When Ashley Kinkade ’12 and Jonathan Wilson ’12, along with a handful of other students, first arrived in Hangzhou, China, in the middle of the night, they were completely lost—and very jet-lagged. Everything was in Chinese, and they couldn’t distinguish a hospital from a hotel, let alone find Zhejiang University.
Finally, they met Li Shumin, the Central College Abroad (CCA) program director in Hangzhou, and were taken to a large traditional Chinese dinner. “I couldn’t even hold my chopsticks,” recalls Kinkade. “I just wanted to go back to the airport and fly home.”Luckily, things started to look up after that, and both Kinkade and Wilson began to love Hangzhou and the people they met there. Wilson even decided to stay a whole year.
Despite the friendly welcome American students receive in Hangzhou and the impressiveness of the university and the country as a whole, the culture shock is always enormous. Studying abroad in China, as Central students have done for more than 20 years, was an overwhelming, frustrating, mind-bending and ultimately broadening experience.
Tayler Wessels, a junior who studied in Hangzhou last semester, recalls the shock of her first day, a situation a white, middle class American rarely encounters. “It was the first time I was the minority,” she says, “the one foreigner in a sea of Chinese.”
The exchange begins
In 1985, when the first Chinese exchange teacher arrived at Central, she was so frightened by what she had seen in American movies that she believed she couldn’t walk safely alone across campus. Seeing the peaceful little college was the first in a series of culture shocks experienced by the Chinese and American pioneers who have taken part in the exchange over the years. None of that learning would have occurred if not for Don and Maxine Huffman, who both taught at Central for more than four decades.
In 1983, Al Poppen ’54, whose wife Geri had taught English at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, approached Maxine about the possibility of an exchange between the two schools. Maxine and her husband Don, who together had helped start the Central College Abroad (CCA) program in Merida, Mexico, were intrigued. They took the proposal to President Ken Weller, who was dedicated to enlarging CCA’s scope in the world, and he quickly agreed to the program.
A few years later, an administrator from Zhejiang came to campus with an even bigger idea: Why not start sending Central students to the Chinese university? Maxine and Dean Hutch Bearce went to Hangzhou to lay the groundwork, and in the spring of 1991, Don and Maxine brought the first 12 Central students to China.
“When Central first started the exchange program, it was a superstar,” says Chia Ning, professor of history, who was born in Beijing and started teaching at Central in 1991. “That a small liberal arts college would have an exchange with a major Chinese university—that was groundbreaking.”
The first year
Joe Pratt ’93 was in that first group of students. He studied Chinese language, painting, history and society. He learned how to go without a hair dryer and how to think creatively to overcome language barriers. Most important, he gained the confidence to face
future culture shocks. And there would be a lot. After graduating from Central, he spent almost three years in China mastering the language. He later worked at a law firm in Hong Kong and now teaches law at Beijing University.
“When I first met Maxine and Don, I sometimes wondered if they knew what they were doing,” Pratt remembers. “They had this tremendous faith in their program, but I didn’t think they realized what we were getting into. Now, looking back, I marvel at their foresight. I think they knew China was on the cusp of great change and that it would become very important.”
The program grows
Since Pratt first arrived in China, hundreds of students from Central and other colleges have studied at Zheijiang University through CCA. They have witnessed some astounding changes in Chinese life. The city of Hangzhou, like most metros in China, has grown enormously—from 750,000 people to 5 million.
“It reminds me of the 1950s in the U.S., when I was growing up and going through college,” says Don Huffman about his years teaching English in China. “New campuses were being built at every college, and there was expansion of enrollment and new highway systems. It’s just unbelievable the growth that’s been occurring in China.”
Pratt contrasts the China he first witnessed in 1991 to the country he’s now immersed in. Back then, the shops had just a few crudely-made goods. Today, you can buy almost anything you’d find in the U.S.—Italian fashions, German beer, American electronics. “With economic liberalizations, the society and politics have become more open,” says Pratt. “China is a large country with a big rural population—and it remains a one-party system—but it seems to me that the country overall is coming closer to resembling any other modern, developed nation.”
The program in Hangzhou flourished throughout most of the ’90s. Don and Maxine taught there for several years and were invited to be the English editors of a textbook, New College English, that sold more than 2 million copies. Don, along with a team of other writers at the university, is now working on the third edition. He says they have never been treated better than by their colleagues in China.
The student experience
Today’s students find the same welcome in Hangzhou. And they often have amazing opportunities to work in their fields. Wessels, a Spanish and linguistics major, worked for an English-language magazine called that’s Zhejiang. She revised articles by non-native speakers, reviewed restaurants and wrote about her experiences in Hangzhou.
Kinkade, an elementary education major, interned at the kindergarten affiliated with the university. She spoke English with the children and practiced Chinese with the teachers. Language is the biggest barrier for American students studying in China. In Kinkade’s Chinese language class, only one other student spoke English. “I remember how eager I was to learn the language, merely to ask the person next to me if they wanted to go to lunch,” she says.
Language assistants, a key feature of the program, are a huge help to students. Don and Maxine started the practice, assigning each student a pengyou, or friend. Many CCA alumni are still close with their pengyous. “Just practicing my Chinese with Mubin helped me learned so much more,” says Wessels. “I’ve gained a friend out of it, too. He helped us experience the real life in Hangzhou, not just the tourist traps.”
Still, China can be a lonely place for a foreigner, especially when it’s so difficult to blend in. Many Chinese people stare or ask to take photos with foreigners, which is an honorable thing in Chinese culture. While walking in the public market, Wilson was often stopped and asked to hold and kiss babies.
The crush of people is intimidating, too. The buses are crammed, and thousands of bikes fill the streets and sidewalks. The riders constantly ring their bells as they cut in and out of traffic. Seeing all this, Wilson had to reevaluate his views on social etiquette.
Overall, he was extremely impressed with Chinese culture, especially the hardworking attitudes of most people. Even the street sweepers and the garbage workers were diligent and positive. “I felt lazy in comparison to them,” says Wilson. “I’m in awe of how hardworking the average person is.”
A changing perspective
China has one-fifth of the world’s popula-tion and is on its way to becoming an economic superpower. Pratt believes that, in the future, every profession will be affected by China’s relationship with the U.S. Workers who have spent time in China are a huge boon for private companies and the U.S. government.
“Global education is a key part of our future,” says Chia Ning, whose specializes in East Asian studies. “No matter where you are or what you do, your workplace is the global world.” Many of her former students, including those in the sciences, have told her how valu-able learning about Asia has been for their jobs.
But students who study in China gain more than improved career prospects. “My world is so much bigger now,” says Wessels. “It really changes the perspective of a white, middle-class American girl. I think it’s impor-tant to experience being in the minority, being uncomfortable and feeling out of place.”
Two years ago, both Central College and Zhejiang University experienced a huge loss when Maxine Huffman passed away. Her husband Don was moved by the response he received from her former Chinese students. They took up a collection so he could travel to Hangzhou and hold a memorial service for the students she inspired there.
Central is suspending the program in China after the spring semester because of an intrinsic high rate of turnover in the director position. But Hangzhou will always have a special place in the hearts of those who temporarily made their homes there.
“Whenever I go back, I’m greeted on the street like an old friend,” says Don. “It’s like a second hometown.”