now, on a larger political level, the inner chambers of Chinese politics are also governed by guanxi, combined with any relationships that your family members or other friends have. A lobby through guanxi offering an important status or success can be just as valuable as outright corruption. Of course, paying somebody off or extorting somebody also establishes guanxi.

I am looking forward to learning more of the American guanxi system over the next years or so!