Wed, Apr 23, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Traversing the Taiwan Strait

From self-censorship to gastronomical (mis)adventures, American students share their different experiences living and studying in Taiwan and China

By Dana Ter  /  Contributing reporter in New York

Students at the National Taiwan University’s International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) pose for picture day in August 2012. Many of these students also studied in China.

Photo courtesy of ICLP

Evan Kolb, a senior at Indiana University has been offered an opportunity to pursue what every Chinese-language student in America dreams of — to study in China for one year. Having lived on both sides of the Taiwan Strait though, Kolb is also saving money for a one way ticket to Taipei in hopes of seeking future employment.

“I love both places, but feel better adapted to Taiwan,” Kolb said.

Businessmen, historians, journalists and language students have flocked to China ever since the country opened its economy to the world. China, with its rich ancient history, is seen by many as the new land of opportunity.

However, an increasing number of Chinese-language students from the US are also choosing Taiwan. Through e-mail correspondence, the Taipei Times spoke with former flagship students from National Taiwan University’s International Chinese Language Program (ICLP), formerly known as the Stanford Program, who have also studied in China. Censorship in China was cited as a reason why Taiwan is becoming an attractive alternative for language students, although they were also drawn to Taiwan’s lifestyle, food and friendly people.

SPEAKING AND LISTENING

Having lived in both Taiwan and China, the students, who were a mixture of arts and business majors, noticed clear differences in teaching styles. Cadence Baugh, another Indiana University student, found it easier to accustom herself to the education system in Taiwan where she said “teachers were more familiar with creative discussion and debate.” Having to conceal her opinions in classrooms in Beijing, Baugh said, was frustrating.

"On the other hand, I learned more about Chinese education culture by experiencing it firsthand in an authentic setting. Although it pulled me out of my comfort zone and left me frustrated some days, I was able to become better aware of what it means to be a Chinese without complete freedom of speech. Both experiences were starkly different yet equally rewarding," Baugh said.

But this pressure to self-censor has been more implicit than explicit. Rather than being advised by teachers in the US to avoid discussing certain subjects, the students instinctively know not to bring up topics such as Taiwan, democracy, ethnic issues or the Falun Gong while studying in China.

“It comes less from outside pressure than from common sense knowledge that they aren’t going to produce a satisfactory answer,” says Michael Nash, a Columbia University alumni.

Bailey Mack, a student from Western Kentucky University added that controversial subjects were never discussed in class anyway. Her textbooks’ sections on “politics,” she said, always consisted of bizarre topics such as a dialogue about a school principal.

Some students didn’t see local politics as being relevant to them. This was the case for a Hunter College student who wished to remain anonymous. He says his experience in Xian taught him that anyone with a decent education is aware that corruption exists but wouldn’t dare question authorities, let along protest openly.

“There is an incredible sense of nationalism that is volatile as well as trivial to me,” he said.

Believing that they weren’t in a position to change anything, other students learned how to give neutral responses when discussing sensitive subjects. Kolb says that while living in Beijing, his usual answer is that he doesn’t have the authority as a foreigner to speak about certain topics. The issue is not entirely about being unable to speak one’s mind, Kolb added; rather, it’s about learning to listen to different perspectives.

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