“Studying Chinese has Given Me a Greater Understanding of China”

James J. McCarthy, an American student, tells us about his experience learning Chinese: “I’ve always been interested in China’s culture, history and art. Every day in American newspapers I would read articles concerning China; However, I never heard Chinese media’s interpretation of these subjects. When I started to study Chinese I didn’t anticipate my understanding of China would also attain a higher level”.

James J. McCarthy

What’s China really like in the eyes of foreigners? Which parts of Chinese culture are the most attractive? What are their personal experiences while learning Chinese language? Are there any touching stories that happened to them during their stay in China? You will find the answers here. After reading the following stories, don’t you have the desire to pick up your pen and put down something in Chinese about things around you?

James J. McCarthy, Confucius Institute at University of Maryland, U.S.

A little over 5 years ago I decided to study Chinese. A good friend of mine said I was crazy, first of all because Chinese is too difficult, secondly because studying Chinese in America is a waste of time, and lastly because I am too old. At that time I was over 50 years old. This good friend loves to play golf, so I asked him: “Is playing golf easy?” He replied: “Golf is extremely difficult to play.” I again asked him: “Is playing golf useful?” He had to admit that golf has no practical use. Lastly I asked him: “As we are both about the same age , why would you want to learn to play golf?” He replied:“ Because I’m crazy too!”. Perhaps my friend was right; I really didn’t have a good reason to explain why I wanted to study Chinese, but sometimes you have to follow your heart. Sometimes you need to develop an ability, then afterwards take advantage of that ability. And along the way you may discover unexpected things.

“Sometimes I’m surprised to find western news reports and Chinese news reports are completely different. It seems like western news reports tend toward simple explanations, everything is either black or white, right or wrong. However, things are often not that simple”.

I’ve always been interested in China’s culture, history and art. Every day in American newspapers I would read articles concerning China; for example, about China’s one child per family policy, Taiwan’s situation, Tibet’s circumstances,etc. However, I never heard Chinese media’s interpretation of these subjects. When I started to study Chinese I didn’t anticipate my understanding of China would also attain a higher level.

How should I start to study? Because I have a family and a job, I couldn’t attend a full-time school, so I published an advertisement in the local paper inquiring whether any Chinese person was willing to teach me Chinese. To my great surprise 30 people called me! I never realized there were so many Chinese people living nearby me. After a little research, I chose Ms. Zhao, a very patient teacher from Beijing. Her accent was both standard and clear. She taught me to speak Chinese!

James J. McCarthy

This year I decided to attend Maryland University, wanting to study Chinese at a more advanced level. This university has a special Chinese program called The Confucius Institute. In addition to teaching Chinese, they also introduce Chinese culture to Americans. Professor Cui manages this school with American professors; he is also my teacher. With his guidance and assistance I hope to take another step higher in my knowledge of Chinese.

Every week I attend class two times; each class is two hours. We spend a lot of time chatting in Chinese. In order to reinforce my Chinese writing ability, every week I also have to write an article about today’s China. We decided to use Chinese newspapers for my study material. These articles not only helped me improve my writing ability, but also allowed my to understand contemporary Chinese matters. Sometimes I’m surprised to find western news reports and Chinese news reports are completely different. It seems like western news reports tend toward simple explanations, everything is either black or white, right or wrong. However, things are often not that simple. Perhaps this is because western news media don’t understand China’s complexity. For example, people’s rights are important, however stability is also a good thing. A developing country needs to balance these two issues, especially if their population exceeds 1.3 billion people. Limiting parent’s ability to have children is not a good thing, but if your population is already too numerous, and your natural resources are limited, what should you do? To continue rapid population growth could lead to chaos. Thus, I now realize there are few black and white explanations, it seems like their solutions are more gray in color.

Our studying these articles taught me a great deal of the Chinese language, while also teaching me the best methodology to understand China’s problems: you must see both the pros and the cons of China’s predicaments.


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pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 03.Volume III. July 2009.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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