Teresa Lee has tried hard to get her 7-year-old daughter to speak Chinese, to think in Chinese and to act Chinese. Yet, she is constantly disappointed.
"The little imp grimaces at me whenever I point out her faults in Chinese. And then she cries loudly when I switch to English. She taps her chest and says: 'You hurt me here'," says Lee, a Chinese emigrant living in Malaysia.
Worried that her daughter will forget her roots in this English-speaking environment, Lee, 38, has been taking the girl to a local Chinese-language school twice a week since 2002.
"She must have a command of our mother tongue. Only then can you understand your values, roots and identity, although English is the common working language here," says Lee, who works for a charity organization.
To preserve the heritage they grew up with and have been a part of for generations, numerous overseas Chinese parents like Lee have signed their kids up for Chinese courses in school.
"Parents there value their cultural roots, which they regard as an important legacy to pass to their children," recalls Chen Shuyi, who taught Chinese in the Philippines for 10 months in 2004.
Theoretically, learning the mother tongue can help Chinese living abroad enhance a sense of cultural identity, and help foreigners appreciate the culture, says Professor Ma Zhen from Peking University, where she has taught Chinese for half a century. "However, the growing numbers of people looking to learn the language is very much linked to China's economic status in the world," she says.
Ma says that in the first 20 years of her teaching experience, most of her foreign students were from developing countries in Africa, and other socialist nations.
"Today, a lot of foreign students are from developed countries. They want to study Chinese and know more about China, because China has gained so much economic power, thanks to reform in the past 20 years," adds Ma.
Indeed, Teresa Lee, who often goes on business trips around Southeast Asia, sees people taking China more seriously than ever.
"I believe," she says, "China's rise as a major global player is a contributing factor. It has grabbed people's attention and encourages them to learn Mandarin and the culture."
According to the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, about 2,300 universities in 100 countries are offering Chinese courses in their curriculums. And the number of non-Chinese people studying Chinese has reached 30 million and is expected to shoot to 100 million in the next five years.
The swelling enthusiasm for Mandarin has resulted in a shortage of qualified Chinese teachers abroad.
Yan Meihua, director of the national office, notes that Malaysia alone is badly in need of 90,000 Chinese teachers, while Indonesia has 100,000 vacancies. "Countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia are in the same situation. They want us to help them out in teaching Chinese," Yan says.
The demand for Chinese teachers around the world is huge and growing fast, says Zhang Xinsheng, vice-minister of education. The conventional practices of helping a foreign country train teachers cannot meet the need, nor can sending a few teachers abroad.
Therefore, in April 2004, China launched the unprecedented Project of Chinese Volunteers for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language Abroad. Already, 100 volunteers have been dispatched to various parts of the world.
Applicants must have a bachelor's degree either in Chinese, Chinese History, or English. "Such an educational background is necessary, because the volunteer project is more than just teaching the language," says Professor Sha Ping, dean of the International College of Chinese Studies at Fujian Normal University, who is responsible for volunteer recruitment at the university.
"It will help promote and preserve positive Chinese values, culture and traditions. Ideally, those who want to do business in China should have a better understanding of the country's culture."
Before leaving, volunteers receive two to three months training on the theories and skills necessary to teach Chinese effectively as a foreign language, the history of Chinese culture, and Chinese grammar and phraseology, says Sha.
In addition, he says: "The training also cultivates the volunteers' respect for other cultures. It also encourages them to be devoted and dedicated. That's very important, maybe more important than his or her educational background."
And experts believe it is imperative to incorporate culture into the teaching of the language. One of the first 16 volunteer teachers the Chinese Government sent to the Philippines last year, Chen Shuyi, who earned her bachelor's degree in Chinese from Fujian Normal University, found her Philippine students in general "knew little about China, especially its current status. Some still regard China as a very poor country without sufficient supplies."
While sending teachers abroad, domestic universities witnessed a record influx of foreign students in 2004, with an enrollment of roughly 86,000 throughout the country. Many came to study Chinese art, history and medical sciences, an official in charge of international students at the Chinese Ministry of Education says.
By the time Beijing hosts the Olympics in 2008, he anticipates, China will have an enrollment of 120,000 foreign students. This is stunning, he says, compared with the figure of barely 8,000 two decades ago.
Zhang Guoqiang, deputy director of the national office, says the office made it possible for the first official overseas Confucius Institute to be launched in Seoul on November 21, 2004. "It's part of our efforts to boost the teaching of Chinese to meet demand around the world."
Collaborating with foreign universities and educational organizations, the national office will set up another 100 such institutes around the world in the next four years, and has already signed agreements with the United States, Sweden and Uzbekistan.
Language, after all, is a culture carrier, says Lu Jianming, director of the Chinese Philology Research Center at Peking University. "The ultimate goal of setting up such schools or sending volunteer teachers abroad is to promote understanding of the Chinese culture recorded by the Chinese language. This is by no means cultural expansion as some have claimed, which is something we must guard against."
China has never and will never be engaged in any such expansion, politically, culturally, or economically, says Professor Sha. Teaching Chinese abroad, he believes, is a win-win process of mutual learning.
"On the one hand, it will help clarify some misconceptions about Chinese culture. And on the other hand, the volunteers will have a chance to get to know another land, and through them more Chinese will know more about other cultures. That is good for mutual understanding between the Chinese and other peoples."
This is also the case for foreign language teachers in China, he says. "While they spread their culture through their language, they also assimilate the cream of our culture."
To the volunteer Chen Shuyi, her teaching experience in the Philippines means something more fundamental. Just like an old Chinese saying goes, you won't know where you're going, if you don't know where you've come from.
"We all have received patriotic education somewhere in our life. But it's on foreign land that I came to see how important one's roots and identity are. Those overseas Chinese have taught me where we Chinese have been, and what we've gone through to become who we are today," she says.
(China Daily February 1, 2005)