Chinese Students In Latin America: Barriers Beyond Language
Chinese students visiting Chile's universities are eager to learn Spanish but reluctant to adopt its socio-cultural habits. How much does the language gap different identities?
VALPARAÍSO —The concept of transit implies the idea of passing from one point to another — a transfer. In recent years, we have observed the transit of an increasing number of Chinese university students, especially women, to Latin America for academic exchanges.
It is neither a short nor easy journey, yet like any transfer or crossing, involves a highly positive personal (and, in this scenario, academic) experience. It is a transcultural move that endows students with a new awareness of both themselves and their new host culture — in this case, Latin America. In what becomes a dialogue with "the other," they discover both commonalities and remove a few discrepancies. Language should be noted as one of the key differentiating elements, as English and Mandarin Chinese are two languages classified as typologically distant.
Their contrasts are not just linguistic (especially regarding the structural organization and function of the two languages), but also very much cultural. A significant percentage of the Chinese exchange students in Chile are in the humanities — specifically Hispanic philology, the study of Spanish and Latin American language and literature, a career path traditionally associated with women both in China and Latin America. Their main goal is to study Spanish in an immersive context, but learning or perfecting Spanish is a challenge for Chinese speakers: they must both master formal linguistic rules and adapt to the cultural guidelines that govern our communication and shape our culture.
Chinese women are doubly careful with both their own and other people's reputations.
Each language has its own logic and cultural identity. For example, take the Chinese concept miànzi, a word equivalent to "public face" that refers to one's social standing and reputation. Miànzi and its safekeeping have an important, longstanding value in Chinese society. They are rooted in the Confucian system of virtuous behavior and moral decorum, and the idea remains intact to this day. The word is a basic construction illustrating how Chinese society describes and understands interpersonal relations. The construction of the individual "I" in China is tied to the collective identity. The community is perceived as taking precedence over any ideas of the self.
The miànzi concept has a gender-related component. Linguistic and intercultural studies have shown that Chinese women are doubly careful with both their own and other people's reputations — especially within complex communicative situations or asymmetrical relationships (father-daughter, teacher-girl student, etc.). In principle, they tend to avoid any confrontation or harming another person's standing, especially if the interlocutor is older or has a senior socio-professional stature. Their complaints or rejections are expressed in a more indirect, mitigated way.
In the same vein as age and social status — both widely revered in China — there is a specific, established role of "woman" in traditional Chinese culture that persists despite generational changes and contact with other societies. Research on the use of Spanish by Chinese exchange students in Chile vs Chilean students and academics has shown, perhaps not surprisingly, significant differences in language use around the idea of "not losing face" ("diou lian").
Simply put, Chilean women are more direct and confrontational in their speech, even in hierarchical situations. Chinese students, however, systematically sought agreement or "harmonious' negotiation, as "harmony" is a pervasive notion in China.
The recent intensification of academic ties between Chinese and Latin American universities is an opportunity to reflect on established notions. It is an invitation to consider the weight of language and culture in identity construction — or reconstruction — among the Chinese students visiting our universities.