Language Lessons

On Thursday afternoon I set out with a group of students from my Chinese Marketplace class to try and find Chinese high school students we could interview for our group project for Pan Laoshi.  Our project focuses on Chinese high school and college students who want to study abroad in the US for undergraduate or graduate school.  As the number of students wanting to pursue education abroad increases, agencies have emerged all over China to help guide and assist students through the US application process.  These agencies help students with essays, provide mock interviews, and try to advise students as to the differences between the Chinese and American higher education systems. Many students who study abroad will use, or at least consult, one of these agencies during their application process.

Our goal on Thursday was to speak with some high school students and get their thoughts on both traveling abroad to study and if they planned on using an agency to assist them with their applications.  For the interviews our group consisted of Ray, a Fudan student native to China, Nallely, a Boston University student from Texas, and me.  The questions themselves were not very difficult and ranged in topic from how old the students were, to if they were planning on studying abroad, and if so were they going to use an agency.  The whole thing would take no more than five minutes, if that. We had written the questions as a group, but decided since we were in China interviewing Chinese high school students, that we should let Ray ask the questions in Chinese so as to make the process easier on the students. We set off towards the high school with this in mind hoping to find lots of people to talk to.

When we got to the school a good number of students were leaving – with Ray asking the questions, Nallely holding the microphone, and me running the camera – we dove right in to try and speak with some of them.  One mother and daughter pair spoke openly with Ray about their plans and we were feeling pretty good about our prospects.  Over the next few minutes, however, every student that Ray approached turned him down.  Ray would say hi to them in Chinese, mention that he was a local college student studying at Fudan, and wanted to ask them a few questions about college.  Without fail every one of them turned him down.  At this point we began to get worried.

Ray suggested that I take the questions and try to ask the students to speak with me.  I was sure it was not going to work because I didn’t think any Chinese students would want to talk to some random American girl asking all these questions in English and not even trying to communicate in their native tongue – I was sure I was just going to make them mad.  But as every good researcher does, despite my doubts I set off to try it anyway.  I started by just going up to a group of girls and asking in English, “Hi, can I ask you a few questions about colleges?” To my surprise they said yes and seemed very excited to speak with me.  We made sure that it was ok with them that we recorded the interview and then started with the questions.  By the end of the first interview Ray was smiling from behind the camera and content that he had been correct in thinking that the students would rather talk to the random foreigner than him.  I on the other hand, was not so convinced that I would have as much success as he thought.  Nevertheless we charged on with me cornering more Chinese high school students and all but two of the eight agreeing to speak with me.

Most of the students we spoke with had actually given some thought to the idea about studying abroad.  Even the ones who said they were choosing to stay in China had reasons why they felt that it would serve them better to stay here rather than go abroad for their education.  Of the ones who were interested in going abroad, most wanted to go to the US and sited the excellent college system and freedom of expression as big reasons they wanted to study in the US.  Not only did we have a fun time interviewing the students, but we learned an interesting life lesson as well.  We were so convinced that the students would rather speak to Ray in Chinese than speak to us in English that we did not even try to speak with them until Ray forced us to.  He told us from the beginning that we were going to end up doing the interviews and we thought he was crazy.  Our thinking, however, stemmed from our asking the questions in Chinese out of courtesy.  I can converse some in Chinese but there was no way I was going to be able to do the interview in Chinese.  Neither Nallely, nor I ever though that we would end up conducting the interviews in English with such success.  It just goes to show you no matter what you expect to find when you walk into any given situation, you must always be ready to adapt and try a different approach, if not you may miss out on a wonderful opportunity. Language lessons have come in many varieties here in China, but this is not one I expected to encounter.