Twenty-five-year-old Steven Coons, a sophomore in foreign language studies at the University of Memphis, became a double major by adding Asian studies and international trade.
Children practice taiji at the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, which offers students a real taste of Chinese culture. [Xinhua photo]
His reason was simple: the program is closely affiliated with the Confucius Institute (CI) at the university.
"I get to learn stuff from teachers from China who know the culture and language really well," he said.
"And this program offers almost everything - the language experience, culture exposure, and the business education. I think it is phenomenal."
Coons, who loves Chinese language, kungfu movies and the food, seems to have a clear plan after graduation.
"The Chinese economy is growing at a phenomenal rate and there's a lot of room for expansion," he said.
"This major, which has both the language and business sides, will make me a lot more valuable for future job opportunities in China."
Asian studies and international trade was set up in 2007 when the CI at the University of Memphis was founded.
Yang Yiping, associate director at the Confucius Institute at the University of Memphis (CIUM), said the institute is responsible for designing the syllabus, curriculum of courses, required and electives, and the annual promotion and publicity on and off the campus.
"If there is no CI at the university, I can guarantee you that there will be no Asian studies and international trade program," Coons said.
An anonymous $1 million donation to the university was the key piece to make this program possible.
"Funding and fundraising is critical to the existence and sustainability for the CIs," said Hsiang-te Kung, director of CIUM who is a 75th generation descendant of Confucius.
"We received the funding from a very generous donor, therefore, the university can afford to create such a program parallel and compliment to the CI."
The institute is a nonprofit program set up by Hanban, China's Office of Chinese Language Promotion, to meet the increasing demand for Chinese language learning and to enhance cultural diversity abroad.
While CIUM offers students opportunities to get a real taste of the Chinese language and culture, not many CIs in the US are as successful. Many are still striving to expand and be more involved with Chinese programs in the universities with which they are affiliated.
Institutes are created and funded in partnerships with institutions in various countries. Initially, Hanban provides $100,000 for the first year and some teaching staff from China while the partner institution provides space and facilities.
Most partners in the US are institutions of higher learning, but there are CIs at school districts and local community organizations. Many are focused on organizing cultural events such as music festivals.
More than 280 CIs operate in more than 80 countries worldwide, with nearly 80 in the United States, where the first was established at the University of Maryland in 2004.
Joseph Nye, a scholar from Harvard University who coined the phrase "soft power" (the ability to affect others to obtain desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion or payment), said CIs play an important role in the rise of China's "soft power".
June Teufel Dreyer, a professor from department of political science at the University of Miami, said CIs are part of China's efforts at soft power to project a good image of the country. The British have the British Council, the US used to have the US Information Agency, she said.
However, there have been increasing criticisms and uncertainties about the set-up from local communities. Some scholars have raised doubts about such programs, saying they serve as a propaganda function of the Chinese government.
"Why would a country spend money on something like this if it did not have any political goals in mind?" Dreyer said.
Hong Wei, professor of applied linguistics and director of the CI at Purdue University, said these critics should be more open-minded and should not see China with "limited perspectives".
"If we have the resources to set up CIs to help people learn Chinese, why don't we do it? Why everything has to do with politics? It is not fair," she said.
David Prager Branner, adjunct associate professor of Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, said these criticisms are the "direct result of poor strategy, which could easily have been avoided by paying greater attention to local conditions in the US and in US colleges".
"This is a lesson that we Americans sometimes have trouble learning when dealing with Chinese organizations; it is instructive to see that a Chinese organization also sometimes needs to be reminded of the issue, in dealing with us," he said.
Some US colleges have refused to form relationships with Hanban. The University of Pennsylvania chose not to host a CI because it wants its freedom to design its curriculum, and the involvement of Hanban or the Chinese government is a major factor of the concern.
"I think the Hanban made its motives look unclear by the specific way it went about setting up the CIs, including on campuses rather than off, and without taking time to sign a reciprocal agreement with the US government beforehand," Branner said.
Coons also disagreed with these criticisms.
"Some people are, I think, intimidated by the differences," he said.
"A lot of people are frightened because it's run by Hanban of the Chinese government.
"And they think China is trying to put hands in a bunch of different places or infiltrate, but honestly, I really haven't seen anything done at the CI that way at all.
"All the people here at the institute I work with never try to promote any political agenda or any sort of ideology or philosophy or manipulate anyone. It's always about teaching the language and culture to people who are interested."
Although many educators in the US see challenges lying ahead, they never seem to be put off.
At a recent CI forum at Valparaiso University, directors of CIs in the Midwest discussed how to integrate CI programs into the universities they are affiliated with, and expand local community services such as evening classes for adults and children. Both are the main focuses of the institutes' expansion in the US.
Hong said more programs should be set up for CIs to increase their credibility and impact, and there should be a "win-win cooperation" between CIs and US universities that offer Chinese programs or Asian studies.
Gan Changyin, Chinese CI director at the Community College of Denver, said CIs should put more effort into providing Chinese classes to primary and secondary education.
Chinese has become the second most popular foreign language next to Spanish in the US. And there has been a trend that more and more American schools are interested in starting Mandarin classes.
This is backed by the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who told China Daily recently that the US needs to do a lot more to give its younger generation the appreciation of foreign languages such as Chinese.
"I think a lot more of our students should learn Mandarin and Cantonese," Duncan said.
"If we want them to thrive in the international economy, a big piece of that is to understand foreign languages."
Duncan, however, said there are not enough schools in the US with enough teachers to teach foreign languages.
"It is tremendously beneficial for us to recruit teachers from overseas to teach foreign languages here," he said.
In this case, CIs have the advantage of providing services, including teaching staff and teaching materials. But teachers' licenses have been a challenge for CIs to be part of the classrooms in local communities.
Liu Jiangang, associate director of CI at Valparaiso University, said qualified and experienced Chinese teachers, selected from Chinese universities, sent to teach in US public schools need to have a US teachers' license.
"Without which they're theoretically not eligible to teach," said Liu.
Despite similar mandates to their German and French counterparts - Goethe Institutes and Alliance Francaise - CIs seem to face more challenges to enjoy equal recognition in the US.
"The best way is to let nature take its course," Liu said.
"People will (soon) see what the CIs do is to help them learn Chinese language and culture, rather than alleged public relations strategies."
(China Daily November 12, 2010)