Thursday, March 14, 2013

Just when I'm starting to get truly fed up with China and want to move out, one of my students steals my heart and makes me think I could never leave this place.

Katerina came to the Support Center a few days ago with a practice essay for her IELTS exam studies. The essay was about pandas, and the gist of it was, "pandas are very clever and lovely animals, and I love them very much." Blech!

It turns out the question asked her to describe an experience with a wild animal, but she's never had any experiences with animals. Our conversation quickly left her essay behind, and turned to her frustration with her student's life in China. She's never had the chance to do anything — experience anything — make any choices for herself.

She teared up a little (and so did I) when she told me she really wants to study Chinese history, but she isn't allowed to do it. There are no jobs in that, her father tells her, and he's spent so much money on her education that it's her responsibility to bring "glamor" to him. Or, failing that, at least a lot of money.

("He really want me to marry a rich man and bring him money from another way," she said with obvious revulsion, "but I don't like that way.")

So she's transferring to an American university next year, to study Electrical Engineering — a major she has no interest in, is almost certainly going to hate, and will likely fail out of — because her father doesn't want to "waste" his money on an impractical degree.

I told her there are jobs in America teaching Chinese history. According to an article in the *Chronicle* a couple of years ago, it's one of the few areas in US academia in which job growth is outstripping available applicants.

She has some friends who are studying in America and don't like it very much. One is having trouble with the language. Another has only Chinese friends and is too shy to talk to Americans. Another friend is having a much better time of it, because she has a Korean friend and an American friend.

Then there was this boy from her high school, who studied English so hard his classmates said his English book was his girlfriend. He's now at the University of Illinois, and she said she would like to find a university near him...

I advised her not to study something just because others expect it of her, and her face closed down a little. "Maybe I always have done because other one say to do, so maybe I can't do just for me." I told her that's fine for little girls, but she's an adult now and she should try to find a compromise that will make her father happy AND be interesting to her.

Chinese students aren't used to having counselors to help them with important academic decisions, so I wrote the words "Career Planning Center" and "History Department Advisor" in her notebook. I told her, in my best domineering Chinese voice, that she must go to both of those places as soon as she gets to her American university.

She was afraid to obey. "They won't be able to understand me," she said, but I think she was really afraid to talk to an American she doesn't know. "I understand you," I assured her, "so they can, too." I think I got through to her; but even if I didn't, I'm sure she'll be back in the Support Centre many times to bone up for her IELTS exam.

If Katerina hadn't had someone to talk to before she got to America, she might well have become yet another Chinese/American transfer student casualty. She might have gone there, been too afraid to mingle in American life, learned only enough to come back to China with vague and biased ideas about America — and never taken advantage of the opportunity to do something she has a passion for.

There's no telling what will happen to this young woman. She may end up not having the chops to make it in history, or she may not find a job. She may still end up choosing to study something that bores her. But at least she will have the opportunity to decide for herself, something China would never have given her.

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