Watershed - What should a foreigner expect when coming to teach in China?
Daniel Veras - Different people will certainly have different expectations when coming to China. It will all depend on how close your country is from China, as well as the degree of familiarity you have with this culture – and, of course, your mastering of Chinese language. As for my wife and I, we arrived in China for the first time in 2003 for a year of study of Chinese language in Nanjing. Being from São Paulo, Brazil, we were to a certain extent familiar with the Sino-Brazilian community (and their Chinese products, restaurants, acupuncture and martial arts), but speaking no Chinese at all. Given this limited background on the matter, although we knew the reasons and the importance of what we were doing, the truth is that we didn’t know much what to expect when we arrived here. Nevertheless, after all those years living here, now we can say that if you are considering coming to China, one thing is sure: you should expect to be surprised. Be surprised by different foods and customs you didn’t imagine that existed; be surprised by unexpected behaviors and reactions of the people, be surprised by how fragile your previous prejudices were; be surprised by the vertiginous pace of life; and be surprised by your capacity of overcoming obstacles. Moreover, one should also expect to learn something new everyday, regardless of how many years he or she has already spent in China. The environment is so rich in details and constant change that it is virtually impossible not to apprehend new information or acquire knowledge. It just stimulates us to search what is behind the difference, and to get rid of misconceptions. As for teaching, one should be open to learn how Chinese students communicate and to what they need.
WS - What are the main changes you have been witnessing in China since you arrived in the country in 2008?
DV - When it comes to China from the 2000s until now, change is the word that best describes it. There have been so many transformations, in so many ways, that it is very difficult to keep track of everything. It is no exaggeration to say that a person who visits a Chinese city after a couple of years of absence may not recognize it. The most obvious change is in the landscape. New bridges, skyscrapers, roads, shopping malls, high-rises, pedestrian streets, land-fillings, subway lines, tunnels and other constructions mushroom everywhere – not to mention the old houses and buildings that are being torn down to make way for the new. In Wuhan’s case, city where my family and I have lived in since 2006, the most massive change is noted from 2010 onwards. This reflects the economic heat of the present. And from this date on the changes have been made aggressively. Of course, new landscapes reflect transformations in the mindset, such as more individualism and consumerism. New cars swarm Chinese streets everyday, replacing the old bicycles, making the city more congested and polluted. In the micro-scale, transformation is also underway. To give you an idea, about a year ago, the washrooms of my University were rebuilt. Before, those were typical traditional Chinese communist-style washrooms, with squatting toilets using a common ditch, with little aesthetical or finishing concerns. Last year, however, after the summer vacations, the porcelain and all the tiles were changed, individual urinals placed on walls and there were individual toilet booths (with locking doors) – and even a big mirror above the wash basins. For me it was no trivial change, but the signal of a new mindset in China, stressing the importance of individuality and even vanity.
WS - Being a Professor in Brazilian Studies at Hubei University allows you to close and deep observe Chinese students. What are their profiles, professional goals, areas of interest and opinions about Brazil?
DV - Hubei University basically concentrates students from Hubei Province and Central China, occasionally presenting some from other provinces. Most of my students are of Han group. However, I have already taught people of Mongol and Uygur (Western Muslim) ethnicities. Although my students are equally enjoying education in the University, their family backgrounds vary greatly. Among them you can find the children of businesspeople, farmers, cooks, hairdressers, farmhands, waiters, physicians, government officials, lawyers, etc. – from both the city and the countryside. All studying together. How different it is from Brazil, my country, where my University students would basically come from urban middle-class families, making evident the same old social structure. This leads me to think that in this aspect, access to education in China is at present a very important tool to narrow the social gap. In my university I take part in a cooperation involving the Confucius Institute, the Han Ban (Chinese Government) and the São Paulo State University (Unesp), where I provide the Chinese teachers with training concerning Brazilian culture and Portuguese language before they go to Brazil to work. For that reason, my students’ goals are somewhat specific, in the area of teaching Chinese overseas, eventually occupying directive positions. Learning foreign languages, nevertheless, is paramount for every university student I have come across. English is their passport to international markets, and a second or even third foreign language is a great deal of difference when searching for a job. Generally speaking, the whole country goes through a “learn English” fever. With Portuguese, some of my students end up in Beijing or Southern China, working in companies that deal with Portuguese-speaking African countries (in international trade). The relationship between Brazil and China is still marked by mutual lack of understanding. My students are very curious about Brazil, and really keen to learn as much as they can. They know something about Brazil’s carnival, barbecue and soccer, but they want to know about these in depth, besides learning about other Brazilian foods, Brazilian music, arts and literature. In the process, they learn about Brazilian history. The problem is still a relatively low degree of exposure to Brazilian cultural products. Maybe this could increase with more cultural exchanges, showing of Brazilian films and soap-operas, like the once so famous in the 1970s “Escrava Isaura” [Slave Isaura], now practically unknown among the Chinese youth.
WS - China has been attracting many foreign universities and “exporting” thousands of students to the US and Europe. How can Brazil do it?
DV - The massive presence of Chinese students overseas is a fact and every university considering going global has to acknowledge and embrace this market. Europe and US have done their homework and are creating attractive conditions for those students, and we can see their successful results. When it comes to Brazil, however, this is far from reality. The situation is due to a number of reasons: first, as already said, Brazil and China still know very little about each other. The Chinese don’t know much what to expect when going to Brazil, and at times what they hear is not very positive. Besides, Chinese culture is extremely ranking-oriented, and the relative scarcity of Brazilian universities among top ranking universities can be a real put-off. Moreover, Brazil is very far, so they will only go there if they feel it is really worth going, and language is still a barrier. They will prefer to go somewhere where they can use English. Price-wise, although the public universities are free of charge, private education is still expensive, not to mention the high cost of living in Brazil. As a result, they end up investing their money in education in North America, Europe and Oceania. Considering all these reasons, some strategies should be considered in order to attract Chinese students to Brazil: in the long term, make our universities more competitive in science, humanities and technical areas. In the short term, as at present it is difficult to compete in sciences and technical areas, Brazil should create and advertise more courses of cultural nature, specialized in Portuguese language or Brazilian economics, business, culture, politics and society – for which studying in Brazil would be considered an advantage, a plus: for example, something of help for the increasing number of Chinese expatriates getting positions in Brazil. The private universities could try to reach more competitive tuition fees, and the government could invest in giving scholarships and grants to Chinese students. Offering more university courses in English in Brazil would be another effective way of attracting international students as a whole.
WS - Some experts say China takes advantage of being a BRIC´s member to attack the US´ currency devaluation and divert attention from its own Renminbi policy. Do you agree?
DV - China is going through a process of slowly appreciating its currency, although the country cannot do it abruptly, otherwise it may compromise their export policy. The process is also related to internal social transformations, in which a growing middle-class with purchase power will more and more consume in internal market. Perhaps they are diverting attention from their own policy, but they are certainly concerned about the US currency devaluation, as it may represent more competition for Chinese products.
WS - Being a global export machine is no longer a guarantee of sustainable growth for China. How will the Communist Party manage to make this transition from a export-driven to a domestic market-driven economy?
DV - Many signals in this direction can be seen, and they are somewhat related to Renminbi appreciation. As previously said, there is a growing middle-class, with growing education level and growing purchase power. The Communist Party is paying attention to this, and also to the fact that, in order to make this new economy work, the Chinese labor force must be more qualified. For this, education and training are critical. This will add great value to Chinese products and services, also resulting in the increasing of salaries, moving the economy wheel. Another process underway is the urbanization of the population. China is still a rural country, but is investing tremendously in real estate in cities in order to shelter these future newcomers from the countryside. At present we see lots of new houses and apartments still empty, but the Government seems to be planning a massive migration soon.
WS - Could China´s assertive diplomacy towards the South China Sea disputes backfire, in that it will likely attract an even stronger US presence in Asia, as neighbours feel menaced?
DV - Tension in the region already exists, and external provocations in South China Sea do occur. There is tension between the Chinese and the Filipino Governments over the Huangyan Islands. Japan is claiming that the Pescadores Islands are negotiable for purchase, and the Americans intensify their military presence in the whole Pacific. Therefore, China’s extreme caution has some reason to be. As I see it, it is not China who is causing those incidents to happen, although Chinese reaction must be seen as exaggerate, as they concentrate too much military power in the area. Whether China’s policy will backfire or not, only time can tell. Perhaps nothing will happen. Nevertheless, in spite of all the threats and provocations, I wonder who is really willing to start a fight with China and deal with it at this moment.
WS- Has the surge of China as a global power been changing the diaspora´s profile in Brazil in the last decade?
DV - Indeed. The surge of China as a global power has not only changed the diaspora’s profile in Brazil, but in the world as a whole. The Chinese overseas are estimated in 35 million in 150 countries. In Brazil they are 200,000, half of which live in São Paulo state. For illegal migration and the constant change of citizenships, it is very difficult to keep a record of the Chinese overseas anywhere in the world. In Brazil the Chinese immigration is as old as 200 years (having started in 1812) when D. João VI brought some Chinese to work in the tea culture. Until the 1950s, most of Chinese were from the Southern regions of Guangdong and Fujian. Between the 1950s and 1980s, they were coming basically from Taiwan. In Brazil the leaders of the Chinese Catholic Church in São Paulo, considered an important authority in the matter in Brazil, signalize an increase of the influx of Mainland Chinese in Brazil after the 1980s, which coincides exactly with the economic opening of China. As we see, the more open a country is, the more people are able to emigrate, seizing opportunities in business, teaching, scholarships, etc. In Brazil the profile of Chinese immigrants has always been predominantly urban, with a strong entrepreneurial trait, and coming in individual initiatives. This has been intensified in the latest years, when many openings for executive positions (in international companies) have been created in Brazil, making those new Chinese immigrants more cosmopolitan and qualified than before. This can surely revitalize and modernize the Sino-Brazilian community.
WS - As the number of foreigners living in China keep growing, as well as China´s clout in global affairs, do you believe any sort of xenophobia might come up in the next years?
DV - Although the Chinese people are in general very hospitable and friendly, racism and xenophobia are grim realities that sometimes foreign (and minority) people have to face. For coming from cultural isolation and for being related to a very traditional way of thinking, prejudice is very old and difficult to change. Yes, more and more foreigners are coming to China, although sometimes being mistreated. Recently, some strange videos online showing foreigners committing crimes have exacerbated the anti-foreign feeling. The government has reported some foreigners involved in criminal activities or staying illegally in the country, therefore organizing a public campaign to catch the “bad apples”, implying that only part of these foreigners have wrongdoings. In spite of this well-intentioned implication, I wonder how this kind of campaign can influence the way all foreigners will be seen. Innocent or guilty, the foreigners are once again singled out. Anyway, although along the centuries, periods of more and less acceptance for foreigners have alternated in China, I am optimistic. Recently, the opening of China has been an important way of breaking isolation, and thus, having different people meet each other, giving a chance for mutual understanding. China’s opening seems to be a process with no turning back, and in it foreigners will always be regarded as necessary. Some problems may arise (and they have), but I see this interaction as beneficial in the long run.
WS - It seems there is still room to increase China-Brazil ties. What would you suggest?
DV - Traditionally, in its relationship with China, Brazil has been the commodity supplier, a big source of minerals, such as iron, iron ore, steel, and agricultural products, such as soya bean. All right, this has been working and should continue. Nevertheless, Brazil should also explore other opportunities, changing its role as to perform activities with more added value. Since 2004, with the visit of the Brazilian then-president Lula to China, agreements have been signed in many cooperation areas, such as tourism, science and technology, energy, and others. Brazilian industrial companies have opened branches in China, and Brazil was then opened for Chinese tourists, and since then delegations from China have kept going to the South American country. This should definitely continue, and cultural exchange should gain major importance, divulging arts, TV shows, soap operas, etc. in both countries. Academic cooperation, science and technology would be critical in this policy. More Brazilians speaking Chinese, as well as Chinese speaking Portuguese, would also be important in creating a mutual trust atmosphere. Brazil and China established diplomatic relations in 1974, and for this relationship to continue smoothly, it is necessary to clarify some obscure points, such as Brazil’s position in the recognition if China as a market economy.