By: Arthur Stachowski
Exposure to Chinese language, culture and people came to me later in life. Having retained employment with an international company of Chinese ownership, at 58 years of age, my education of all things Chinese began.
In 2010, my first steps on Chinese soil or in any other foreign country (Canada excluded) was in Shanghai, China. My traveling companion, Tony Wang, was waiting on the other side of the wall at the arrival terminal of the Shanghai airport. I had never been through immigration or customs screening before, but a friendly face was on the other side of that wall. There was no turning back.
Tony and I ate lunch at the airport, as we had spare time before boarding the subway to the train station. We were headed to Nanjing to visit suppliers. Tony attempted to explain that the people I am going to meet are going to look different (they will have a different physical appearance), they will speak a different language, the foods will be different and I may feel isolated at times, but the feeling will pass.
So, in the fall of 2010, my job took me to the company’s location there in China. I knew the product, the problems, the manufacturing, and how to read part drawings, but I was not prepared for this first trip to China. I lacked knowledge of the country’s history and culture and language; I did not know how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” “thank you,” or ask where the bathroom was in Mandarin.
While the primary purpose of my trip to China was business, my hosts insisted this visit include an orientation to China. The physical structures, like The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, are breath taking (in the case of The Great Wall I mean more than visually). The local cuisine, Beijing Duck and Hot Pot, were very tasty; however, great meals are more dependent on whom they are shared with rather than the food served. One evening at a company sponsored dinner, seated around the table were people from China, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and the United States. That is something I would have never experienced had I not visited China. There was also shopping, the art of the haggle (negotiated pricing); my instructions were to not pay attention to the marked price. My guide did the negotiations, thoroughly enjoying the process.
Walking the streets, complete strangers would want to practice their English and take pictures with me. Tony was correct; the feeling of isolation did not last but was replaced with a feeling of inadequacy. All of my hosts could speak at least some English, and I could speak zero Chinese.
With the same spirit which I was welcomed with to China, the Confucius Institute received me.
Not liking the feeling of being unprepared, enter the Confucius Institute. With the same spirit which I was welcomed with to China, the Confucius Institute received me. The administrators and instructors demonstrated excellent knowledge of the subject matter and were eager to share that knowledge with myself and my classmates.
My classmates are a diverse group including a high school student, college professor, lawyer, business owner, preschool teacher, architect and retired individuals. You not only learn from the instructor but from your classmates as well, as they share their life experiences. Never a good student, my involvement with the Confucius Institute has made me want to be a better student.
I am now retired, and the advice given to retirees (or would be retirees) is this: stay active (travel, study a language), associate with people of all ages (if you only associate with old people, you will grow old), establish a routine where you are scheduled to be a certain place at a certain time and set goals of things to accomplish. My association with the Confucius Institute fills this prescription. To quote a Chinese proverb, “Xué wú zhǐjìng” (学无止境).