Monday, December 20, 2010

English and Chinese Languages

In 1991 2000 foreigners were studying Mandarin Chinese. In 2005, there were 117, 600 studying the Chinese language. Interest in Mandarin Chinese is growing at a tremendous rate. Deborah Fallows, author of the recently published book, DREAMING IN CHINESE: MANDARIN LESSONS IN LIFE, LOVE, AND LANGUAGE (Walker Publishing 2010), shows us that learning a language is also learning a people. Studying how a culture forms words also shows you how a people form the culture. And this language study is worth pursuing.

Learning this language has had its challenges for me. I remember the time I was leading worship in the small chapel outside Taipei city and in a great moment of Christian, liturgical energy on an early Sunday morning, I admonished those 20 faithful worshippers to stand up, greet the new day, and worship the pig. The Chinese word for "Lord" and "pig" are the same sound, differing by only one tone! They all laughed and so did I when I realized my error. More stories abound about my language errors. Will save them for later and some for my own personal diary!!

I am filled with deep gratitude for my Chinese language teachers both past and present. For my teachers at the Taipei Language Institute (TLI), Wang Taitai, Lyou Taitai, and so many others. For my honorable teacher and dear dear sister-friend, Tung Yi Ping, who now lives in New Jersey and still helps me with my language while I watch over her precious daughter, Justine, a first year student at Wake Forest. For the Chinese language professors at Wake Forest, Professor Shi, chair of the East Asian Language Department, and Professor Hu, a recent addition to our faculty, I am especially thankful. I have been able to audit Mandarin language courses at Wake Forest this fall and will continue to do so in the spring.

In 1977 when I first moved to Taipei Taiwan I went to visit a missionary friend who was soon retiring after over 30 years of work in Taiwan. I walked into her home, saw the packing boxes all around, and noticed the dining room table where language books were scattered around and her Chinese language teacher was giving one more lesson in the language. Learning Chinese takes a long long time. Learning to speak in simple conversation, however, takes only a few months. For those of us watching this sleeping lion, Jung Gwo (China), wake up to the modern realities of a global market and politics, it is certainly worth pursuing. For those of us who want to understand a group of people so that we can better understand ourselves, it is absolutely necessary!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Courage to Learn!

I believe that education is one of the most important gifts that we can give the next generation. But for many people, that gift has been given with a tremendous sacrifice. I carry in my mind and heart so many stories of education and sacrifice that I heard while traveling in China this month.

I remember the student who told me about how his grandparents, both honored scholars and teachers, suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. His grandfather, a Chinese scholar, was killed by young soldiers--students of his grandmother. When the young student soldiers realized that they had killed the husband of their esteemed and honored teacher, they begged for her forgiveness, weeping and falling prostrate in front of her house in deep sorrow for what they had done. This grieving widow, an esteemed Chinese teacher, had a choice as she faced her own students, the murderers of her husband, at the front door of her house. She could choose to resent them forever and not forgive them for their actions, choosing to live the rest of her days in anger and resentment, or to forgive them and keep open the path of acceptance open for the generations to follow. She forgave them. She survived this difficult time in China's history by forgiving her own students who had murdered her own husband. What courage! Although her own children would not have access to the educational opportunities that she had in her own generation, her grandchildren would. And she would make sure that it happened. And now, her grandson who tells me this story is preparing to come to the USA to study to honor his grandparents and their love for education.

His grandmother, still active in the leading the family, organizes her family members, gathers all of the family financial resources, prepares her family to make additional sacrifices in order to educate the next generation. This family now is preparing to send the third generation, her bright young grandson, who brings such great honor to the family by choosing the scholarly profession of the family, to the United States to study.

Education takes courage! The opportunity to study is not to be taken for granted. May we remember the sacrifices others have made for us so that we could have the opportunity to study and learn.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Freedom to Choose

There is a deep mystery here--accordion sounds outside the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. Wish that you could have heard it! Wish that I had recorded it these happy and familiar sounds.

This instument, as some of you know, is my personal instrument of choice. Much maligned here in the USA by its immigrant status, the accordion has been the musical backdrop for waves of Irish immigrants in the early 1800s, for Germans, for Italians, for Russians. And now I discovered an accordion ensemble at one of most ancient holy sites in Beijing, China! I think that the reason that I love this instrument above all other instruments is simply because I can freely move around when I am playing it.

Unlike the baby grand piano in my music room, I do not have to be confined to one place, limited to making sounds while sitting on the piano bench. With my accordion around my neck, I can move around freely, mingle among the crowds, sing to a special friend in another corner of the room, and stand where ever I please. There is a wonderful freedom in making music with this little squeeze box on my shoulders. I can make music anywhere!

And so it is with American education. Our educational destiny in our wonderful country is not simply confined to a particular test score, geographical location, or government decision. People who live in the west can study in the east. People who spend their childhood in the north can become college students in the south. And students who study hard in high school can choose to go to school anywhere---a community college, a private liberal arts college with a denominational heritage, or a large public research university. Our destiny is not determined by a high school test.

It is in China, however. Your choice of school, your job, your destiny hinges on one test taken at the end of high school--the "gaukau--the high test." That little number manages your future. A certain number on that test determines how you will spend the rest of your life. The pressure is great. The challenges are real. And that is why so many Chinese high school students are choosing to consider the USA as a place to study because we still hold on dearly to our precious gift to one another and the world--the cherished freedom of choice. The ability to choose our own destiny is based on the level of our own industry, our passion, our love to go or stay, our personal sense of mission. With over 4000 top-rated US colleges and universities in the world, we have a choice in determining where we will study, what we will do, and who we will be with the rest of our life. And for that freedom, I am so very thankful. And for those Chinese students who want to join us in our educational centers, we say welcome. Come shape your destiny here and return to your country with an education that will help you forge your own country's future. Perhaps our understanding of our cherished freedom of choice just might be contagious.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Compact Contradictions--China and WFU

Mandarin Chinese is so nimble and so deep. The language forms new words by combination of several existing words. For example, when the steam engine train was introduced to China, the name in Chinese was simply, "fire car--hwo che". Or take the English word "computer", for example. The computer is not a Chinese invention but yet is not given a foreign word like "computer." Rather the language wrapped an even more interesting set of meanings around this new concept and called the machine that I am using right now this minute, "an electric brain--dyan nyau." The language is nimble.

Mandarin Chinese is also deep. The language can take two opposite forces, antonyms or compact contradictions, and form a new meaning while holding the opposition. The basic assumption is the Chinese understanding of yin and yang, which is the basic assumption of Chinese philosophy--that life is lived within the balance of feminine and masculine, moon and sun, passive and active, etc.

While traveling recently in China, I kept a log of those words that hold these opposing forces in tandem, like dung (east) and syi (west) form dungsyi (which means thing or matter); or hao (good) and hwai (bad) form haohwai (which means quality); or dzou (left) with you (right) form dzouyou (which means approximately, nearly or about). In other words, two opposing words come together to make meaning.

Wake Forest University also describes itself using words that are nimble and deep--compact contradictions. Wake Forest University is a collegiate-university ( a college and a university, small in size but large in resources. Wake Forest University believes in the teacher-scholar model ( a faculty member who has the ability to communicate knowledge in the classroom as well as produce new knowledge). Wake Forest affirms the liberal arts tradition while embracing professional education.

And so we go---learning about life, language, and strong universities with the power of opposites.
May we be as nimble and deep in our own personal understanding of our world.


Another opportunity to be in China and I am so thankful. I will have much to tell you in the next few days while I reflect on all that I saw and experienced.
The trip began in Beijing-my first time to visit this important governmental city. I could not believe that I was standing in Tienamen Square. I stood there and remembered those days in 1989 when this place became known to the world. This spot has been important for Chinese history for several thousand years and continues to be a place that is honored and remembered for many many reasons. I joined the massive crowds as we walked around this place and remembered. In the next few days, while still on Asian time, I hope to reflect on all that I saw and note it here. I spent 15 days in China on this trip--four in Beijing, 10 in Guangdong province, and 1 day in Hong Kong before leaving to return home for Christmas. I met with so many Chinese young people, listened to their plans for their future, their love of their country, visited high schools, public and private, and colleges and universities. I know of their desire for excellence in education. A thirst for knowledge is a part of their past and will be an important part of their future. I have many impressions. More to come.