Maurice Gountin's vague impression of China before he came to the country is rather interesting. The Benin-born African imagined a mysterious but traditional oriental world where people in Chinese costumes practiced Kung Fu in brick-built bungalows - just as he had seen in Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan films of the 1980s. He was also aware of small products such as cooling ointments made in China. That was the extent of his knowledge about the country.
Yet the Beninese had never thought he would choose Chinese as his second language, nor had he known he would be an outstanding achiever in the language - he can not only speak and write fluently but can also perform Crosstalk and Peking Opera, two traditional Chinese arts, with a native accent.
It was by coincidence that he began to learn Chinese in 1996, when the National University of Benin, where he studied, set up the course for the first time. "Many of my classmates had already learnt Spanish and French in their high schools, but none of them had learnt Chinese. So I chose Chinese as my second language as I knew that in this course we would all be starting from the same point," said Gountin, now a Doctor at Renmin University in China.
He also chose German in case that he gave up Chinese, an exotic language to most Africans. However, he did so well in Chinese that it was German that he gave up. "I was so fascinated by the Chinese language that I came top of my class," said Gountin. He kept doing well in his Chinese classes over the next two years and in 1998 his professor advised him to go to China for further study. He didn't want to at first because it meant giving up his bachelor degree in English. But he followed the suggestion and subsequently it proved to be a good decision.
In the next 10 years in China, not only did he finish his bachelor's degree, but he went on to take a doctorate in Contemporary Chinese Diplomacy. He is able to maintain a humorous dialogue in Crosstalk and hum the tunes of Peking Opera like a native Beijinger.
The change from unfamiliarity to adapting to the country took time. Gountin says he was disappointed by his first sight of Beijing in 1998, when he saw no traditional architecture on his way from the airport to Beijing Language and Culture University. "I saw no trace of traditional Chinese architecture - only modern buildings," said Gountin. "And besides, very few people knew either Kung Fu or foreign languages." The young man was continually struck by cultural shocks, covering everything from food to daily customs.
"In Benin our cuisine has more boiled than fried food. We eat fish more than meat and usually without any sugar. As a Muslim, I don't drink alcohol, but some of my Chinese friends would persuade me to do so," said Gountin. Relations between girls and boys also confused Gountin. He once saw an advertisement for someone seeking a marriage partner in which applicants were required to report their ages and salaries. "In Benin, we'd rather judge people on their behavior or morality than judge them on material possessions," said Gountin.
However, cultural shock was just one aspect of his life in China. This apart, he loves Chinese culture and speaks of it with awe. "I respect Chinese culture, deep and rich in content. It has 5,000 years of history with a huge range of levels to be understood." At the end of 2000, he began to study Crosstalk with Ding Guangquan, a well known professional actor, and in 2002 he started lessons in Peking Opera with Jia Shiming, a Master from Peking Opera House of Beijing. "I'm learning traditional Chinese arts to get to know different aspects of the culture, which will also help me to add nuance to my language," said Gountin.
Although the African doctor has made great progress in the traditional arts, he is modest about his achievements. "Digesting all these skills requires hard work and perseverance. I'm still learning them. I don't know when I might reach professional standard in these arts. The learning process is a continual one," he says. Yet the study of Chinese culture and art has transformed his life. Cultural norms, advocating modesty and implicit expression, have exerted a great influence on Gountin. "I no longer express myself the way I used to - directly. Now I modify my manner of speaking to adapt to Chinese culture."
After completing his studies in China, Gountin is now a freelancer in Beijing. He has set up a website called ObservingChina - in Chinese, English, and French - to enhance communication between China and African countries. "My blog serves as a relay to communicate my ideas to my fellow Africans and my Chinese friends," he says. Gountin dreams of being a cultural diplomat in the future, advancing links between Benin and China.
For information about studying at Renmin University, check here
(China.org.cn by Wu Jin December 3, 2008)