CI builds global bridges between cultures

Updated: 2014-07-23 09:43

By Chen Weihua(China Daily Latin America)

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CI builds global bridges between cultures
The building in Havana’s Chinatown will soon become the new home for the Confucius Institute at University of Havana. Chen Weihua / China Daily

I was walking on Tuesday from the Hotel Nacional toward the old town in Havana to explore the fascinating city when I ran into the University of Havana, so I dropped by and also looked for the Confucius Institute just outside the campus.

I visited the institute three years ago with my daughter when we were traveling in Cuba for the first time and had a memorable chat with the students and teachers.

CI builds global bridges between cultures

But it was summer vacation now and the school looked quite empty on Tuesday. Yet surprisingly, the two people I saw in the hallway greeted me with nihao (hello in English). Executive director Arsenio Aleman Agusti, whom I met three years ago and director Cristina Diaz Lopez were still working on Tuesday.

Aleman knows Chinese culture well and had given seminars on Taoism and Chinese animal symbols.

A chemical engineer by training and previously vice-president of a Cuban biotech company, he has made more than a dozen trips to China since 1998.

Taking up just one corner of a building, the Confucius Institute looked quite small, yet it still has some 400 Cuban enrolled in various Chinese-language classes. It was not the heyday when the school had some 500 students.

Lack of teaching faculty and space has been one of the major obstacles. But that will change later this year when a historic building, once a Chinese restaurant in Havana’s Chinatown, becomes the new home for the Confucius Institute.

Diaz looked quite excited about the prospect of the four-storey new office despite that work on refurbishing the new building has been delayed.

Also this fall, the Confucius Institute will have seven teachers from China, instead of the current four. It means more classes can be offered.

The Confucius Institute has students from many walks of life, from government officials to ordinary workers. “People are interested in learning about Chinese culture and history,” Diaz said.

While not fully aware what the bilateral education agreements signed by Chinese and Cuban governments on Tuesday would include during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cuba, Diaz hoped it would include more government support for education exchange.

The education exchange is helping Chinese and Cuban people to know each other better despite their geographical distance.

Just as I walked out of the director’s office, I ran into Yuri Cabrera Reyes, a Cuban student from the Cujae University. Cabrera just returned last week after a year of study at Yanshan University in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province.

He had enjoyed that wonderful year in China, sponsored by the Confucius Institute, and he had clearly picked up a bit of an accent from the North China province.

I have not yet found out details about the new bilateral education agreement, but based on what I have observed in the last few days, I believe the two countries should provide more funding to encourage student exchanges.

I cannot believe that the Chinese students I met in the beautiful beach resort of Tarara during my previous visits to Cuba, or the Julio Trigo Lopez Medical School which I visited on Monday, won’t have Chinese students anymore after the expiration of previous bilateral agreements.

Walking in Havana, I have bumped into many friendly Cuban people who greeted me with nihao, but I am not sure how many people in Shanghai can greet people in Spanish.

The Confucius Institute in Havana, launched in 2009, is the first and only one in Cuba. And I told Diaz and Aleman that the next time I come back, I will visit them in the new building, overlooking the Tien Tan Restaurant, which serves authentic cuisine from my hometown Shanghai.

And there might be the second and third Confucius Institute in Cuba by then.

(China Daily USA 07/23/2014 page3)