In 2000, China officially launched its “Go West” policy, an effort to try to bring greater economic development to western provinces that had not reaped the benefits of the 1978 open-door policy. In addition to trying to attract more investment in western China, today the central and provincial governments are trying to encourage more foreign students to expand their experience of China beyond Beijing and Shanghai and the eastern provinces.
Until last month and after more than 20 years of travel to China, the farthest West I had been was Xi’an – and that was for one day of tourism in 1987. So on my most recent visit to the PRC, I added stops to cities in two of the provinces that the “Go West” policy targets -- Yunnan and Sichuan. My team and I spent two days each in Kunming and Chengdu, meeting with provincial and city government officials, university leaders, and American students and business leaders.
We left Kunming and Chengdu enthusiastic supporters of the concept that American students seeking opportunities in China should indeed “Go West.” Both Kunming and Chengdu host excellent universities, and academic opportunities abound. Schools in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, like elsewhere, are rapidly expanding the foreign student dormitory space and English-language curriculum, making it easier for American students to continue their coursework in English while taking intensive Mandarin language. Sichuan University, for example, has recently partnered with the Chengdu municipal government and an American education services firm, G-MEO, to establish a study abroad platform to offer 140 courses, taught in English, in disciplines ranging from Chinese Studies to Business & Management, from Social Sciences to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
While Chengdu in particular is being built up significantly, both cities remain relatively easy to maneuver. For students looking for a real immersion experience, both cities offer the amenities of modern life while also ensuring that you can truly engage with Chinese friends and colleagues. Below are the stories of four young Americans who chose to “Go West” to study in China. We hope their stories encourage others to follow suit.
- Carola McGiffert
Carola McGiffert is Director of the 100,000 Strong Initiative and Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
We are delighted to welcome Kim McClure to the 100,000 Strong team! Kim joins us as Deputy Director of the Initiative. She is a foreign service officer who previously served as special assistant to the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke; worked on human rights during a one-year posting in Afghanistan; and held a prestigious Council of Foreign Relations fellowship during which she helped establish a non-profit that brings international education opportunities to underserved students in the Washington, D.C., public school system. Kim brings a wealth of government and education experience to the job, and we are fortunate to have her on board. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
JUL 2011: APSA announces 1x1 Beijing Concert in support of 100,000 Strong and the release of their new student run blog.
OCT 2010: Secretary Clinton's Honolulu Remarks
Citing the strategic importance of the U.S.-China relationship, in November 2009, President Barack Obama announced his goal of seeing 100,000 Americans study in China over four years. This represents a significant increase over current numbers and signals a major investment in the future of U.S.-China relations. In colleges and minority-serving institutions.
The Initiative was officially launched in May 2010 by Secretary Hillary Clinton and is strongly supported by the Chinese government. In January 2011, on the occasion of the state visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington, the two nations reaffirmed their commitment to enhancing people-to-people engagement through educational exchanges.
West Virginia University
Since studying abroad in Hangzhou for a semester, I knew that I would be in China for at least a year after I graduated college. With degrees in Economics and Chinese Studies, I was looking for an opportunity to push my language ability to the next level, gain exposure to business in China, and network throughout the country. This goal was realized times over in Chengdu.
Upon receiving a year-long Chinese government scholarship, I asked a friend currently working for the New York Federal Reserve Bank who had the same scholarship for advice. He immediately said, "Go to Chengdu; that is where the dream is." Following the discussion, I opened my Lonely Planet travel guide and read the first sentence on Chengdu, which still sticks in my head: "Sichuan’s capital city pulses with bohemians and entrepreneurs . . . ." This contrast of professional opportunity and strong bohemian culture has defined my life here.
During my year of advanced Mandarin classes at Sichuan University – great program and professors – I started interning at the American Chamber of Commerce in Southwest China. Suddenly I witnessed my language skills, business competence, professional network, and social circle growing beyond my expectations. I am continuing to work with AmCham Southwest to help serve the foreign business community in the region while also interning with a geopolitical strategic analysis firm, teaching English, and doing model jobs for extra cash. I am fully confident that my experience and network in Southwest China will be useful for the rest of my life.
I graduated from college in May, 2010, and one month later arrived in Chengdu to study at Sichuan University. My goals were simple: to learn the Chinese language and explore the complexity, diversity and beauty of China's many cultures. Little did I know that before the year was out I would get to drink Tibetan butter tea at the foothills of the Himalayas, cultivate amazing friendships without speaking a word of English, and come in 4th place in a nationally-televised Chinese language competition. To say my year in Chengdu surpassed all expectations is an understatement: it radically changed my concept of China, of myself, and of the kind of work I want to do.
Like many young Americans, I began studying about China on the hunch that its relationship with the U.S. would be of major importance to the twenty-first century. I know that to make this relationship work will require a new generation of scholars, politicians and businesspeople who understand Chinese culture, and that the key to understanding is breadth of experience. I came to Chengdu to discover a different side of China from cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and I found it. With a population of over 7 million, Chengdu is a veritable modern metropolis, but unlike many Chinese cities it preserves a unique historical identity and cultural ethos. Western China, like the American West, is a place of monumental beauty and tremendous opportunity, and Chengdu is its heart.
I plan to stay in China at least one more year, then return to the U.S. to continue my studies. While my future plans are not set, the direction is clear: I want to devote my life to cultivating a positive relationship between China and the United States.
Before I arrived this August, China was simply a place on a map, thousands of miles from home and eons away in terms of cultural similarities; now, Kunming, China, is the place I will proudly call “home” until December. Thus far, my experience has been absolutely delightful. Whether it's deciphering the contents of a restaurant’s menu or attempting to navigate an incredibly complicated bus system, every day presents an opportunity for adventure and personal growth.
I knew that I wanted to fully immerse myself in Chinese culture and live in a city that would require me to use my language skills on a daily basis—Kunming is certainly the ideal location. Situated in southwestern China, the city attracts thousands of Chinese tourists per year. Kunming has a small, tight-knit expatriate community and a welcoming local community, both of which have positively shaped my experience thus far.
Studying in China has had several positive implications for me personally and professionally. My language skills have improved drastically. Over the course of two months I have become conversationally fluent—a feat I would never have achieved with such speed in the United States. More important than my academic achievements, however, are the benefits I have obtained that will positively influence my professional life. Total immersion in a foreign culture has taught me to adapt quickly to and thrive within unfamiliar, dynamic environments—a quality critical for achieving success in the corporate world. Furthermore, improving the scope and depth of my familiarity with Chinese culture gives me a competitive edge in an increasingly globalized world.
As with any journey, the road, at times, gets bumpy. For example, the curious stares of passersby are a constant reminder that the color of my skin and texture of my hair label me a foreigner; however, the decision to study in China remains one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have grown in leaps and bounds and have been stretched in ways I would never have imagined. Most important, my experience abroad has made me aware that my status as a citizen of the United States simply demarcates my position within a larger and complex global framework.
While at Sichuan University, we were able to visit the headquarters of the Peace Corps in China. Over 669 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in China since the program was established in 1993. Currently, 138 Volunteers are serving in China. Volunteers are trained and work in Mandarin in the area of education, focusing on teaching English to university-level students. Jennifer Popham, one such Volunteer, tells her story below.
Lessons while Living in Western China
By: Jennifer Popham, Peace Corps Volunteer
Photograph By: Mathilde Verillaud, Peace Corps Volunteer
After being accepted by Peace Corps in 2006 to realize my childhood dream of living in Africa, two years later I left my Burkina Faso village to transfer into the Peace Corps program in China to volunteer as an English teacher in colleges, universities, and vocational institutions. Chinese culture had a special place in my heart because as a 3-day old baby I had been adopted from Taiwan by American parents and wanted to understand my ethnic heritage, to learn the language and local customs as well as to explore my identity as a Chinese American. After 10 weeks of language, culture, and TEFL technical training, I was sent to a small teaching college in Gansu Province to teach English to future primary and secondary education teachers who would most likely end up teaching in rural schools.
Gansu, known as one of the less developed provinces of China is located in the west situated along the Silk Road lying near the Tibetan plateau while bordering Mongolia and Inner Mongolia as well as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Sichuan province. From this dusty, brown land of wheat and millet, where farmers still sometimes live in caves dug out of clay plateaus,what did the people teach me? Living in such a harsh environment where people seem to have very little control over their lives, I learned about patience, endurance, and resilience. Working with students to improve an English Resource and Community Center, I learned to accept that our success was not always measured by how much hard work we put forth. Fate often had a stronger influence. As things would work out one way or another, I learned how to red efine success whether it was a failure where lessons were learned or an achievement where together we shared the joy of accomplishing something. Moving away from my familiar American bubble in Alabama, my world view as well as my Chinese friends’ view of Americans changed from impersonal conclusions formed from the media to a new understanding resulting from real life experiences by interacting with each other. After a year, the local yarn seller commented that my Chinese language had improved a lot as we discussed the different types of yarn. While traveling, I met a variety of people from all backgrounds, and I exchanged ideas during many activities with students and teachers- science club, celebrating Chinese and American holidays, women’s group, cooking Chinese food together, and going on hikes. Learning about other people's joys and pains, trials and accomplishments, the Chinese people I interacted with along with myself gained a broader gl obal view of America and China.
After graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle with a Ph.D. in chemistry, I wanted to shift careers to work in international development and education. Volunteering in China gave me the opportunity to practice different communication styles, solve conflicts, negotiate compromises, and succeed in a work environment with many challenges. I spent three years learning how to successfully adapt and integrate into a different culture while introducing my own culture when teaching and leading various secondary projects. I decided to extend for a fourth year in China to live in Chengdu, a laid-back, easy-going metropolitan city in Sichuan province, to not only continue professional development but also for the simple fact that I enjoy the lifestyle of living, working, and growing as an individual in China. Exchanging cultural experiences and learning from each other are important in this increasingly growing international community to help bridge mutual understanding across language and cultural barriers.
Youth Exchange Scholarship for U.S. High School Students
The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) offers merit-based scholarships to U. S. high-school aged studen ts for overseas study of seven critical foreign languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajik), Russian and Turkish. The NSLI-Y program is designed to immerse participants in the cultural life of the host country, giving them invaluable formal and informal language practice and sparking a lifetime interest in foreign languages and cultures. Applications for summer 2012 and academic year 2012-2013 programs are due November 3, 2011. Visit http://www.nsliforyouth.org/ for more information.
I SING BEIJING, a program jointly launched by the Chinese Language Council International (China) and the Asian Performing Arts Council (United States), is a cultural exchange initiative dedicated to advancing vocal arts and promoting relationships between artists in China and the West. The program aims to introduce Mandarin as a lyric language and the emerging Chinese modern opera as a new genre in Western-style opera, as well as offer both American and Chinese singers trained in the Western-style operatic tradition a unique opportunity to hone their craft in a cross-cultural learning environment and apply their disciplines to a new repertoire and language. For more information about I SING BEIJING, visit: http://www.isingbeijing.org/.