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Adapting to Life in China

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

When Associate Professor of Chinese Hang Du wondered what life was like for Middlebury students studying abroad in China, she decided to pack up and spend a semester with them herself.

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Hang Du

With support from a faculty research grant, Du went to the C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Hangzhou, China, while on her sabbatical in 2008.  Twenty-nine students on the Middlebury program gave her permission to study their every move, and so she went to classes with them, observed them in academic and non-academic settings, and interviewed them in Chinese before, during, and after the semester.

For three months she ate meals with the students, analyzed their questionnaire responses, spoke to their teachers, administered language proficiency tests, and even read their journals (with permission, of course)—all in an effort to understand how American students handle their immersion in her native country.

Hang Du transcribed all of her conversations, observations, and analysis into more than 2,400 pages of hand-written notes, and recently published an article on her quantitative findings in the Modern Language Journal, with a second article due out later this year.

On March 20 she presented her qualitative findings in a Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture at Middlebury entitled “Study Abroad in China: Language, Identity, and Self-presentation,” to a gathering of about 60 students, faculty members, and community members. And as she shared stories about her observations in Hangzhou, about a dozen students smiled and nodded their heads indicating that a sizeable share of the audience had studied in China on the Middlebury program and had “lived” similar experiences.

For example, she told a story about a Middlebury student who took a 10-hour train trip to Beijing. As soon as the other passengers noticed her high level of proficiency in the Mandarin language, she was besieged by questions because her language skills exceeded people’s expectations. Added Du, “The Chinese people can be very blunt.”

She told about a student with Korean parents, who identified with the international students at Middlebury, but felt she was part of the majority in China. Or about the student-musician who was invited by strangers to perform at their wedding, and did so willingly. Or about the student who found he was “less eager” to defend American policies after living and studying in China.

Du, a veteran language teacher who first came to Middlebury in 2001 as a member of the summer Chinese School faculty, was particularly interested in the students’ awareness of dialects and accents. She played an audio clip for the audience in which one of the students in the program impersonated a Hangzhou resident’s less-than-perfect pronunciation of Mandarin.

Her qualitative findings fell into three categories: language proficiency, identity and self-presentation, and interaction with native speakers. “Soon after I analyzed the data,” she said, “these three themes jumped up and called out my name.”

Du was inspired to conduct her study when, in 2006, she found extensive research on study abroad in other countries such as Russia and France, but “there was nothing about American students studying abroad in China.” Her interest was compounded by the fact that more than 50 study-abroad programs had been established in China since the 1980s, and the realization that China ranks fifth on the list of the most-popular destinations for U.S. students studying abroad.

And yet, Chinese-language teachers in the U.S. did not have access to valid research findings about American students in China, she said. “Year after year we send students over there and then they come back, but we didn’t really know what [their experiences were,] so that’s why I wanted to study it.”

From her research, Du has concluded that Middlebury students felt “respected and valued” in China because of their language proficiency, and their positive images of themselves has motivated them to keep learning and practicing the language. Students told her that they could “fend for themselves” in the marketplace or with taxi drivers because of their language skills. They felt validated because they could make their opinions or feelings known in conversation with others in Chinese.

She also noticed a shift in students’ perspectives about non-speakers of Chinese, as demonstrated by the student who thought Westerners in Tiananmen Square who could not converse in Chinese were “shameless,” and by the student who observed that Europeans sitting at an adjacent table in a restaurant were actually “disappointed” to hear him speaking Mandarin.

Some students in study-abroad programs are ascribed “half-wit status” by native speakers because of their lack of language skills, Du explained, but for Middlebury students in China the opposite was true. “Our students were appreciated and honored by the Chinese people for their language skills.”