Talking with another side of the World by Candice Dyer. At Brenau, language and how we use it, is the heart of human communication.

Talking with the other side of the world

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lee Walburn, the venerable former editor of Atlanta Magazine, once described the distinctive northeast Georgia mountain twang of his star writer Candice Dyer, WC ’92, as sounding like the verbal utterances of the love child of country singer Loretta Lynn and NASCAR icon Bill Elliott. With that sort of credential, there was really only one thing for Brenau Window to do with Dyer: send her to a Chinese language class. 

We begin simply enough, by selecting Chinese names for ourselves to use in class.

Rather than shoehorn every “Britney” and “Caitlin” into makeshift Sino-analogues, our instructor has predetermined that we should just choose qualities or things we admire and go from there. So, cracking open their laptops around me are “Music,” “Butterfly,” and the pensive-looking “Thoughtful.” They automatically dub me “Tángguǒ,” or “Candy.” So we turn to each other and practice saying hello, which sounds like “nee how” and roughly transliterates as an affirmative “you good.”

Nǐ hǎo, Tángguǒ!” (Hello, Candy!)

Nǐ hǎo, Zhōu Dào!” (Hello, Thoughtful!)

Whether this exchange rings authentic for sidewalk meetings around Tiananmen Square is questionable, but it is a start. To rephrase Lao-Tzu, a journey into the conversations of more than 1.3 billion people begins with a single word.

Chinese is the oldest known recorded language, once inscribed on bones and turtle shells, and linguists consider it one of the most difficult for non-native speakers to master. It lacks an “alphabet,” yet it contains more than 100,000 characters that resemble daunting, labor-intensive calligraphy – so many that even prolix Chinese scribblers, not to mention your local tattoo artist, cannot remember all of them without lifelong practice.

The vast country still comprises many dramatically different dialects that make spoken communication near impossible in some cases, but after protracted political and cultural conflict in the last century, Mandarin has become largely standardized as the official language, and that is what we study at Brenau. “Pinyin” is the system developed in 1958 to convert these characters into the Roman alphabet used here. Surnames come first; sentences lack capitalization; and verbs have no tense, so extra, contextual words delineate past, present, and future. (As a result of that last condition, the action of “love” can assume even more fraught complications, explored to great effect in poetry, song and romantic comedies.)

Instructor Sara Yang Ye Meng teaching Chinese Class

Tone is everything

The real hurdle for the newcomer, though, is intonation. In no other language does the axiom “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” reverberate like an ancient, magisterial gong. Mandarin relies on four basic tones, or rising and falling changes in pitch denoted by accent marks. Think of these marks, by their shape and direction, as a sort of sliding whistle you might hear as a sound effect on an old-timey radio show. (I supplement my Pinyan note-taking with doodles and a sort of remedial version of “Hooked on Phonics” in the margins.)

Still, confusing homonyms abound, with or without accent marks. A famous Chinese short story, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” by the playful wordsmith Chao Yuen Ren, consists solely of 92 repetitions of the word shi, lines of one right after another, but the sounds spool into a narrative, suggested in that curious title, if you know how to decode them. Also, the same word, xin, means “new” and “heart;” ma signals “mother” (for once, something similar!) but also denotes “horse;” and – in one of those overlaps that seem ripe for farce if not some horrific breach of geopolitical diplomacy – the word sha can mean either “stupid,” “kill,” or “what.” As Thoughtful observes, context clearly is important here.

For those of us who lack perfect pitch, even in our native English, these nasal-sounding, diphthong-looking syllables that sometimes trail off into breathless silences are about as exhausting for an inflexible tongue as t’ai chi work-outs. To think, Spanish seemed hard to me. Hěn shǎ hěn tiānzhēn (I feel foolish and naive) – a phrase I had to Google. However, the Chinese language, with its mystery, complexity and nuance, proves as redolently delicious on the lips as the cuisine’s five-spice seasoning.

Brenau began offering two levels of introductory Chinese language studies at the beginning of the last academic year as part of the institution’s increasingly polyglot, citizen-of-the-world sensibility, with a focus on the East. Think of this development, however, as the continuation of an old-school tradition. Dr. H. J. Pearce, the longtime president, was such an aficionado of the region and its aesthetics that he commissioned a bamboo garden and other Oriental lawn fixtures on campus in the early 1900s, about the time that Sun Yat-sen was attempting to establish the first unified Chinese republic. Pearce also worked presciently to recruit Asian students, long before the Maoist revolution in the late 1940s would for decades slam the door on such educational opportunities.

Once the door opened again, Brenau stepped quickly in. Building significantly on relationships that President Ed Schrader had started cultivating at other institutions prior to his coming to Brenau, the university established formal arrangements with National China Woman’s University, Zhong Yuan University and Nanyang University. In addition, during the past few years, the university has been filling up cohort after cohort with students, mostly from China and Taiwan, who come to the Gainesville campus to pursue Master of Business Administration degrees.

Those relationships mesh with the university’s “Four Portals” multidiscipline (and cross-discipline) liberal arts curriculum. One “portal,” of course, seeks to broaden students’ global awareness, but another concerns a discipline broadly defined to include virtually everything that contributes to communications between people – writing, speech and elocution, technology tools and languages. It has been said illustratively that the “ideal” portals course would involve arts majors in Georgia engaged in scientific research in a course taught by a professor in Zhengzhou over the Internet and in the Chinese language.

 

The ‘ideal’ Brenau course

Brenau’s Chinese course certainly conforms to the spirit of the ideal. In a hybridized format of on-site and online learning, the beginners’ Chinese class meets three times a week in the “language bistro” of the Brenau Trustee Library – a venue resembling a Parisian sidewalk café with, instead of a more traditional classroom or language laboratory configuration, small tables to encourage student interaction and conversation.

There, teaching assistant Sara Yang Ye Meng handles our pronunciation drills with brisk, cheerful efficiency. (“My dream is to be journalist,” she confides, “but in China, woman journalists never marry most of the time.” I told her, jokingly, that she finally said something I understood, but then I did my best to stoke her American pursuit of happiness, whatever that might be.)

The tests, homework and grades are administered online by the professor of record in Beijing, Christine Yang. Both instructors earned their M.B.A.s at Brenau.

“As Chinese is an exotic language that is vastly different from English, I didn’t expect too much from students at first,” Yang writes in an e-mail. “My experience tells me that a slow start will make the transition from alphabet-based English to character-based Chinese easier for the students. Students are expected to submit assignments using Chinese characters for the online workstation. I was prepared to un-assign them in case students could not find out how to write characters in a computer, but the students all performed well. I was pleased with the overall results.”

Instructor Sara Yang Ye Meng works with psychology major Kira Webb, who is Chinese, but having grown up in Roswell, Ga., never learned the language.
Instructor Sara Yang Ye Meng works with psychology major Kira Webb, who is Chinese, but having grown up in Roswell, Ga., never learned the language.

The demographic mix of the class also reflects the growing diversity of Brenau. We started the term with some tutelage from Dr. Greg Chase, Brenau’s most recent Fulbright Scholar, a professor of international business with extensive experience in Asia (Ironically, his Fulbright sent him not to China, but to Moldova in Eastern Europe). About half of the students are African-American. One is Hispanic and named “Yesenia” after a “Gypsy in a telenovela,” she says. Another student is Ghana-born Associate Professor of Spanish and Director of the Language Laboratory George Demuyakor.

However, the shy-seeming student toward whom we all glance for guidance at first is, ironically, a native Chinese woman named Kira Webb, who was adopted as an infant by an American couple in Roswell, Ga.

“I learned no Chinese growing up,” Webb says, “and I got tired of going to restaurants, for example, and having Chinese people run up to me and start talking in this language, thinking I could understand them. So here I am. It is more difficult than I thought it would be, with all of the tones – it certainly does not come naturally because I was born there. But I am learning, and it is a really good feeling for me. I want to visit China and use these language skills, so I believe this class will help me connect to where I come from.”

 

The must-have language

Dr. William Lightfoot, the dean of the College of Business & Mass Communication, says that adding Chinese to Brenau’s languages lineup is one of those “must-have” pieces of the curriculum in today’s world. “Everyone knows that China’s profile and power in the world have risen dramatically in the past 30 years,” he says, “and we need to understand not only the language but also the culture to be successful in international trade and other exchanges. This language class itself is truly an American melting pot that is introducing the Chinese to us and us to them.”

In 2008 Lightfoot leveraged the M.B.A. “cohort” concept, in which a group of students start and finish a degree program on the same schedule, as part of an effort to step up international recruitment. So far, the program has produced about 100 graduates, most of them Chinese or Taiwanese, with a few from Europe, the United States, Afghanistan and Africa. The business college also has played host to visiting professors from some of China’s most prestigious universities.

“President Schrader has made a two-way relationship with China one of his priorities and a compelling part of our overall educational mission of thinking internationally and globally,” Lightfoot says. “It’s not just that we go there to recruit – Brenau has established a serious presence in China. The university is especially attractive because it’s located in a community with a high quality of life that is very close to Atlanta with its international airport and resources.”

The environment has proved so appealing, in fact, that roughly half of the visiting international students end up obtaining the proper paperwork to stay, or return here, to work.

Lightfoot, who says proudly that he has interacted with students from at least 80 countries during his career in education, recently traveled on a recruitment tour of India, where a rising, progressive middle class is looking westward at educational opportunities, especially for young women.

“When I teach at our Norcross campus now, I can look around one classroom and see students who are from Denmark, Brazil, Ukraine, Ghana, Russia and Pakistan,” he says. “I find this level of diversity enriching to everyone involved. We all share ideas about politics, religion, food, music, movies, jokes and ethics. It’s always revealing to learn what makes someone laugh or what someone else considers fair or unfair treatment. So, it enlarges and colors your perceptions of the world, finding our commonalities and, at the same time, understanding our differences.”

Also, within the university’s Asian cohort, he notes, “Chinese and Taiwanese students also are getting to know each other for the first time, so Brenau is playing an interesting role in helping them break down political and cultural barriers that have precipitated a hostile environment since the end of World War II.”

 

Communication basics

Recently, several American alumni have relocated to China to teach English, and other students, including two of the star students in my class – Yesenia Alvarez and Requel Atkins – are planning to study in Beijing at the International University of Business and Economics.

Of course, any linguistic foray initially reduces
communication to the starkest elementals in vocabulary: greetings, jobs, money, food and bathroom, all modulated with the manners that, along with some frantic pantomime, help compensate for the deficits – we hope.

During this class, I smile and reflexively bow a lot, a gesture that, reeking of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, only reinforces my měi guó, or American, awkwardness. Not that my new Asian friends would permit me to “lose face” – one of many cultural tics worth emulating. So the phrases I chirp the most are xie xie (pronounced shyeh, shyeh), or “thank you,” and (bowing deeper) dui bu qi (deh boo chee): “I’m sorry.”

Bereft of any concept of syntax at one point, I ask, “How do you say very thanks, very bad, very sorry?” Later, I learn that sprinkling words such as “please” and “thank you” excessively into conversation is, paradoxically to us, a form of rudeness in China, where much of that verbal padding is regarded as a roadblock to closeness, a buffer to intimacy – consider the unadorned straightforwardness you use with close family members you love but take for granted. In fact, the phrase for “you’re welcome,” or bu ke qui, translates as the command “don’t be so polite!”

Chinese writing samplesThe lexicon of family and genealogy seems endless. Equivalents of, say, “uncle” and “cousin” are not specific enough in Chinese, which seems to put a premium on birth order. There are different words for the younger sister of your oldest female cousin compared with the middle brother, for example. One of my classmates, with deep roots in the South, charts it all out for me at one point. She clearly is comfortable swinging from limb to limb on a family tree, and we joke about the two cultures’ shared tendency toward ancestor-worship. The closest we come to “howdy, y’all,” in case you were wondering, is “Nǐ ma hǎo!

In fact, all of my classmates, most of them gung-ho to study and work in The Middle Kingdom, are picking up the conjugations like deft, old hands with chopsticks. After just a few weeks, some of them perform, with child-like delight, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in Chinese.

One of the distinct advantages of this kind of course at a small institution like Brenau is that people who are not technically part of the class also get involved. Several Chinese graduate students drop by faithfully, volunteering their time as tutors and conversation partners, both to help us and to polish their American idioms, slang and our schlocky, inescapable pop culture references. Sometimes they arrive bearing tasty, rice-based Chinese sweets, or tángguǒ, just in time to stave off drowsy, afternoon hypoglycemia, so we all love to see them coming for many reasons. Most of the 30 or so students in the cohort of the accelerated M.B.A. program are from China. Having studied English at home, they undergo an intensive language-immersion program, along with some practical, life-in-America skills, before plunging into their business studies.

Brenau is developing a respected reputation around Beijing – thanks to our international recruiting partners and to the alumni grapevine – for rigorous academics in a nurturing, friendly environment. The past five years have seen an increasing number of candidates line up for the documents and the arduous bureaucratic process of making the journey to the West.

 

A challenging environment

“What surprised me most is the way American students challenge and argue and debate with their professors,” says Xiaojie Zhu, who goes by “JuJu.”

“At first, the students’ behavior looked so disrespectful and offensive to me, but then I realized that the American professors enjoy being challenged, encourage it. They think it’s a good thing – not like in China. All human beings are equal here and free to speak out and share their thoughts honestly. I want to become more like that.”

JuJu used to be a nurse in China. She hopes eventually to work in management of an NGO treating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Before they arrive here, most of the Chinese students undergo a sort of secular rechristening project similar to our classroom exercise. “I did not want to choose some random English name that I wasn’t used to,” she says. “It’s hard enough to come here and adjust – can’t Americans take a moment to learn how to pronounce our names? Anyway, I know it is difficult. So I compromised with ‘JuJu,’ which is a girls’ nickname my family gave me years ago. It’s my name, but it is easy for everyone to say and remember.”

One of her Taiwanese classmates in the M.B.A. program, however, opted for a more fanciful moniker: Apollo Schweitzer. “‘Apollo’ because he was the sun god, and I want to bring the shining to people,” he explains, “and ‘Schweitzer’ because he was a doctor in Africa who was kindness. I hope to shine with kindness.”

Apollo, who is reedy, extroverted and always impeccably accessorized, has become a popular and instantly recognizable figure around Brenau, especially since he got a perm that frames his animated face in large, floppy curls. “I love art, music, movies, writing, drawing, inventing, creativity of all kinds,” he says, citing a campus-wide movie event he hosted recently to introduce his new American friends to foreign film. “I want to explore every religion, to meet and converse with all kinds of people everywhere, to develop ideas that make people’s life better.”

You sound like a “bohemian visionary,” I tell Apollo, who reputedly studies about 16 hours a day, somehow, between socializing and “shining.” He latches on to that description.

Xie xie, he says, beaming.

Bu ke qui, I say, and “xie xie back at you.”

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