Video drops cultural walls

Updated: 2013-11-05 10:50

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily USA)

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Have you ever felt uncomfortable sharing an elevator with Chinese people talking with each other in their language and you have no idea what they're saying? Don't be surprised to learn some Chinese feel the same way.

"I definitely feel awkward speaking Chinese with my Chinese friends in the elevator now, because I just feel other non-Chinese people feel awkward," said Fangdi Pan, a Chinese girl at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in her opening remarks on a popular English video.

With Chinese subtitles, the video - Why Chinese students don't speak English - on YouTube has recently attracted nearly 39,000 views. It's the work of three Chinese girls at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and part of a project called of Channel C.

"There are plenty of videos, very good ones, made by Chinese students for a Chinese audience about our life in America, but there aren't any made for an American audience," Cecilia Miao (Miao Si) the project head, told China Daily.

"I hope Chinese students feel we're speaking for them to Americans. We feel there is a need for the hosts to understand us, since there are such a big number of Chinese students in the States now," she said.

Another recent episode ran on Youtube explained why Chinese students don't party and their next topic will be about Chinese food, she said.

Many Chinese students said they like the videos and are encouraged by them to go out of their comfort zones. Americans have also left comments telling how they feel about interacting with foreigners.

"That is exactly what we meant to do — create conversations and remove misunderstandings," Miao said.

In 2010, Miao came to the US from Guangzhou for college. Though her English has always been above average in classes in China, she still has difficulty blending in with Americans because of heavier accents and a much smaller vernacular vocabulary.

However, she doesn't believe there are any short cuts in learning English and she has tried hard to push herself to talk to Americans all the time.

"I have always been making mistakes, even now, but that is how I improve. If you are afraid to lose face, there is no way you can just come out one day and speak fluent, native-like English," she said. "I took the walls within me down."

In her mind, being close to a core Chinese clique is dangerous. It leaves Chinese students little time and room to connect with people outside the group — Americans — which she sees as an essential part of studying abroad.

When Chinese students are encouraged to break out of their "comfort zones" by the video, it also guides viewers to think about how "many Americans might not have the best global mentality", she said.

They might not see the need to get to know someone from another culture or simply are not curious. Plus, as minorities in the US, Chinese and Asians have suffered from stereotypes for centuries, so it makes sense to her that Chinese students don't always receive the warmest of welcomes from locals, she said.

"But I didn't know this when I just got here, so it was quite disappointing to see that my hosts were not interested in me at all, while I was so interested in them," she recalled.

"If you want to sit there, be cool and wait for party invitations, that's not going to happen. Be the one to put more effort into relationships with your American friends, and it will be rewarding," she said.

As a political science and journalism major, Miao wants to work in the public relations industry and help Chinese multinational companies brand their products and services in America after she graduates in December.

"I am actively looking for jobs or internships. After I get some work experience, I will return to grad school," she said.

Her Channel C partner named Pan is getting a Master's degree in international affairs in the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and another partner named Muge is doing an internship with Caixin Magazine in Beijing and hopes to pursue a career in business reporting.

"Chinese students need assistance to better integrate with the rest of the campus; but the rest of the campus ought to see this as a precious learning opportunity for all of our student population," Nicole Huang, a professor at UW-Madison and director of the Wisconsin China Initiative, told "The three young women are truly inspiring."

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