East meets West

PICTURE THE scene. Two students walking hand in hand to a train at Shanghai South Railway Station after a busy day out with classmates in China’s second largest City. Young love? Nothing wrong with that but Mahmut Loban and Jasmin Que Que are no ordinary couple. They’re from campuses thousands of miles apart and many cultures separated too. Mahmut, a first generation British Kurd is from Coventry University, Jasmin is from Zhejiang University of Media and Communications here in Hangzhou (one hundred kilometres from Shanghai). Jasmin and Mahmut are part of a unique experiment. Three Coventry academic staff have come to teach a module to their design students.  The Chinese students have joined in too – hook, line and sinker.

Bringing together design ideas spawned from two very different cultures

Bringing together design ideas spawned from two very different cultures

ZUMC is Coventry’s outpost on the mainland of China. It’s the home of their major partner university – the Zhejiang University of Media and Communications; ZUMC. The benefits to both sides are there for all to see far beyond that Shanghai station. In the Media and Communications department, over sixty Chinese students have been sent to Coventry this year; just two made the brave trip in the opposite direction.  ‘Cov’ and ZUMC have been partners for five years now and the modus operandi is embedded. It’s no ‘smash and grab students’ operation like far too many British Universities. This partnership is truly two way.

ZUMC sends fee paying undergraduates and postgraduates to Cov but as well it dispatches scholars to pursue their interests, ‘split site’ doctoral candidates to do Phds and university administrators seeking to learn higher education management skills. All benefit from their immersion in British higher education and culture. All return to Hangzhou truly internationalised.

The Chinese Government recognises the importance of communication in a communist/capitalist society. All media life is here.

ZUMC is fascinating. 9000 (nine thousand!) studying media in various forms at China’s second best known ‘Meeja College’. Subjects range from announcing to animation, from television to transmission engineering (they even have their own state of the art broadcasting tower complete with a live Shopping Channel on campus). The Chinese Government recognises the importance of communication in a communist/capitalist society. All media life is here.

But, it’s not undergraduate life was we know it. The students come from all over China to learn. Financed by their parents – the one child being a living pension policy for them. They live in single sex dormitories whose curfew is at 10.30pm (try that on students in Cov..) and taught very formally in classrooms. Some are there by 07.30 eating their breakfast ready for the 08.15 start of classes (tell that to students in Cov..). The prize – a coveted position in one of the many CCTV (Government) channels or the burgeoning private TV sector. A Glittering Prize that very few achieve.

Coventry University offers much in exchange. Not just a warm learning environment in the cold British Midlands but more. Academic staff comes here regularly to teach. Each year at least one group of English exchange students descends on ZUMC; this year’s boarding party made up of nineteen industrial design students. Ten boat designers manqué, the others automotive and product shapers of the future. Eighteen boys, one girl. Their task to design a boat for the burgeoning Chinese marine market in a fortnight. Led to that objective by Course Director, Dr Sean McCarten, a lanky haired Northern Irishman and Professor Andree Woodcock – Cov’s new Professor of Educational Ergonomics. I am the Boswell to their Johnsons – here to record and supervise a film of the event. Made, naturally, by ZUMC students.

The ZUMC students are sixteen in number and mainly graphic designers ‘lent’ by their tutor for a fortnight. They’re young and look much more so than their English counter-parts. The experiment in cross cultural learning starts with huge ambition and so nearly falls at the first hurdle after two days. The Chinese faces are a picture as they initially cope with an Irishman in full flow, no simultaneous translation into Mandarin and a highly technical presentation on yachts. Bemused is the best word for it. The Prof. applies the Educational element of her Chair and cuts woods from pedagogical trees. The project is re-focussed on creating a hospitality boat for the University on the local tourist attraction – West Lake in Hangzhou; a new start from the experience and culture of at least half the audience. It works a treat.

After a few hours, the translators were redundant: the common language ‘Chinglish’ and drawing. This truly was cross culturalism and ‘education sans frontieres’ in action.

On the third day, it all clicked. The Buzz was self evident for all to see and hear. Cov and ZUMC students are finally sat around tables in European Design style groups. Each table assigned a translator so language would be no barrier. They were set specific and low technology tasks – imagining and drawing the ZUMC boat from inside to out. They all palled up instantly. After a few hours, the translators were redundant: the common language ‘Chinglish’ and drawing. This truly was cross culturalism and ‘education sans frontieres’ in action.

The Chinese brought to the table their thousands of years of Civilisation and an Eastern dimension. One group showed this by bringing photocopies of traditional Chinese furniture for use on the boat. The British brought design skills and design practice. They met in the middle or somewhere nearby. By the end of the first week, most of the six groups were working as one. Friendships had already been cemented on the night of day three by a joint visit to a local Karaoke bar. The Chinese singers, it is reported, knocked the British into a cocked microphone before retreating to their dormitories many hours before the Brits. The next night was very social, too.

Working in close collaboration, 'Chinglish' became the 'common language'

Working in close collaboration, 'Chinglish' became the 'common language'

By the end of a hard week one, all were ready for a treat – that class trip to Shanghai. Thirty five came – nineteen Brit students, three lecturers and thirteen Chinese students. The latter a vote of confidence, if one were needed, in this chrysalis of co-operation from which a butterfly should emerge next week. It has been fascinating to say the least. Thirty five students, two universities, two very divergent cultures, two very different approaches to teaching and learning yet together the whole is so much more than the parts. Jasmin and Marmut hand in hand at Shanghai South a symbol of something much bigger?

  • Despatch from Hangzhou, southern China by John Mair, senior lecturer in journalism, Coventry University.
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