The Chinese-speaking controversy at Duke University has revealed a shallow outlook towards Chinese foreign students. The actions of Duke’s biostatistics faculty, while admirably well-intended, were founded on the uninformed assumptions of outsiders.
First off, the Duke faculty assumed the students were speaking Chinese because they didn’t care to learn and improve their English. This is a ridiculous idea. These Chinese students came to the United States to to study, in English. If they didn’t want to learn English, they would never have come in the first place.
In fact, I believe there isn’t a person in America who wouldn’t want to learn English. One day, I was at an Asian grocery store with my mother. As we were about to leave, one of the cashiers flagged her down. A customer was trying to communicate something to the cashier, neither knew enough English to understand the other. Through the efforts of the customer’s daughter, who translated from Spanish to English, and my mother, who translated from English to Chinese, the cashier and her customer were able to resolve their situation. I don’t doubt that they would gladly have preferred to handle things on their own without having to bring in a third party.
Duke’s faculty may have believed that their international students were simply too lazy to bother using English, but I believe they were speaking Chinese for a different reason. College, especially for a foreign student with no nearby family relations, is tough. My mother, herself once a Chinese-speaking foreign student, has spoken of this isolation several times, and I have seen its effects with my own eyes at my high school. Students, who have a foreign language for a mother tongue and broken English as a secondary language, usually sit apart from their native English-speaking peers. I usually see them understandably more absorbed in their phones than in the obscure conversation around them. Until another foreign student joins them, that is. All of a sudden, these young men and women who were as quiet as tree stumps suddenly burst into life like the vibrant colors of fall. They begin talking. They crack jokes and smile. Their morale skyrockets, and they begin paying attention in class.
Such is what I believe is happening with the foreign students of Duke and elsewhere. After a long day listening to lectures and taking notes, all in a language foreign to them, Duke’s Chinese students are merely trying to keep their spirits up and enjoy college life. Perhaps they are discussing interesting English phrases heard during the day.
Duke’s faculty meant well, but perhaps they should investigate a perceived problem before proposing a solution. The thought that these students, who study in English and live in an English-speaking country, do not want to learn English is an unfounded, irrational, and insulting belief. This unfortunate misunderstanding has resulted in victims on both sides. A more compassionate approach will lead to more productive conversations in the future.
— Emily Chua, Bellevue