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Observing China
Foreigners in China
By LI Dan

Ten years ago, out of curiosity he came to Beijing, the capital of China. During the past ten years, he witnessed the city’s tremendous changes. Meanwhile, he learnt fluent Chinese, fell in love with Chinese cross-talk and became one of China’s well-known foreign comic stars.
Today, as ten years has passed, as a doctoral graduate from Renmin University of China, he shared with us stories about his life in China. He is Maurice GOUNTIN from Benin, a country in Western Africa.

Today, as ten years has passed, as a doctoral graduate from Renmin University of China, he shared with us stories about his life in China. He is Maurice GOUNTIN from Benin, a country in Western Africa.

When Maurice was a child, the concept of China, in his mind, equalled Chinese Kongfu actor Li Xiaolong’s movies or those Chinese goods with “made in China” label. He still remembers that China’s cooling ointment was a household medicine in Benin. He recalled, “When I had a fever or caught a cold, my mum just rubbed some cooling ointment on our body, symphony will be relieved.” At that time, it never occurred to him that he would learn Chinese and come to China one day.

When Maurice was a child, the concept of China, in his mind, equalled Chinese Kongfu actor Li Xiaolong’s movies or those Chinese goods with “made in China” label. He still remembers that China’s cooling ointment was a household medicine in Benin. He recalled, “When I had a fever or caught a cold, my mum just rubbed some cooling ointment on our body, symphony will be relieved.” At that time, it never occurred to him that he would learn Chinese and come to China one day.

In 1996, Maurice became a college student in the National University of Benin where he specialized in English. It was when Maurice started his first year that his college offered a new second-foreign-language course, which was Chinese. Maurice applied for the course of German language, yet out of his curiosity, he was in the class of Chinese as well. Chinese is a remote and unfamiliar language to him since the official language of Benin is French and he chose English as his major. Therefore, Maurice made up a fake name when he registered in the Chinese class. He thought that using a fake name would help disappearing from the class when the complexity of be the language will start.
Maurice said, at the very beginning of his English study, his teacher told them it was quite easy to learn Chinese, since images of many characters resemble those objects from real world, like Chinese character “hill” and “bird”. The vivid pictographic Chinese characters gradually aroused Maurice’s passion in continuing his Chinese study. What’s more, he got the first place in a Chinese examination after learning Chinese for one month which hardened his resolution to learn Chinese. Maurice finally gave up the German course and put his focus on Chinese course.

Maurice was hard-studying in Chinese language. He always ranked among the best. When his second school year ended, Maurice’s Chinese teacher recommended he come to China for further Chinese study to eventually teach Chinese after getting a degree. It would be a bright future for Maurice. Officials from People's Republic of China Embassy in Benin and director in Benin’s Chinese Cultural Centre all contacted Maurice, willing to offer a four-year scholarship for him.

Having weighed all alternatives in his mind, Maurice made the final decision. It was without doubt a difficult one. He decided to come to China and had to give up a bachelor degree which he would obtain after his third year and a master degree at the end of the fourth year (based on French educational system). Beijing Language and Culture University became his first stop in China.

Before Maurice came to China, his understanding of this country was so restricted to Chinese ancient stories, the Revolution of 1911 and China’s influential figures like Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek that he felt Chinese culture was distant and vague.
Maurice said when his Chinese teacher taught in class that China’s Great Wall was more than 6000 thousand kilometers long, nobody believed.

“My classmates yelled “that’s just impossible. We couldn’t buy your story.” The very thought of my ignorance at that time almost makes me laugh.” Maurice said.
It was because of his lack of knowledge of China and fears of Chinese language itself that Maurice thought before his set-out that his journey in China might be no more than three months. He said, “Chinese language is extremely subtle, like magic. I cannot believe people living in the other part of the world communicate in such a way.”

Maurice stepped on the soil of China in 1998. Unexpectedly it was a ten-year stay.

After his arrival in Beijing China, Maurice found what Beijing gifted him was more of a pleasant surprise. Maurice said, “Before I came to Beijing, I thought I would be very lonely there, hard to find people like me and just immersed in an ocean of Chinese people. Beyond my expectation, I saw so many people of all colors around me.”

Maurice put a lot of efforts into Chinese study in at school. He chose to register in a foundation class of Chinese and return to the starting point to solidify his foundations of Chinese. Through his hard work, Maurice still ranked first in Chinese examinations in his new class. His Chinese teacher said to students who was from South Korea and Japan banteringly, “South Korea and Japan are a lot nearer to China and have many similarities in languages. Yet an African guy got the first place. Where have you been hanging out? ”

Since then, in order to keep on with his excellent results, Maurice redoubled his efforts. He made best use of every minute to practice Chinese. As time went on, his Chinese level was raised to a large degree.

On December 8th 2000, together with his schoolmate, an Irishman Richard Doran, Maurice performed a cross talk named “Eating Culture in Chinese” in the Beijing’s Overseas Student Theatrical Festival sponsored by the government. (Cross talk was a traditional Chinese show.)Their performance was highly praised and it also marked a starting point of Maurice’s ties with cross talk. During their rehearsal before their performance, their school teachers invited a famous Chinese cross talk actor Ding Guangquan to tutor them.

Afterwards, Mr. Ding asked whether Maurice and Richard whether will to be his apprentices to learn more cross talk.

At that time, Maurice even didn’t know what he would learn and what it was for. However, he thought to learn cross talk would benefit his Chinese study. Thus he took Mr. Ding’s suggestion and started his cross talk study.

He didn’t realize how hard the cross talk could be at the very beginning. Maurice said, “It is just because of our ignorance of cross talk that makes us get started. Otherwise, we won’t be engaged in it.”

Learning cross talk was a great opportunity for Maurice to improve his Chinese level. He learnt a lot of Chinese idioms and witticism from cross talk which made his expressions more natural, various and humorous.

Maurice often received performance invitations after he started learning cross talk, yet his studies at school weren’t disturbed. For him, studies at school were his mainline, but cross talk was no more than a hobby. Even if sometimes it was hard to refuse some performance invitations, Maurice would try to balance all alternatives to diminish their impact on studies.

During Maurice’s postgraduate studies, he was an all-subject-over-80 student. Before his postgraduate graduation, Maurice decided to give up his original plan to become a Chinese teacher back Benin. And he went on with his further study in the realm of Sino-African relations. He hoped to become a bridge builder to link China and Africa. Through his hard work, Maurice got admission to Remin University of China to pursue a doctoral degree majoring China’s contemporary diplomacy. Moreover, he obtained one of 50 scholarships for outstanding overseas students in China granted by China’s government per year.

In this June, Maurice got his doctoral degree and he delivered a speech on behalf of all overseas students in Remin University of China at graduation ceremony. Maurice said, “The more I’ve learnt, the richer I felt Chinese culture is. Though a doctoral degree is in my hand, I still feel there’s a lot more to learn.”

When it comes to the reason why Maurice chose to study for a doctoral degree, he said that links between Africa and China had been tightened since 2000. And there was still room for improvement in regard to the way of communication between Africa and China. People from Africa and China should deepen the understandings of each other. He hoped to contribute to the development of the bilateral relationship and to become a person whose words carry weight.

Maurice said, at present, a great number of Africans still read translated versions to get knowledge of China. Such books could be distorted or even written by some experts who lacked understandings of China. Maurice thought we were in need of those experts who had deep understandings of both African and Chinese cultures and got experiences of living in two areas. A good grasp of current economic and social trends in Africa and China and a speciality in international relations would add more weight to one’s words.

Maurice said, “You cannot fool me in the field of African and Chinese cultures,I’ve experienced both and also have deep academic knowledge about them.” He was confident that with his academic knowledge and rich experience in Africa and China he would help push forward Sino-African relations.

Maurice added that the image of China became clearer and clearer in eyes of Beninese. There were only 56 students in Maurice’s Chinese class when he was studying in the National University of Benin. However, in these days more than two hundred students chose Chinese as their second language. Apart from the National University of Benin, other schools also set up Chinese courses and more and more people developed their interest in China.

“There’s no enough time for any astonishment since China develops so fast. As China’s international status rises, compared with the year of 1998, African people’s understanding of China is totally another story. Especially after Beijing winning the bid for Olympics and China’s entry into WTO in 2001, China’s success in launching Shenzhou No. 5 manned spaceship in 2003 and the opening of Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, people from all around the world, especially African people have seen the distance between us shorted.”

Maurice said, “In recent years, China’s aid programs boomed like building stadiums, paving a road and other projects. And more Beninese are familiar with China nowadays.”

In recent years, more and more African art troupes come to China to put on their performance. China also invited art troupes from different countries in the world to perform in Beijing in order to increase each other’s understandings.

Maurice said that China set up a number of cultural centers in Africa which focused on the spread of Chinese traditional culture like traditional Chinese paintings, acrobatics, calligraphies and Beijing Opera.

In Maurice’s viewpoint, highlights of Chinese traditional culture were appreciable for its vitality and profundity. “But Chinese traditional culture is so profound and complex that you feel a liking for it but feel hard to get close,” Maurice said, “If we can start with superficial and common layer of culture and then gradually deepen it, the effect of spreading of culture might better.”

“Beijing Opera troupes once performed in Africa, but most African couldn’t identify themselves with such style of performance. Instead, they thought make-up of Chinese actors was strange. It might produce a reverse effect, widening gaps between Africa and China.”
Maurice added, if Chinese people could perform African’s favorite street dance with Chinese elements, starting from the commonness of two cultures, it could produce a sense of warmth among African people. They could felt we were similar which would break down the Africans’ fearfulness towards Chinese culture.

Maurice also mentioned, large-scale evening party between Africa and China was rare. He thought China could invite famous African and Chinese singers and actors to perform on the same stage to improve our friendship. He had a special liking for the song named “In the Distant Place” sung by Chinese singer Han Hong and African man Hao Ge in 07’ Spring Festival Evening.

On the part of Africa, they should put more efforts in bringing African cultural elements to China. “Africa has more than 50 nations. Most of them have embassies and cultural counselors in China, but we saw few symbol to represent African cultures on the soil of China, according to my knowledge, no symbol at all,” Maurice said, “If African people could run Cultural centers in China including African-flavor restaurants, African art works like woodcarvings to China for exhibition, it would produce good effects to better Chinese people’s understandings of African cultures.”

Maurice thought there was not too much work left for embassies, rather non-governmental communication between Africa and China should been strengthened. “There’s too much to be done.”

When it turned to the topic of “image crisis of China”, Maurice said, “The image of China is in a transitional period. We cannot expect everything to be perfect. As it goes, to make an omelet, you have to first break the egg.”
It was certain that to recast the image is not to completely destroy it but to correct it. The process was painful and critiques or censures were inevitable. Yet it was the only path to go.

Maurice thought those who wanted to make comments on issues in China should have a good knowledge of national conditions of China and have stayed in China for a period of time.

Maurice said, “Though I’ve stayed in China for quite a long time, a lot of problems still confuse me.”

Since 2006, Maurice opened his Blog with the name of “Observing China”. He tried to decipher China from his own perspective and make objective comment on issues in China and Sino-African relations.

In regard to foreign media’s criticism towards China, Maurice didn’t think their opinions would put a negative impact on China’s future development. He said, “Their words couldn’t become a threat. China is a large country and becomes better and better. And there’ll be costs in its process of becoming a strong country. However, pressures from press circles have a positive influence in China’s long-term development.”

As to Maurice’s recent plans, he told me that at least he wouldn’t return Benin before the end of this year, especially during Beijing Olympics. Maurice said that he would be on pins and needles if he would have been back Benin. “What is happening in Beijing? I would think much of it. Even if I don’t go to Olympic venues to watch competitions, as long as I stay in Beijing to enjoy the atmosphere, it’s quite satisfactory whatsoever,” Maurice said.

For more information, please visit Maurice’s blog: http://www.observingchina.com/

 
                                                      非眼看中国

     10年前,他怀着一颗好奇心来到中国首都——北京。10年间,他扎根北京,目睹了这座城市翻天覆地的变化;他学得一口流利的汉语,喜爱中国相声表演,是京城著名的“洋笑星”。10年后的今天,他以中国人民大学博士毕业生的身份向我们娓娓道来他的旅华生活。他就是非洲贝宁人莫里斯。

    在莫里斯儿时的记忆里,中国是李小龙的功夫片,是标明“中国制造”的中国商品。他还记得小时候家里常备中国生产的清凉油,“发烧了,感冒了,妈妈用清凉油给擦一擦就好了。”他那时“万万没想过会有一天会学汉语,会跑到中国来。”

     1996年,莫里斯就读于贝宁国立大学英语专业。他入学那年,学校第二外语课程新增设了汉语课。莫里斯原本二外选报了德语,而出于对汉语的好奇,他同时也在上汉语课。对于母语是法语,专业是英语的莫里斯而言,汉语完全是一门遥不可及的陌生语言,他没把握自己能否学好,就在汉语班报名时用了个假名,他想“先学两天吧,学不好退课也容易些”。

    莫里斯回忆说,刚学汉语时,老师告诉他们汉语很好学,还以“山”、“鸟”为例来说明不少汉字的字形与其所指实物的形象非常相似。汉字生动的象形特点逐渐引起了莫里斯浓厚的学习兴趣,而他在学习汉语一个月后的摸底考中取得第一名的好成绩更是坚定了他学习汉语的决心。就这样,莫里斯最后决定退掉二外德语课,开始专心学起汉语来。

    莫里斯学习汉语非常用功,成绩一直名列前茅。大二学年结束时,他的汉语老师找到他,说可以推荐他来中国学汉语,学成后能回贝宁做汉语老师。驻贝宁的中国使馆官员和当地中国文化中心主任都联系到莫里斯,表示可以向他提供来华留学4年的奖学金。一番思想斗争过后,莫里斯最终放弃了即将到手的本科和硕士文凭(贝宁的教育体制与法国相似,大学读完三年可取的相当于本科学历的文凭,读完四年可取得相当于硕士学历的文凭),来到北京语言大学学习汉语。
 
    莫里斯来中国之前,他对中国知之甚少,只是在书本上了读过中国古代故事,在高中世界史课堂上 学过辛亥革命,知道中国的毛泽东、孙中山和蒋介石。但这些有关中国的知识毕竟有限,他仍觉得中国文化遥远而模糊。

    莫里斯回忆到,大学汉语课堂上,老师告诉他们中国万里长城有六千多公里长时,他和同学们都不相信。

    “同学们嚷着‘不可能,骗人!’现在想想觉得那时太可笑了,”莫里斯说。

    对中国的不了解,加上对汉语本身的恐惧,莫里斯来中国前本想“来中国坚持三个月就差不多该回去了”。他觉得“中国语言特别奥妙,好像魔术,我就不相信世界另外一个地方会有人用这样一种表达方式来交流。”

    1998年,莫里斯踏上了中国的土地,他这一呆就是十年。

    来到北京后,莫里斯发现北京给他更多的是一种惊喜:“来北京之前,认为自己可能在这边会孤单,找不到和自己一样的人,只是淹没在中国人的海洋里,没想到在北京会看到那么多的外国人。”

     莫里斯刚来北语时学汉语时比较疯狂,他从零基础班学起,决定回到起点,夯实汉语基础。经过刻苦努力,他在班上汉语考试的成绩仍排名第一。中文老师打趣地对来自韩国、日本的学生说:“韩国、日本离中国那么近,语言又有不少相似之处。你们都干嘛去了,竟让远道而来的非洲小伙得了第一名。”

    在那时,为了保持住取得的好成绩,莫里斯更加努力地学习汉语。他广交朋友,每天玩得少,下课就主动找中国朋友聊天。就这样,他的中文越练越好。
 
    2000年12月8日,莫里斯参加了北京市政府举办的首都高校留学生文艺晚会,他和同是在北语学习汉语的爱尔兰人董漠涵在晚会上表演的相声《汉语中的“吃”文化》受到观众好评,而他们这次表演的指导老师正是著名相声演员、“京城洋教头”丁广泉。演出结束后,丁老师找到他们说,如果愿意可以收他们为徒,让他们多学一点。

    而那时莫里斯甚至不知道学相声要学什么,为什么学,可觉得会对学汉语有帮助,就接受了丁老师的提议,拜师他的门下,学起了相声。

    他后来才认识到相声不好学,“也许正是因为那是对相声的无知,才迷迷糊糊学了下去。”

    令莫里斯欣喜的是,他从相声中学会了不少中国成语和歇后语,这使得他的表达方式更加轻松、幽默、富有变化。像“吃不消、吃苦吃力、吃不了兜着走”这些有趣的表达方式都能在生活中用到。

    学习相声后,莫里斯的演出邀约不断,但这些并未影响他在学校的正常学习。对他而言,学习是主业,说相声只是个人爱好。虽然有时外面的演出难以推辞,但莫里斯也尽量平衡,很少因演出影响学业。

    硕士学习期间,莫里斯每科成绩均在80分以上。在他硕士毕业之际,他放弃了回贝宁做汉语老师的原计划,决定在中国继续深造,研究中非关系,致力成为连接中国与非洲的搭桥人。莫里斯通过自己的努力,考上了中国人民大学中国当代外交专业的博士生,并成功申请到全中国每年仅发放50份的优秀毕业生奖学金。

    今年6月,莫里斯拿到了博士学位,他还代表人民大学全体留学生在毕业典礼上发言。而拿到博士学位的莫里斯对学习中国文化有了更深刻的认识:“学得越多,越觉得中国文化是那么丰富,那么难理解。虽然拿到博士学位,还觉得要学得东西太多了。”

    谈到莫里斯选择读博的原因,他说,自2000年来中非关系不断加强,而中国与非洲之间的交流仍待进一步改进,中非人民还需彼此加深了解。他希望自己能成为沟通这两种文化间的桥梁,成为中非关系中一个说话有分量的人物。

    莫里斯说,当下不少非洲人了解中国还需要通过阅读已经翻译的书籍,而且写中非问题的不少专家并不了解中国,我们需要那些既了解非洲文化,又了解中国风土人情的人,当然最好是在非洲和中国都呆过,谙熟中国与非洲经济发展状况以及社会动态,并从事国际关系研究的人,这种人说的话才有权威性。

    “在中非文化方面不能蒙我,学术上我又有基础,”博士毕业的莫里斯有信心,自己能凭借学术知识和自己的旅华经历对中非关系的发展做出贡献。

    莫里斯说,和十年前相比,中国在贝宁人心中的形象越来越清晰。他上大学时的那个汉语班上只有56个学生,如今已有上百人选汉语做二外课程。而且除贝宁国立大学外,其他学校也纷纷开设汉语课,越来越多人对中国感兴趣。

    “中国近些年发展速度之快,甚至让你来不及惊讶。随中国国际地位的提高,非洲人对中国的了解与10年前先相比,已是不可同日而语。2001年中国申奥成功、成为世界贸易组织成员国,2003年中国的“神舟”5号载人飞船成功发射,2006年中非论坛的召开等等。中国在世界人们,尤其是非洲人心目中的地位已经大为提升,我们的距离也越拉越近。”

    莫里斯说:“近些年,中国人在贝宁开展的援助项目越来越多,比如建体育场、铺路、建设高楼大厦,贝宁人对中国了解比当年多得多。”
近些年,非洲艺术团也有到中国表演,“相约北京”活动每年会邀请世界各国艺术团来中国表演,这些活动增进了中非双方的了解。

    对于中国文化在非洲的传播情况,莫里斯也与我分享了他个人的看法。中国在非洲建立了多个文化中心,目前这些文化中心以宣传中国传统文化为主,例如介绍中国国画、杂技、书法、京剧等。

    对中国传统文化的重视无可厚非,传统文化具有旺盛的生命力和丰富的内涵。但从另一方面看,“中国文化太深奥了,让你觉得喜欢,但没法靠近,太神秘了,”莫里斯说,“如果中国文化在传播过程中能从最肤浅、最普遍的东西入手,再不断深入文化的深层,传播效果可能更好些。”

    “中国的京剧团到过非洲演出,但大多数非洲人并不认同这种表演形式,反而觉得演员扮相很奇怪,这样的演出很难让观众接受这种文化,反而可能拉大中非文化间的距离,”莫里斯说。
 

    他还说,如果中国人能到非洲表演街头舞,其中加些中国的文化元素,从两种文化的共同点入手,就会给非洲人一种亲切的感觉,让他们觉得中国人和自己太像了。在打破非洲人对中国文化的畏惧感后,再进一步延伸对中国文化的传播,就能达到事半功倍的效果。

    莫里斯还提到,中非之间的大型晚会很少,他认为可以请中非著名歌唱家、演员同台演出,拉近中非人民的友谊。他很喜欢2007年春节晚会上韩红与非洲小伙郝歌同台表演的歌曲《在那遥远的地方》。

    从非洲方面,他们需要把自己的文化元素传到中国来。“非洲有50多个国家,他们中大部分在中国有自己的使馆、文化参赞、文化部门,但中国大地上能看到的象征非洲文化的标志很少,据我了解,一个都没有,”莫里斯说,“非洲人如果能在中国开非洲文化中心,并且在该地方把非洲的工艺品,如木雕等长期展览,定期举办非洲主体文化活动,这将对中国人了解非洲文化起到很大作用。”

    莫里斯认为,在这方面,使馆能做的工作不是很多,中非文化交流更需要民间交流,而非政府间的交流,现在要做的事情真的很多。

     谈到中国的“对外形象危机”问题,莫里斯认为“中国的国家形象在转型过程中,在转型过程中不要期望一切都很完美,to make an omelet, you have to first break the egg.”

    当然中国的对外形象重塑,并非全盘否定,再重新建立,而是逐渐修正的一个过程。过程是很痛苦的,可能有批评、有非议,却是必经之路。

    莫里斯还觉得那些评论中国的人要具备必要的素质,他们需要在中国呆过一段时间,对中国的变化发展有清晰的认识。他说,自己在中国呆了这么久,但还觉得有很多问题看不透。

    从2006年起,莫里斯开设博客“非眼看中国”,用个人视角解读中国,力求客观地评说中国问题和中非关系。

    对于国外媒体等对中国的批评,莫里斯不认为这些言论会影响中国未来发展,他说,“这些言论威胁不到哪里去,中国越来越好,中国是个大国,想成为强国一定要付出一些代价。其实,国外的舆论压力对中国长远发展反而有积极影响。”

    至于莫里斯近期的计划,他说至少今年年底不会回贝宁,尤其奥运会将在北京举行,回贝宁他肯定放心不下北京,“如果现在回贝宁,肯定会想很多,北京怎么样了。当然赛时也不一定要去场馆,只要奥运期间在北京,感受这种氛围就满足了,”莫里斯说。

    更多信息,请访问莫里斯的博客(非眼看中国):http://www.observingchina.com/
 
 

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