China – Cambodia: Cross Cultural Education

The physical divide that exists between Shenzhen, China and Phnom Penh, Cambodia has been mitigated by nonstop flights and social media, bridging the gap which stretches across the South China Sea.  As a result, the development of cooperative educational, economic and environmental partnerships has reached outside of the boardrooms and into the classrooms of respective universities, looking for ways to implement creative and innovative ideas into the minds of students before they take their seat at the corporate table.  Cross-cultural educational exchanges offer opportunities whereby students and teachers can learn about the complexities of life in different countries while at the same time working collectively on finding solutions to common problems both inside as well as outside the classroom.

Through research, innovation and entrepreneurship, the university I teach at, Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), has a goal to become a top-tier international university which attracts scholars and students from across the globe focusing on interdisciplinary research.  With both undergraduate and graduate programs which emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, SUSTech is looking beyond borders to attract the best and brightest students to continue their studies in a dynamic learning environment.  Last month in Phenom Penh, Cambodia, I had the chance to work with my university’s Global Engagement Office on a recruiting and interview trip whereby we met with local students and educators about the opportunity to study in Shenzhen, where they can be taught by international professors surrounded by a global city.  For Cambodian university students, this affords them the prospect of expanding their educational, personal, and professional horizons, learning from world-class instructors while coupling their newfound knowledge with practical applications in one of the fastest growing cities on the planet.  For SUSTech, it helps to expand the global framework of their student-body, giving credence to the notion of internationalization, and the benefits which it brings to everyone involved.

The dichotomy between Chinese and Cambodian education is decreasing as our world becomes smaller and more globalized.  Innovative curriculum development paired with creative teaching pedagogy has gone to increase matriculation in both countries, in turn paving the road for sustainable growth as it pertains to the economy.  No one country acts as a model for the other, rather both China and Cambodia trade cultural and educational ideas, learning from one another much the same way students pair on a class project.  University scholarships, such as the one which SUSTech offers Cambodian students, underscore the importance of this bilateral partnership, with keen eyes peering towards the future where these ideas are rewarded with success.

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Cambodian Royal Palace

Much like myself, an American teaching in China, the Cambodian students we interviewed understand the benefits of leaving one’s homeland for different cultural and educational opportunities overseas.  It isn’t that one country is better than the other, instead, it is the comprehension that the unique and varying perspectives we have as global citizens is what ultimately adds to the collective dialogue we wish to engage in together.  Similarly for these students, when they interact with their professors and classmates at Southern University of Science and Technology, they will help create a platform which is receptive to new educational ideas from different cultures, highlighting the model already in place between China and Cambodia.

Field Trip: English Speaking Club

For the past two Semesters, I have led the Southern University of Science and Technology’s Speaking Club, “Voice of SUSTech” through weekly meetings, assembling every Sunday night to practice conversational English in an informal environment.  These gatherings – not classes – act as a practical platform for English language acquisition in an authentic setting, where rankings, competitions and tests are not part of the curriculum.

In an effort to underscore the notion of genuine learning opportunities I helped the students plan a field trip outside of campus, where they could practice their English conversational skills in a setting which pushed the boundaries of their comfort zone.  Within language attainment, it is challenges which foster growth, whereas rote learning only promotes an adherence to bygone practices.  Wishing to promote lessons that the students could utilize outside the classroom, we organized a “Foreigner Interview Project” at Shekou, an area with many international restaurants and shops, so that the students would have ample opportunities to speak and interact with people from across the globe.

Mexican Lunch
Lunch at Tequila Coyotes Cantina

Gathering at Noon in a Mexican restaurant, there were about 20 students, in addition to five staff, each of whom joined for this unique educational experience.  Language is a part of culture, and even the introduction to Spanish language and Mexican food sparked curiosity, as during our lunch, Sophomore student Liu Changgao found an immediate interest, sitting down to interview the owner of the restaurant, creating an instantaneous cultural exchange between the two, bridging any division of separation through simple conversation, with English acting as the common language.  Ideas and practices such as these were the goal of this project, and a Chinese student speaking with a Mexican business owner is a testament to this notion, and an example of the power of comfortability with language in an everyday setting.

Over the course of nearly two hours on a Sunday afternoon, the students and staff from the Speaking Club were able to interview people from across the globe, including Russia, France, Greece, the United States, and numerous other countries.  Asking a series of about five questions to the respective interviewees, the SUSTech students reported back with positive results, meeting people such as a Ukrainian filmmaker, a Uruguayan professor, and a Dutch researcher.  In many cases, the “interviews” turned into conversations, with dialogue flowing in each direction, adding deeper substance to the prescribed questions.

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Interview Selfie

Part of my role as a foreign teacher within a Chinese educational context is not merely to espouse the importance of second language learning, but to similarly share the cultural aspects which encompass language.  Through activities such as this field trip, students and staff alike learned not only communicative skillsets associated with conversation, but moreover through the dialogues, they learned about cultural aspects associated with South American and European countries and the complexities which affect their realities living and working in China.  Not only were the student’s language skills enhanced through the “Foreigner Interview Project” but more importantly, their worldviews were expanded as well.

Book Club: “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”

This Spring Semester the Staff English Class began a Book Club, reading Peter Hessler’s “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”.  Meeting every other Thursday during lunch, our group consists of SUSTech Staff members who enjoy English literature, and who value the notion of constructive dialogue as it applies to both cultural and educational frameworks.  The Book Club consists of 17 students as well as myself, acting as a facilitator, reading three chapters (about 100 pages) every two weeks, coming prepared with issues which we both agree and disagree with, along with questions and concerns about the writing.  As active and engaged readers, the Staff Students take notes during their readings, highlighting and underlining important passages which speak to their own experiences.  Challenging ideas while understanding context allows for the discussion of different viewpoints, learning that when combined, our individual realities form a cohesive bond.

Discussion
Book Club Discussion

River Town follows the path of Peter Hessler from 1996-1998 while he was a Peace Corps. Volunteer at Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan Province.  Much like my own current set of circumstances in 2017 Shenzhen, he taught English and culture in a university setting, writing about many of the challenges and opportunities which I too encounter on a daily basis.  For our Staff English Class, this seemed like an ideal book to study, as even though it describes events from 20 years ago, in a number of respects, it mirrors the complexities which both myself as well as my students face in modern day China.  Development may improve infrastructure and access to foreign capital but cultures change less rapidly, providing learning opportunities to explore our differences in opinions.  Whether along the Yangtze River or the South China Sea, there is no right answer, rather a combination of ideas which encourage discussion and ultimately lead to compromise.  Literature reflecting life!

To underscore our understanding of the book, I reached out to the author to see if he would be interested in speaking with us directly about his experiences in China, discussing with our Book Club via videoconference.  Peter Hessler still writes, most notably for The New Yorker, and his articles continue to delve past the surface limitations of image and into the greater depth of substance.  To our delight, he agreed to set up a time to talk with us, allowing a refined definition of the words we are reading, told by the author some 20 years later.  It is these expanded opportunities for learning – stretching beyond language into culture – which emphasizes the true nature of global education.

The SUSTech English Book Club is another example of the creative ideas for learning which are being fostered by those who understand the value of authentic educational models.  Twenty years ago, students in Fuling learned new ways of approaching common ideas by being introduced to an American teacher who brought with him a different perspective.  Today, as I work with motivated staff students in Shenzhen, I too am looking for innovative approaches to teaching about English and culture as well.  Reading River Town in our Book Club provides us with such an opportunity, where we reach beyond the traditional classroom, beyond our own circumstances, and beyond time and place, only to arrive at a new understanding painted by differing viewpoints which allows reflection as we continue to move downstream.

Shenzhen Daily Newspaper Article

I have had the opportunity to write for newspapers in Korea, Ethiopia, and now China, getting an article published in The Shenzhen Daily, the only English Newspaper here in South China.  As is usually the case, I wrote about the cross-pollination of culture and education:

“Global Education: Differing Ideas to Common Dreams”

Peering through the morning haze which hovers like a blanket over Shenzhen, I walk through a campus overlooked by neighboring skyscrapers from across the street, seemingly created from scratch within the last week.   These buildings of gleaming glass house companies which are recognized across the world, not only creating products that will be used from Africa to America, but similarly, attracting talented employees from countries on nearly every continent.  Creation through innovation – this approach to business has helped China along the path to prosperity it currently finds itself on, utilizing a local as well as international workforce to create a positive economic and educational environment which tries to benefit everyone involved.

On a daily basis at the university I teach at in Shenzhen, I hear the word “Internationalization” used with frequency, recognizing its importance, trying to emulate these successes in the classrooms which are being demonstrated in the boardrooms.  Foreign professors sharing their expertise with international students who likewise come equipped with different viewpoints are both an integral part of a constructive learning environment.  The world outside of campus is becoming less and less homogeneous, reflecting a changing business climate and it is prudent to prepare students for these realities.  Similarly, the approaches in deliverance of classroom information should also address the non-traditional methods of communication, shying away from conventional lectures and instead embracing cooperative learning models where students lead discussions; as involved in their learning outcomes as they would be in an innovative company which promotes cohesion, not separation.

Geographically, Shenzhen has an innate advantage, as people from all corners of China come here in search of brighter futures, creating a multicultural city of sorts which boasts regional cuisine, distinct dress, and even local music from the varying provinces across the country.  These cultural complexities are what draws others – from outside of China – to Shenzhen, to teach, learn, and work, experiencing both professional and personal development with lessons taking place daily in their offices and on the streets.  These examples of difference should be fostered inside university campuses as well, promoting learning from a variety of backgrounds, exposing students to different ways of thinking while expanding their worldview.

As an American with teaching experience on four different continents, I try to highlight not only Western methodology and pedagogy but furthermore, allow my students virtual access to the other places I have taught.  The internationalization of the classroom underlines the global environment we find ourselves in and likewise helps us to define the role we as individuals play.  Lessons which extend outside of campus, from participation in an American Book Club to a Webinar with African students helps to shape a different approach to common problems.  As a global citizen, I am grateful for my teaching and learning experiences here in Shenzhen, crouched underneath those clouds of haze yet knowing that the bridges built from here extend into that vast beyond where the possibilities are endless.

Matthew Jellick holds a Master’s Degree in Teaching from the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, and is currently a lecturer at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.

Collaborating Across Cultures – Stories from SUSTech International Scholars

Few of us spend much time thinking about courage, but we know it when we see it – or do we?  It takes a lot of courage to leave everything behind and step into the unknown, but international students and scholars are travelling long distances and investing lots of time and energy in order to start a new life at SUSTech in the heart of Shenzhen, China’s most innovating city. What attracts them to relocate here to study and do research? How are they collaborating with people from other cultures? What are some of their suggestions for SUSTech? We would like to share their stories.

SUSTech’s Meeting International Scholars is a project focused on allowing the varied and unique experiences of studying and doing research at SUSTech be shared through creative methods. The project takes the form of a multimedia approach based on the format the interviewees feel most comfortable with.

This week, we are lucky to have three scholars share their stories that you should not miss! They are Matthew Jellick from the Center for Language Education, Dr. Farhad Pourpanah in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Dr. Ashfaq Ahmad in the Department of Biology.

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“SUSTech is a university where you can find both dynamic innovation and academic prowess”

Matthew Jellick, United States of America

Matthew Jellick used to work in South Korea where he taught for five years. After that, he spent two years on a fellowship in Africa lecturing at universities in Ethiopia.  Now he joins the SUSTech family and teaches in the Center for Language Education (CLE).

With a strong interest in Asian educational culture, Mr. Jellick decided to work for SUSTech because he realized that he wanted to return to an Asian educational context and more importantly, believes that SUSTech is a university where he can find both dynamic innovation and academic prowess.   These ideals can be manifested by SUSTech’s founding spirit of “being innovative, truthful and realistic” coupled with its commitment to the cultivation of innovative talents and the work taking place on innovative centers and projects.

According to Jellick, what attracted him most to SUSTech is the fact that he can gain new perspectives and learn new ways. “SUSTech offered me a chance to develop both professionally and personally – teaching while learning,” he said in an interview.

With a Master’s Degree in Teaching from the University of Southern California, Mr. Jellick feels fulfilled within the CLE since he can work with both Chinese and foreign teachers. They come from different countries, but work together towards the same goal – to teach and improve the English attainment of the students and faculty of SUSTech.

Although Jellick is a foreigner and a newcomer to the university, he doesn’t feel out of place, rather, SUSTech makes him feel at home. “SUSTech is a group of researchers, educators and learners which defines the school, making it feel like more of a community as opposed to a campus.” he said, adding that the staff he teaches, including librarians, laboratory assistants, secretaries and administrators are friendly and helpful, making him feel that he is a member of a big family. With a competitive salary package, generous start-up funding and modern teaching facilities, SUSTech is truly a place where the faculty can realize their dreams.

Mr. Jellick thinks that SUSTech is similar to Shenzhen itself in many ways for their respect and tolerance for different people and cultures. “It is our differences which attracts us, complex worldviews coming together to be shared in a constructive classroom environment, mirroring in a lot of ways the realities in the city of Shenzhen itself,” said Jellick.

As much as he enjoys his work and life at SUSTech, he misses the U.S. for its multiculturalism because he believes “diversity brings about beauty in the compound mixtures of food, language and beliefs”. However, his homesickness can be relieved a bit in Shenzhen, a city where he can experience different cultures from all parts of China including regional cuisines, variations on dialect and even differing forms of attire.

As a lecturer at SUSTech, Mr. Jellick keeps innovating and pushing himself out of his comfort zone by offering his students (SUSTech Staff) opportunities which stretch beyond the classroom. Apart from teaching, he also runs an English Book Club, acts as advisor to the English Speaking Club and even has taken the Staff out for an English-movie day at the theatre. With continued plans to expand his students’ worldview, he is working on collaborations with colleagues in Africa and the U.S. to do educational webinars, shortening the distance between classrooms and cultures, sharing with each other and learning new perspectives.

He never stops writing too. In his spare time, he writes for the New York Times, Shenzhen Daily, and the USC Chinese Institute’s US-China Today. Being a life-long learner, he keeps doing things which help him develop both professionally and personally.

Having had been teaching and living abroad for almost ten years with educational experiences on six different continents, Mr. Jellick gained an ability to communicate effectively within diverse cultural groups. To him, language comprises a small part of culture, as it also incorporates foods, clothing and even music. Therefore he understands more than anyone else that each respective culture has its own positive values. “There is no one single prominent culture, rather, we are a community of global citizens which should work together to share ideas,” he said.

At SUSTech where different cultures co-exist, Jellick has started to adjust himself to the environment by valuing everyone’s opinion, regardless of their social status.

“SUSTech also offers an opportunity to meet well-known professors from all over the world”

Dr. Farhad Pourpanah, Iran

SUSTech also offers an opportunity to meet well-known professors from all over the world, which is the reason why Dr. Pourpanah decided to work here four months ago. Before coming to SUSTech, he worked at Malaysia Science and Technology University.

Dr. Pourpanah was attracted to the clean environment and comfortable campus life of SUSTech, but he also found English a barrier to communicating with others.

Having no family in Shenzhen, he misses them and the food of his country the most.

Different from the universities where he used to work, SUSTech offers access to more data bases and a chance to work with well-known professors, which Dr. Pourpanah considers a big advantage of SUSTech.

In his opinion, China now is a country famous for high-tech technology and industrial zones, which is why people from all over the world come here.

But it is difficult for them to communicate with Chinese people because of language.

Having been abroad for eight years, he respects each country’s culture. However, it is difficult for him to adapt to Chinese culture since he has just arrived, but he looks forward to learning more about Chinese culture.

SUSTech is a fast-growing body with international collaborations.”

Dr. Ashfaq Ahmad, Pakistan

Dr. Ahmad feels lucky to become a part of the SUSTech community, having come to be a Postdoc in the Department of Biology last summer.

He is attracted by the multi-cultural and academic environment of SUSTech.

“Among Chinese universities, SUSTech has a uniqueness for its architectural beauty and academic standards. It is a fast growing body with international collaborations. The research environment is highly professional and scientific which is a great sign for academic development,” said Dr. Ahmad.

Besides, he likes SUSTech because it is young and dynamic. But as a Postdoc, he cares about the research environment the most and SUSTech didn’t fail him. SUSTech has always committed to building itself into a high-level research public university where research funds and investments are valued the most. In the future, the university plans to complete the construction of about 20 research centers by 2020 with two to three built every year, forming a high-level basic research and applied basic research platform.

When Dr. Ahmad first came to the campus, he was amazed at its cleanliness, friendliness and particularly by its environmentally friendly regulations. “I guess very few universities have a no smoking policy on campus,” he said. He is also happy to see that the recreational facilities such as a sports complex are well maintained and easily accessible.

Although most people in SUSTech can speak English fluently, Dr. Ahmad still finds it a pity that he cannot speak Chinese. “I think that not knowing Chinese language sometimes limits my exposure,” he said.

However, with the state-of-art facilities and equipment of SUSTech, the results of his research can be guaranteed. This is also one of the biggest differences between SUSTech and the universities in Pakistan. Besides, the quality and skills of the students and staff also left a deep impression on Dr. Ahmad. Most importantly, he thanked the SUSTech Education Foundation for offering funds not only for research but also for human development, which is one of the reasons why he works here.

On a national level, China and Pakistan are good partners. To Ahmad, Chinese people are friendly and supportive. He attributes the strength of China to Chinese people’s diligence, which is a good quality in his eyes.

Now being in a different country, Dr. Ahmad is dealing with the transition quite well since he understands that people from different cultures can live and work harmoniously in the globalized world. “It is a general perception that India and Pakistan are not friendly but I have met several Indian friends who for me are just like any Pakistani friends,” he said.

At SUSTech, he feels a sense of belonging and thinks working with people from different cultures helps him become more tolerant and moderate about his ideas. Even when he celebrated his own country’s festivals, other SUSTech families joined him and they all shared the joy, which he believes is a delightful experience of respect.

Staff English Field Trip: La La Land Movie

The English-language classroom acts as a platform to practice the skillsets of reading, writing, speaking and listening, giving students an opportunity to refine their pronunciation while honing their grammar. Formative practices in language learning encourage students to make mistakes, learn from them, and in turn, create better usage tools to help them communicate, regardless of the medium, be it a written letter or a spoken presentation.

Outside of campus, within a Chinese context, English learners oftentimes have limited access to apply that which they study inside the classroom, hindered by the rich Sinosphere which permeates their daily lives. As a language instructor, I am always looking for ways to encourage my students to seeks out linguistic and cultural opportunities for practice, and this past weekend, we found just the chance.

Organizing a group of about 20 staff members from Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), we met on a Saturday afternoon for a movie and lunch, entertained by the Academy Award nominated film, “La La Land”. Thrilling us from the opening sequence taking place on a crowded freeway in Downtown Los Angeles, working its way complexly through the relationships onstage, and highlighted the entire time by song and dance, the movie provided an insight to a feeling and place not visited nearly enough by those of us in the audience. Similarly, it gave my students an opportunity to hear English in an authentic (albeit Hollywood scripted) setting, where intonation and tone came natural to the speakers, forcing a trained ear to keep up without relying on the subtitles.

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SUSTech Staff English Students

 

The “City of Stars” which characters Sebastian and Mia sing about is a reference to my hometown of Los Angeles, perhaps the most multicultural city anywhere, where dreams are both deferred and realized, yet continues to remain a landscape which still draws the attention of the world. It was my hope that from the scenes taking place on the Hermosa Beach Pier to the conversations between characters in Griffith Park, that my students could catch a glimpse of the culture which helps define our language. The words spoken and emotions felt on screen can’t be found in a textbook, giving credence to this non-traditional means of learning, far from the chairs and desks in Room 505.

Over the course of the semester, I will continue to look for opportunities to share with the Staff English Class where we can expose ourselves to the underlying notions which surround language, learning more about different cultures, and in turn, ourselves…

Staff English Class: Semester Completed

I just completed another Semester at another University in another Country on another Continent.  These past few months have found me in Shenzhen, at Southern University of Science and Technology, where I am the Staff Language Instructor, working with various departments on improving both business as well as practical English.  Over the course of the Semester, I worked with University Staff on English-language attainment, as it pertains to use both inside and outside of campus.  Since my arrival in late-October, these past three months have been rich in terms of unlimited cultural experiences, including my professional development, again working in a demanding academic environment.

Below are two short articles I wrote for the University’s Website, one describing the contexts of my classes, and the other celebrating the successful completion of our first Semester, hosting a PotLuck Party with my students.  I hope that you are able to take the time to read the short entries, shedding light on what I teach, where I learn, and with whom I share my experiences, here, far across the Pacific.

Never seeming to live in a country which matches up with Western Holidays, I will be spending the upcoming Chinese New Year in California, visiting with family and friends; enjoying many of the people and places which help frame my years abroad.  So, from this dynamic city of nearly 20 million people to each of you, wherever on the globe this email arrives, I wish you a Happy and Prosperous Year of the Rooster…
 
Expanding Cooperation Through English Learning
(November, 2016)
As the world continues to shift towards a smaller global community, shedding the distance between countries and continents, English language learning remains as pertinent as ever, helping to bridge the divide that separates. Common goals inspire common avenues, and Southern University of Science and Technology is paving the path towards internationalization within itself to help foster a community of learners, researchers, and staff that works together, underlying the foundations of cooperative education.

Introduced this year, English Language Training for Staff is a course which brings together members of different departments for daily lessons on the both the fundamentals of English as well as many of the cultural aspects which encompass language.  Learning important vocabulary as well critical thinking skills, SUSTech Staff are encouraged to think outside the classroom, applying their knowledge to practical situations which they encounter on a daily basis.  Using language acquisition as motivation for social mobility, students from the Library, Human Resources, Student Affairs and a number of other offices are taking advantage of this course which promotes cooperation amongst the different departments, in turn supporting collaboration with various partners and new colleagues.

The city of Shenzhen is a microcosm of the diversity which now defines our international context, with people from all corners of China here to advance themselves through personal and professional development.  A leader in creativity, technology and the entrepreneurial leadership which merge the two, the same attributes which describe our city can be applied to Southern University of Science and Technology, and the talented people involved with its development towards a global leader in education.

As SUSTech moves towards its goal of becoming a top-tier international university that excels in interdisciplinary research, nurturing innovative talents and delivering new knowledge to the world, it is through inter-department collaboration, where such visions are nurtured.  The Staff Language Training acts as a strong example of fulfilling a promise which the university is making to itself to ensure an expanded global understanding on behalf of everyone involved here on campus in Shenzhen, as we reach out to an expanded global platform.

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End-of-Semester Party!
End-Of-Semester PotLuck Party
(January, 2017)
As we celebrate the completion of the first Semester of our Staff-English Class, I wanted to be sure to thank each of you for welcoming me into your culture, your community, and your classroom.  A year ago, I was in the highlands of East Africa, teaching and living in an entirely different context, grateful for those experiences but equally thankful for the opportunities which a return to Asia has provided me, especially the time I have been able to work with you, the staff of Southern University of Science and Technology, practicing English in a constructive environment.


Your desire to discover, coupled with motivation for success is highlighted in the classroom, with each of you putting forth the effort needed to learn such a challenging subject.  While there is rich history in Chinese, English is the language of this global world we live in, and it is my hope that through the lessons and discussions in our class, you are able to tint the lens through which you see into that vast beyond.  Similarly, SUSTech’s path to be an international university is reflected in each of your own roles here, from the Library to Student Affairs, and from Secretaries to Lab Assistants.  English stretches across each of the boundaries which separates your departments, but your participation in our class shows that you are not limited by language restrictions, instead, embracing the challenges and accepting the responsibilities.

A few months ago, at the beginning of our class, I suggested that language is only one part of culture, and that likewise, so too is music, clothing, beliefs, and food.  Here then today, I am happy to have all the classes together to share some of the meals which gives credence to our past, unites us in the present, and promotes ideas about the future.  It is my hope that this gathering acts as a strong ending for our first semester together, while at the same time representing a catalyst for continued growth next semester; learning together in an educational environment which fosters creative concepts about language and culture, and expands our worldview through cooperative ideas.