Chinese students arrive at George Fox to find a drastically different place — culturally, religiously, relationally — yet still find plenty of reminders of home
by Sean Patterson | firstname.lastname@example.org
The 12-hour flight from Beijing to Portland became, from Yuedan Wang’s perspective, a journey to another world — a land of empty roads, small buildings and lush green valleys.
“The Oregon roads had no people on them,” observed the 20-year-old Wang, one of 30 Chinese scholars to enroll in the first year of George Fox’s China and East Asia Studies Program last fall. “The air was fresh and there was all this open space.”
Yet in some ways, the place seemed familiar.
America bore reminders of home: KFC restaurants, Starbucks coffee shops, McDonalds, and Wal-Marts. Thomas Peng, director of the East Asia program, can’t help but chuckle at the irony that “KFC” triggers memories of China. “Nowadays, the world is becoming like a small village,” he says. “Chinese goods are sold here; American goods are sold in China — a very small village indeed.”
Wang and 29 of her compatriots, representing about 10 high schools and colleges in China, arrived at George Fox in August last year. The majority came to study business and economics, but that was not the most important reason. “They came because they are intrigued by America and want to know what makes it great,” Peng says. “They respect America and its place in the world, so they wish to gain a better understanding and appreciation for this nation and culture.”
To qualify, students had to meet numerous criteria: visa approval, proof of financial solvency and good grades, and a proficiency in English. Originally, 50 were admitted to the program, of whom 30 were approved. “There is a lot of bureaucratic red tape,” Peng admits. “Only about half get through the visa interview, so just qualifying to come here is half the battle.”
Upon their arrival, there are many more hurdles — cultural, religious, logistical, relational and educational — to overcome.
As a native Chinese, Peng can appreciate the magnitude of students’ adjustment period. “The entire first semester, they are in culture shock,” he says. “They don’t know the language real well, they have no friends, they might get stomach problems because of the food, most don’t have transportation, and they take Bible courses they don’t understand.”
For Wang and fellow student Yile Wei, the biggest challenge was trying to fit in.
The university’s 10th anniversary Serve Day celebration gave Chinese students a chance to enjoy a carnival atmosphere. Many reflected on the joy they felt in serving.
“I know English, but I still find myself asking my friends, ‘What are you talking about?’” says Wei, a 21-year-old from Hunan Institute of Science and Technology, located in the central Chinese city of Yueyang. “I understand what is being said, but I don’t understand the meaning. For that reason, it’s very difficult to make deep friendships here.”
Wang concurs but was impressed with the warm welcome she received. “My biggest surprise came on my birthday in August. My RA and floor mates met me in the lobby and sang the birthday song to me and gave me flowers and a card.”
“Still, it is very difficult to make real friends here because of the fact we have different values than the American students. We weren’t raised with the Bible, for instance, so I had trouble understanding it. Many of our classmates already knew the parables of Jesus. To me, they were all new, and I didn’t understand many of them.”
Even the educational system itself was new. “In China, we are used to lectures, with the professor telling us what we need to know,” Wang says. “Here, there is more group work and discussion time. I found it difficult to get used to this. It was hard to get involved in group learning. Very hard.”
Peng admits the transition can be tough. “I have gotten my share of complaints from professors, often because students are late to class,” he says. But, for this grievance, he is quick to provide an explanation. “Here, people say ‘I’ll see you tomorrow at 3 o’clock.’ In China, we just say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ It may be morning, it may be afternoon. We aren’t as concerned about what time.”
The language barrier presents the biggest hurdle to Chinese students in the classroom.
Finding a niche
As challenging as the new environment was, many of the visitors engaged in campus and community life. Student Danxi (“Dancy”) Li spent her summer volunteering to work with the elderly in Newberg. QingLin (“William”) Yi invited his American roommate to tour China with him over the summer. A Chinese church service was started on Sunday afternoons during the school year.
For Dou Dou Li, making a new friend became a necessity at one point.
“I couldn’t figure out how the toilet worked, so I had to find someone who could fix it,” says the senior transfer student from the Hunan Institute of Science and Technology. “Not only did I get someone to help, they ended up inviting me to their church.”
Li, an international business major, has plans to remain in America after graduation. “I’d like to stay here and go to grad school. If I were to choose what business I was to get into, it would be working at an ice cream company. I love ice cream, especially with lots of peanuts.”
Li remained in Newberg over the summer and worked for the university’s maintenance department. One of her duties was, ironically, cleaning toilets. “I know how they work now,” she laughs.
Li’s fascination with things American is typical of Chinese students, Peng says. And it works the other way as well.
“I find that Americans are fascinated with our culture — they are intrigued by the fact we have a history of more than 3,500 years,” Peng says. “The feeling is mutual. We are also fascinated with the United States. There is so much we can learn from each other, and that is why these friendships are being formed.”
Alex Pia, director of International Student Services, concurs, adding: “These students become vital members of our campus community — they’re eager to learn from us and equally eager to share their stories with their American classmates.”
New friends, old ties
George Fox began a teaching exchange relationship with China’s Wuhan University of Technology in the early 1990s, but only last fall did the university initiate the China and East Asia Studies Program to recruit a significant number of Chinese students.
Thomas Peng (MA Christian studies ’96) returned to Newberg last year after serving as director of admissions and services for international students at Harding University in Arkansas since 2003. A native of China, Peng first became acquainted with George Fox while at Wuhan University of Technology in the late 1980s. It was there he met a visiting professor, Dennis Hagen, who had taught at George Fox since the mid-1960s.
George Fox initiated the China and East Asia Studies Program at a pivotal point in China’s history. The country, long isolated from the West under communism, is emerging as a global economic power. “China and India are the largest emerging economies in the world today,” George Fox President Robin Baker says. “If we want to reflect the future and not the past, we need to embrace these cultures. We in the U.S. had a tendency to be isolationists in the past. We can’t afford to do that anymore.”
The program also reflects the school’s commitment to bridging cultural, racial and religious boundaries. George Fox is ranked among the top 40 out of more than 1,300 schools in the country for the percentage of students who study abroad.
“Are we going to face huge challenges by bringing them here? You bet,” Baker says. “But engaging in these cross-cultural experiences is part of our DNA. It’s who we are as a Christian institution. Not only are we helping these Chinese students better understand American culture and our strong faith commitment, we are extending the opportunity for our American students to better appreciate cultures outside of their own.”
Read more about the history and timeline of the university's involvement in China
Why East Asia?
Aside from obvious cultural and religious differences, George Fox President Robin Baker was reminded of another reality during a two-week trip to China in the spring: This isn’t the world he grew up in, when the Cold War created a divide between East and West, and the United States and the former Soviet Union were the world’s undisputed superpowers.
Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Post-American World, notes that the world’s tallest building is in Taipei, Taiwan; the largest publicly traded company is in China; and India will soon have the world’s biggest oil refinery. Today, Zakaria asserts, the centers of power, finance and trade have realigned into three blocks: the United States, the European Union and Asia.
“It almost appears to be a culture on steroids,” Baker says of China. “No matter where you look you see vast economic growth — new high-rise residences, new freeways, new sport complexes. Change is happening so rapidly it is hard to predict the result of the changes.”
The recent Olympic Summer Games — at which Wang volunteered — were a coming-out party of sorts for the country. “The timing of the Games couldn’t have been better for us,” Peng says. “We demonstrated to the world that we are no longer so isolated, so closed to outside ideas. We are a welcoming people.”
China’s emergence on the global marketplace — and, subsequently, its more tolerant open-mindedness toward Western ideas — prompted George Fox to “really focus in the last couple of years on this idea of bringing Chinese students here,” Baker says. The result: 65 students on campus for the 2008-09 academic year, with the goal of 100 on campus within four years.
“When you consider the hurdles — the language barrier, the trouble you have to go through to get visas approved — you might begin to question why you’re doing it,” Baker says. “Yet we need to come to the realization that, if we’re going to be competitive and relevant in a global context, we have to seriously ask ourselves ‘What do we need to do to engage other cultures?’ Our response is to bring these students here.”
Why George Fox?
The Chinese student population is about 60 percent high school students and 40 percent college transfers. They find out about George Fox through Peng’s visits and the contacts he’s developed over the years. In addition to his work at Harding, he served as a missionary to Chinese college students and, in the early 2000s, set up the first department of cultural studies — dedicated to discussing ethical, political and religious topics among cultures — at Central China Normal University in Wuhan.
Peng also says word of mouth plays a big role. “Schoolmates, friends, parents, colleagues, and relatives of students tell their stories,” he says. “And soon we have inquiries from people saying, ‘Who is this George Fox? We want to know more.’”
Once the students get acquainted with the school, Peng says the appeal of the university is threefold: The school is respected academically in the United States; it has a history of more than 100 years; and it has an ideal West Coast location, between Seattle and San Francisco.
The majority of visiting students are the sons or daughters of businessmen and businesswomen, are employed by the Chinese government, or are educators themselves. “Their students come for the education, yes, but also to develop understanding, appreciation and friendship,” Peng says. “After all, if you don’t make the effort to try understanding one another, how can you expect to establish good relations with them?”
Bridging the gap
Peng admits the U.S.-China relationship has been strained somewhat by negative publicity — particularly concerning China’s conflict with Tibet — and it pains him. “Unfortunately, the media here have a tendency to be stereotypical, painting all Chinese in a negative light,” he says. “It’s important not to judge a nation by watching the mass media. Generally speaking, people in America don’t understand the nature of our conflict. The majority of Chinese have no direct relationship or involvement with Tibet, yet the U.S. media make it sound as if our whole nation is involved. It is a racial and religious conflict that involves a small segment of our population.”
Peng says it works both ways: The Chinese often draw the wrong conclusions about the United States because of what is portrayed in the media. “Parents say to me, ‘Is it safe there? Those Americans ... they shoot guns.’”
Still, Peng says the East Asia program is overcoming any negative stereotypes. “Our students recognize that the opinions of the media are not necessarily those of their teachers and friends,” he says. “Retention is high because they feel welcome, they recognize that my office provides a good service, offering some scholarships, and because our school has a reliable academic standing.”
From a more practical standpoint, the most noticeable divides are religious and philosophical in nature. While most of the students are receptive to studying Christianity and the Bible, some show a degree of skepticism and even reluctance. “Some say, ‘Why do I need to study the Bible? I don’t see the rationale for doing so,’” Peng says. “But most are intrigued by what the Bible says. They are curious and want to find out what is behind Christianity.”
In Wei’s case, the required Bible classes have given her a new appreciation for Christianity. “I want to learn more about Christianity and what it is about,” she says. “In China, the communists say there is no God — that we should believe in materialism. They make many hollow, empty statements — that you should be good to your fellow man — but I don’t see any action. In the United States, the Christians seem committed to acting, to caring for others. They do so because they want to do good deeds and go to heaven.”
On his trip to China, Baker engaged in dialogue that covered everything from sports to religion. “What I found on my trip was an overall openness to Western ideas — and a willingness to sit down and talk about cultural differences, religious differences, you name it,” he says.
And that, Baker says, is the crux of the program: to cultivate relationships in a world that is increasingly “flat.” “It’s a good thing to get out of our box and discover that there is much we can learn from people of other nations,” he says. “Driving us is the knowledge that we have much to offer them and they have much to offer us. It’s important we remember that God loves all people and that he moves beyond our Western culture.
“I’m convinced that developing partnerships in China will help us prepare our students for the future in a way that will make them more competitive for jobs, and more importantly, more effective servants of the kingdom.”
Baker, too, couldn’t help but notice the blurring of cultures. “There’s a Starbucks right there at the Great Wall,” he marveled. “And there are 68 Starbucks in Beijing. I knew I’d see that kind of stuff, but it did catch me a little off guard.”
Small village, indeed.
Read more about the history and timeline of the university's involvement in China