Xu Ying: Doing well in international Chinese education and cultural communication with empathy
(2022-10-31 15:10:16)

Xu Ying, associate professor of the School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin University of China (RUC) was interviewed recently about her working experience and teaching philosophy as Chinese Director of Confucius Institute, University of Bologna, Italy from Sep. 2015 to Sep. 2021.

When Professor Xu was asked why she decided to take up the position at the Confucius Institute of the University of Bologna, Italy (hereinafter referred to as the Confucius Institute), she said that it was the job that chose her. When she was a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2010, she found it interesting to teach her American friends who wanted to learn Chinese, which was her first contact with Chinese teaching.

At that time, the University of Missouri opened a Confucius Institute. After she returned to China, she found that RUC also had Confucius Institutes, so she applied for the position at the Confucius Institute in Italy. She added that she didn’t know Italian at that time, and she took a semester-long Italian language training before she went abroad.

During her tenure, the Confucius Institute initiated many collaborations with local communities and organizations. Professor Xu introduced that they help to translate the Chinese signage for Bologna’s city airport, even though Bologna is not the first choice for Chinese people traveling in Italy most of the time. She said, “even if few Chinese people come to Bologna, it would be valuable if we could do something to improve language access.”

At the beginning of 2019, they organized a photography exhibition in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Bologna, which provided them with a free venue to exhibit photos taken in China by Italian photographers. They also helped the famous Antoniarno Little Choir to find a Chinese song teacher.

“For those who are concerned about China, we still have a strong presence,” Professor Xu said. “We never advertise because we hold a lot of events, so anyone who wants to come and learn Chinese could find us.”

In Professor Xu’s opinion, working at the Confucius Institute requires both moderation and firmness. “When communicating with Italian foreign institutions, many of their ideas may not be the same as ours. I try to stand in their shoes and also let them understand me to find a point that can be accepted together to advance our work,” she said.

As for difficulties she met, Professor Xu recalled the Confucius Institute 10th Anniversary Celebration. They needed to finish the preparation in a short time with only ten teachers plus volunteers in total. They invited the Folk Ensemble of RUC to tour Italy and also invited CCTV, Xinhua News Agency, and other media to cover the event. “To run such a big event, we can’t afford to make any mistakes,” she said. “We prepared well in advance, and everyone worked overtime. Luckily, the event was a great success in the end.”

From 2015 to 2019, Professor Xu has seen the teaching scale keep expanding from 4 teachers and two volunteers to 7 teachers and 6 volunteers, with teaching locations in many cities established.

In 2020, the Confucius Institute planned and organized the translation and publication of the Italian version of Professor Wenhong Zhang’s Tips for Prevention and Control of COVID-19. Professor Xu told the story in detail. Her friend asked her if she could publish an Italian version after the Persian version came out in March 2020, when Italy just had an outbreak of covid-19. After she read the Chinese version, which explains how to prevent and control covid-19 with visual illustrations, she immediately contacted Prof. Zhang. “Prof. Zhang was very nice and he said it was no problem, and he gave us the authorization to publish it without any fee,” she said.

They immediately found a sinologist in Bologna, Professor Sabrina Ardizzoni, to translate. With their efforts and others’ support, the electronic version came out in April and the print version in May. They also held many activities, such as the cover call and design, to warm up for the publication of the book.

At that time, there were many Italian elderly people infected, and they were not very good at reading e-books, so the print version was published with the sponsorship of Lenovo Group. Later a book giveaway was organized in cities like Milan and Rome, centered on the Confucius Institute or Chinese communities, which eventually had a good impact.

A lot of changes took place during the covid-19. For Professor Xu, the biggest change was that the teaching activities were held from offline to online. They held online parties to teach students to cook Chinese meals and make paper cutting instead of holding Kongfu shows and big parties offline. She said, “in the face of the pandemic, we are trying to come up with some solutions.”

They switch back and forth between online and offline teaching, mainly following local policies. When the number of infections added a lot, teachers and volunteers would also have a lot of pressure to go to on-site classes. They also see the need for offline classes, and they held a small-scale event during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

“My consolation is that the whole staff of our Confucius Institute has not been infected,” she said. “All of them are very healthy, which is my greatest wish.”

She mentioned a lot of cultural activities of festivals, and the most popular one is activities of the Spring Festival. “Usually, three activities are held during the Spring Festival. We would tell them about the family reunion, and everyone could enjoy delicious food together. These are relatively close to Italian culture, so they prefer Spring Festival activities,” she said.

These activities reflect the cultural commonality between China and Italy. For example, Italians attach great importance to family, which is very similar to the Chinese. She said that they started from this point to let students understand Chinese festivals since Chinese culture is highly related to the family. “When we communicate with Italians, we always emphasize what we have in common, we all love family, we all love food, we all love nature.”

Another example is that Italians are also very particular about the sense of ritual, eating different things at different festivals, which is also similar to the Chinese. “We want to create a sense of ritual through this difference, so they would think Chinese festival culture is fascinating,” she said.

Holding festival activities online also met some problems. According to Professor Xu, a deeper understanding needs personal sharing and experience, in which they could feel it. She said, “for example, when we held the dragon and lion dance activities, some Chinese volunteers said that they had never seen it, but they were very excited when they saw it in Italy. With this sense of experience, they would have a deeper understanding.”

Besides, for students of different levels, there will be some differences in the teaching design. Firstly, they would attract people who are interested in Chinese culture. As teaching and activities accumulate, they would gradually understand more and have a driving effect on the surrounding.

“So I don’t think we need to worry too much. Students can reach whatever level they could, and their level will gradually improve and grow,” she said. “For a small group of people, at least we let them know that dumplings are delicious and we eat dumplings for the festivals, that’s enough.”

In the end, Professor Xu emphasized that communication needs empathy, which means considering and giving what students need. She said that festivals are a good point of empathy because people have the same yearning and experience for beauty. Chinese people convey how they view love, and family, and express their feelings for the country through festival cultural activities. The purpose of empathy is not to let the students know what Chinese festivals are like, but to let them know that similarities are greater than differences.

“Communication can never be self-talk, and empathy is the basic starting point of all communication,” Professor Xu said. “If you want to achieve good communication effects, you must learn to empathize. Our international communication will be more confident if we could realize that.”

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