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Lessons in heritage and diversity – Corbett scholar Alan Zhang

North Tower of the Walter Gage Residence, UBC. Photo credit: Alan Zhang.

May 14, 2019

In my second term at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I took an intensive modern Chinese literature course for Chinese heritage speakers. I only signed up for it because I couldn’t get into a discrete mathematical modeling class that was full, and literature wasn’t even on my radar to consider until I took the course. Quite unexpectedly, it proved one of the highlights of my Corbett exchange. Not only was I surprised to find how much I enjoyed the course and subject, the course also served as my lens to figure out UBC’s strategies for promoting cultural and ethnic diversity at the campus. Even though both universities have long and distinguished histories of exemplary diversity work, UBC’s strategies for promoting campus diversity are very different from and, in my personal views, more proactive, profound and effective than the UW’s.

Course diversity

Studying Chinese literature at an English-speaking university may sound strange, but I had a really unique, wonderful experience with the subject at UBC that I know I won’t have at a typical Chinese university. As a student who completed primary and middle school education in China, I found that politically or socially sensitive topics, such as the cultural revolution, the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, and homosexuality and censorship, were intentionally omitted in the curriculum due to the political and social sensitivity of the content, despite significant social or historical significance. On the contrary, in my UBC course, we carefully studied works of literature that were written against the backdrops of these events and sensitive social issues, and had thought-provoking discussions on the background behind each work. Even one of my friends, who is studying Chinese literature at a prestigious university in China, described the course reading list as “eye-opening” to him, as many works covered were regarded as “inappropriate for educational purposes” at his university for the aforementioned reasons, and he didn’t have the chance to read and discuss these works in his modern Chinese literature class back there.

Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, UBC. Photo credit: Yuhao Wang

Student heritage and diversity

Besides the open-mindedness of the instructor and the larger academic community, another great asset of the class is the diverse student population. Although more than half of the students in the class come from mainland China, we also had classmates from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, who brought their unique life experiences to discussions and enriched the learning of the entire class. One example: while studying Nie-Zi (“Crystal Boys”), a novel by Pai Hsien-Yung that deals with a juvenile gay community in Taipei in the last century, a fellow student from Taiwan introduced to the class the impacts of this novel on public perception of the homosexual community in Taiwan and how it has inspired the Taiwanese to promote the recent legalization of homosexual marriage in the region. He helped me understand why more and more Taiwanese people, especially those in their middle years, have begun to hold much more liberal views towards homosexual marriage than they were used to. In fact, even the course instructor, whose primary research interest is gender identity in modern Chinese literatures, found the information that the student brought to the class discussion completely new to her and valuable for understanding the literary reviews on the work. What’s more, many students commented after the class that they had gained a strong appreciation of the difficulties and challenges that the LGBT communities in Asia were confronted with from the class discussion. For many of them, that class was their very first time seriously learning and thinking about the status of this group of minorities, as certain social issues like homosexuality and censorship are not openly and formally talked about in mainland China, Malaysia, Singapore and some other regions, and thus students from these places tended to have very little previous knowledge on the subject. Clearly, this class discussion promoted the value of diversity on campus to an even higher level than what’s expected in the pre-set course objectives, and it was just one of the many inspirational talks we had.

In addition to the lectures and class discussions, another integral part of the course was to interact with non-heritage learners of Chinese through various co-curricular activities, such as the Lantern Festival Poetry Night and the Chinese Literature and Culture Forum. Students of different backgrounds enrolling in any Chinese language or literature course would gather together and complete a series of engaging learning tasks. These activities provided a safe and fun environment for non-heritage learners to practice their Chinese language and chat about Chinese cultures in small groups with their heritage learner peers, helping build common interests and friendships among students of different backgrounds which last beyond the course or even the university years. (Kari Li, the other UBC-bound Corbett scholar from UW Seattle, will soon talk about her experience as a volunteer helper for the Lantern Festival Poetry Night in her blog post. Please stay tuned!)

Institutional diversity

Although UW has also been trying hard to promote cultural and ethnic diversity on campus, it has primarily relied on the efforts of student-run organizations. For UW students admitted in 2014 and onwards, they have to complete at least one course about the diversity of the human experience before they graduate. This policy was initiated by a group of mostly minority students, following three failed attempts over the 22 years before its adoption in 2013.  Even with the new policy in effect, my personal experience is that UW’s institutional value of diversity has still not been seamlessly integrated into its curriculum. Very few UW courses have such systematic arrangements in place as the UBC Chinese language courses for students from different backgrounds to share each other’s views within a specific academic context, but this practice is very common for courses offered by Department of Asian Studies as well as many other academic units at UBC—not only including the language or literature courses, but also the social sciences and the humanities.

Collection of postcards. Top card is the building where the Chinese Language Program activities took place at UBC. Photo credit: Alan Zhang.

Besides that, it seems that the instructional resources offered by the foreign language departments at UW only target non-heritage speakers of foreign languages, and the need of heritage speakers of foreign languages to further their understanding in their mother tongues has never been addressed. For the bilingual or multi-lingual students like me, while English empowers us with the ‘wings’ to connect and communicate with people in the world, our understanding in our respective mother tongues and motherlands anchor us to the roots of our cultural identity. For strong roots to grow, a fertile environment with strong nutrients is essential. A tree’s deep roots anchor the tree to the soil and allows an entire ecosystem above the ground to thrive. If the tree is not rooted in a firm and deep foundation, the tree may inevitably wither, and the ecosystem will disappear with it over time. Analogously, only with deep understanding of one’s mother tongue and cultural roots will he or she be ready to contribute to the diversity of and thus enrich the learning and living experience of others in the larger communities. This bottom-up strategy in promoting campus diversity is probably well worth UW (and other American higher education institutions) practicing.

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.