Rethinking orientations

This past summer, the Shanghai Taiwanese Student Organization, or Taisheng Zonghui, held a two-day “explanation meeting” for Taiwanese students who would be beginning classes at Mainland universities in the Shanghai-Zhejiang area starting in the fall. The event included presentations and discussions led by former and current Taiwanese students studying in the Mainland and officials from the Taiwanese Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Ministry of National Defense to introduce incoming students to information about the Mainland and challenges they might encounter there. Another topic of discussion was Taiwanese regulations regarding recognition of degrees from Mainland institutions, and officials from the Ministry of Education and Executive Yuan were on hand to explain current and proposed regulations, particularly in regard to Mainland medical degrees, which are not currently recognized in the Republic of China. Officers from the Taiwanese Student Organizations (Taishenghui) of the Shanghai-Zhejiang area introduced their schools to their incoming classmates, and the representatives of the Fudan University Taishenghui were careful to explain the reality of life at Fudan University. Participants had the opportunity to interact and exchange with taishang, Taiwanese businessmen conducting business in the Mainland, and learn about the current status of taishang and the history of Taiwanese studying in the Mainland.

The event also involved informal discussion and bonding between new students, their incoming peers, and their upper-classmates. Officers of the Fudan Taishenghui taught the incoming students how to play Sanguosha (Three Kingdoms Killers), a card game widely popular among college-aged Mainlanders, in the hopes that it would help them more quickly assimilate into Mainland life.

The effectiveness of these activities in preparing Taiwanese students for life in the Mainland is questionable. The most significant issue encountered by Taiwanese students I’ve spoken to at Fudan University seems to be their difficulty in relating to and connecting with Mainland peers. Most Taiwanese students, it seems, spend the majority of their time with Taiwanese classmates rather than Mainland classmates. Various reasons are given for this, with the most commonly mentioned being differences of “education.” It’s understandable: Taiwanese culture and Mainland Chinese culture, after more than 100 years of effective separation, are different in some essential ways, and cross-cultural relationships are not easy. Take a poll of students studying abroad in the United States, and I can almost guarantee that the majority of them will report that most of their friends at school are fellow foreigners. Taiwanese in Mainland China are in a special position. Because of the special political relations between Taiwan and Mainland China, Taiwanese students in the Mainland are neither international students, nor are they local (Mainland) students. They speak the same language, eat the same food, and grew up in a culture with the same roots and similar history to their Mainland peers, but they are somehow, almost inexplicably, different. Not surprising, then, that it’s difficult for many to forge relationships with their Mainland peers.

The activities organized by the Taishenghui may be inhibiting active relationship-building with Mainland peers, however. When Taiwanese students come to the Mainland, they encounter some initial barriers in relating to their Mainland classmates due to differences of cultural and educational background. Normally, they would have to push through these barriers in order to escape the solitude of the exchange student in a new place. Now, however, upon arriving in the Mainland, they’ve already established relationships with many Taiwanese peers, and it’s easy to fall back on these relationships as a safety net and give up on establishing relations with Mainland peers altogether. While the Taishenghui summer explanation and introduction activity undoubtedly is a great event and very effective at helping incoming Taiwanese students adjust and easing their concerns, it may have negative effects towards their overall level of assimilation down the road.

I have often wondered if the same thing can be said of the STRIDE program at Davidson College. STRIDE is a special orientation and support organization for minority and first-generation students at Davidson College. Prior to school beginning, STRIDE participants have the opportunity to meet with other students, both incoming and current, and faculty members to discuss being a minority student at Davidson College and the challenges that prospect entails. This undoubtedly has many incredibly beneficial aspects for incoming students. However, the question should be asked whether or not it inhibits the long-term integration of participants into general college life.

It’s possible that the positive effects of orientation activities like STRIDE or the “explanation meeting” of the Taisheng Zonghui outweigh the negative impacts down the road. However, we should rethink these types of activities and make sure that is truly the case, and, furthermore, be aware that orientation activities of this sort may not be the optimal activity for all students.