Language was just the start of cadets’ introduction to Chinese culture © Jan. 14, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Daniel Corcoran examines the letters of Samuel Leonard Pitkin in Norwich's archives.

photo courtesy of Bryce BarrosCadet Bryan Sheppard holds the baby of a Chinese family who asked to take his picture at the Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing. He was accompanied by Cadet David Covington.

It was summer in Beijing, when heat and humidity can cloak the city in oppressive discomfort. Norwich University junior Bryce Barros and fellow students had been given a reprieve from their intense Chinese studies at the Beijing Language and Culture University. They decided to visit the Marco Polo Bridge, an 11-arch granite span across the Yongding River.

Barros braced himself for an intense experience. After all, the Marco Polo Bridge is best known for the eponymous “incident” said to have sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and a source of humiliation for Chinese people.

As students crossed the 10th-century structure, however, they were approached by Chinese tourists who wanted to take photos of Americans with their blond and red hair and blue eyes. “One of the tourists even asked us if they could take a picture with us holding their baby,” Barros laughed.

As President Obama stated, our country’s relationship with
China will shape
the 21st century.

Sophomore Tony Perkins,
international studies student

The moment, said Barros, perfectly captured the summer 2010, eight-week course taken by members of the Corps of Cadets, Norwich students who lead a military lifestyle. On one level, the program was about learning the Chinese language through immersion and preparing for international careers likely to include involvement with the People's Republic of China. But it was also about reading—and listening and looking—between the lines to find common ground for two vastly different cultures.

“Everyone told me how strategically important it would be to study Chinese in Beijing,” said Barros. “But actually, what I learned is that the Chinese people are pretty awesome.”

Barros and other Norwich students joined the course thanks to a two-year grant from Project GO [Global Officers]. “Our grant is for recruiting students from among our ROTC programs to get additional language and culture training and exposure in China,” said Prof. Stewart Robinson, chairman of Norwich’s Department of Modern Languages.

Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, was the birthplace of ROTC.

The grant provided an ideal opportunity for cadets working toward a Chinese language minor, available at Norwich since 2007. “The best way to learn a language,” said Xiaoping Song, Chinese professor, “is to immerse students in an environment where the target language is spoken.”

Immersion began the instant students stepped off the airplane. “When I first arrived I was in shock about the pollution. It was harder to breathe, as if the air was heavier,” said Emily Hayward, an international studies major from Wells, Maine.

Once she and others adjusted to the air, they were able to pay attention to everyday cultural differences, such as bargaining over things like the price of a cell phone, ignoring the concept of “personal space” and pushing toward the front of lines, or the sight of people who were merely friends walking hand-in-hand.

“Many Americans would view restaurant courtesy in China as rude,” said sophomore Josh Pivirotto, an international studies major from Norfolk, Va. “You look at the menu and when you’re ready to order, you scream the Chinese word for waiter at the top of your lungs. Then they run over and take your order, disappear, and eventually your food is brought out. If they bring you the wrong thing, it’s not their fault; it’s yours.”

Sometimes, words—English or Chinese—were not a necessary part of the experience, such as when students went rafting on the Yellow River, visited with monks in Tibet or walked along the Great Wall of China. Sophomore Tony Perkins traveled to the city of Xi’an to see the Terracotta Army, some 8,000 clay figures strong.

“It was an awesome display of the great things people could accomplish even without modern tools,” said Perkins. “What really impressed me was that every one of the statues’ faces was different.”

Perkins was surprised by how much he’s been able to use his new Mandarin language skills, even at home in Lawton, Mich. “In both the military and business worlds, it’s becoming more and more important to know,” he said. “As President Obama stated, our country’s relationship with China will shape the 21st century.”

And that relationship, students learned, hinges on more than mastering characters or pronunciation. “In China, they didn’t just learn the words and grammar of the language,” said Song, who with Robertson is recruiting students to study in China in 2011 and hoping to renew the Project GO grant. “They experienced the culture firsthand, which in turn improves their capability to communicate and interact with the Chinese people in a more engaging way.”

As a case in point, Barros shared another tale of his time in Beijing. Though initially floored by the difficulties of Chinese and constantly mixing up sentences, he eventually began smoothing out phrases and picking up slang. He learned one particular expression that grew out of a western pop star’s recent visit to China. “The Chinese younger kids?” said Barros. “They like to say, ‘Oh my Lady Gaga.’”