Summer program offers cross-cultural opportunities for growth



Column by Buck Ryan

How did you celebrate “the day the dragon raises its head?”

I found myself marveling at a Chinese barmaid pouring green dye into beer at the Blarney Stone Irish Pub in the French Concession district of Shanghai.

March 17 fell in the middle of my Spring Break trip to China as part of a UK delegation consummating a Confucius Institute agreement with Shanghai University.

As the first UK faculty member to be a professor in residence at SHU, I was consumed with questions, but my only serious concern was how to celebrate a high holy day of my Irish heritage in a Communist country. As I came to learn time and again, anything is possible in China if you have a Zen-like desire to solve cultural paradoxes. For starters:

  • Keep your calendars straight (lunar or solar) but never give clocks as gifts.
  • Offer your business cards using two hands, not one.
  • Know one word is really two words.
  • Hear “she” then prepare yourself to meet a “he” (men go first through doors, by the way).
  • Learn the path to financial enlightenment among three swirling economies.

This year St. Patrick’s Day arrived on the second day of the second month of the lunar calendar, the perfect time, sure and begorrah, to get a haircut for good luck and to eat pancakes (dragon ears) or noodles (dragon’s beard).

When navigating the academic calendar at Shanghai University, you need to know the difference between the lunar calendar and the solar calendar, or you’ll risk mixing up dates for the all-important Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, break.

The word “clock” when pronounced in Chinese sounds just like the word for “die,” so imagine a gift that counts down the minutes to the death of your host or hostess.

The business card ritual is not to be underestimated so don’t be like me and run out of cards before the end of your trip.

At least I was loaded with gifts for exchange, also an important ritual upon meeting people, and my boxes of Kentucky bourbon chocolates were sweet success.

Chinese words tend to run in twos, so Shanghai is really shang (above) and hai (the sea), so that’s why the shorthand for Shanghai University is SHU.

On one tour of Shanghai University’s old downtown campus, my guide announced he was taking me to the south entrance.

There, students can catch a bus to the massive new campus 20 minutes away with its sculpture gardens displaying larger-than-life images of the world’s great scholars. As we arrived at the south gate, my guide said, “I mean north.”

For solving the mystery of the three swirling economies, I turned to my Chinese Nancy Drew, UK’s new Confucius Institute director, Huajing (wah-JING) Maske, an Oxford-educated art historian.

She came home from school one day as a little girl in Shanghai to see her father’s name crossed out on a street banner during the Cultural Revolution. So she not only knows Chinese history, she also has lived it.

The three economies run from the people’s prices (low-cost neighborhood shops and restaurants), to the shopper’s prices (negotiated: no way, no way, walk away, then settle at a third of the original price tag) and the hotel’s prices (highway robbery).

The purpose of Confucius Institutes, non-profit public institutions based in Beijing under the Office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban for short, is to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture.

The benefits will begin this summer for UK students taking beginning and advanced classes in Chinese.

I hope to bring along journalism students aspiring to be foreign correspondents as I teach reporting and editing classes to SHU sophomores and juniors.

With a little luck of the Irish, my students will cover the World Expo in Shanghai and a big local story, UK’s history-making Confucius Institute.