The below article was written for the Fall/Winter 2018 Newsletter for Applied Engineering, Safety & Technology Department.
Ni Hao! Sad to say – my Chinese extends not far beyond “hello”, but thank goodness for Google Translate! I needed it, having spent seven weeks last summer in the Peoples Republic of China – five as a visiting instructor and two more weeks touring.
The opportunity to teach in China came about through a cooperative exchange program between Millersville University, the China Center for International Educational Exchange, and host institutions in China. As the first MU faculty member to be offered a position through CCIEE, I traveled to China with little knowledge of what to expect and much anticipation. After a fourteen-hour flight to Beijing, and soon after, another three- hour flight south, I was within an hours drive to my final destination, Huaqiao University (HQU) in Quanzhou, the Fujian province. Up to this point, I had no direct contact or communication with anyone at the university. To my delight, upon arriving at the Xiamen airport, students greeted me with a welcome sign, big smiles, and fortunately, good command of English. These were my students. It was 1:00 pm, I was still jet lagged, and they informed me that we had class that evening at 6. But “you could cancel”, they said – I declined, and met the rest of my 32 students that evening.
The HQU campus and the cultural change were daunting at first. With a student assigned as my assistant to help me get settled, and another as my academic liaison, I quickly learned to navigate the HQU campus and academic policies and procedures. With an enrollment of about 23,000 students in undergraduate through doctoral level offerings, HQU is considered of medium size in China, and is rather self-contained. The campus offered multiple dining facilities each specializing in different, mostly Asian, cuisines. Shops of all types, a small supermarket, personal care establishments, coffee bistros, shoe and leather repair are all within the campus walls. Besides students, nearly all faculty, staff and administrators live on campus, most in rented apartments, with some privately owned. My campus apartment was spacious and a short walk to my classroom building. While I always believed MU to have a beautiful campus, and still do, the HQU campus was especially picturesque and manicured with lakes, pedestrian bridges, flowers, banyan, mango and jackfruit trees, many tranquil pathways and a hiking trail up and around the nearby mountain.
I was assigned to International Business department, teaching a required Production and Operations Management course to sophomores. All IB students are required to speak English and many of their classes are taught in English. While there are similarities to my teaching experiences at MU, there were some differences as well – including a 10-minute break for every 50 minutes of instruction, sounded by loud bells. Other differences included the cameras in the front and back of classrooms rooms (I waved upon entering the room not knowing who, if anyone was watching), final exams that were vetted by “someone” in administration (two versions required for their analysis and they determine which to administer), a lectern remotely unlocked and locked for each class, and student seating that appeared to be straight out of Little House on the Prairie. Although I was not provided a course syllabus or even a course description, I was required to provide a detailed “teaching plan” to include daily objectives, lecture content, goals, review questions, homework, etc., and the class time I allotted for each. Students move through their program in cohorts so there is a close bond between them and they were not too different from my students here. They are glued to their smartphones and dress in clothing printed with English words, phrases and sports teams. One day I arrived to class and noticed a student was wearing a t-short with Pittsburgh emblazoned across the front. I commented about it, and the student looked down at writing and said “Yeah, what is that?” I explained.
Technologically, China is a contradiction of old and new. Ancient structures shadowed by architecturally interesting new construction. Chinese currency, the Yuan, is used little as payment and often discouraged. Rather, the Chinese prefer payment by smartphone using the ubiquitous app WeChat. Even smallest of street vendors accepted WeChat payments that is essentially a Facebook PayPal type product. WeChat was also the means by which I communicated and shared teaching materials with students. Concerned at first about using WeChat for that purpose, I soon discovered that the administration sanctioned it and used it as well for University communication; there was no course management software. I also found WeChat convenient for keeping in touch with family in the US via its free video chat feature.
Traveling in China was surprisingly easy and felt safe, and the parks, museums and public spaces beautiful. My wife met me in Beijing after my stint at HQU. Wherever we went, the Chinese people were friendly and helpful. I have many stories of strangers inviting me to join them for ceremonial tea, offering rides to my destinations, re-filling my water bottle, and more. In Quanzhou, I found the bus system a convenient, inexpensive and reliable way to tour. While traversing the countryside, high-speed rail systems smoothly and comfortably carried passengers at speeds of over 300 km/h passing large cities unknown to me, with tall modern buildings and wide roads. In all, I toured five well-known cities Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Xiamen, Guilin, as well as the environs in and around Quanzhou, a non-touristy, small by Chinese standards, city of 8 million at the end of the ancient Silk Road.
I am grateful to Millersville University and my Chinese hosts for providing such an incredible opportunity. My understanding of China and its people is far different from what I expected, and I look forward to one day returning.
– Dr. Barry G. David