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A Far East collision with the Middle East

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    A Far East collision with the Middle East
    Despite some bad haircuts and hot hummus, 47 Chinese university students spend a successful month at Hebrew University, learning the language and bridging a vast cultural gulf

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    By SARAH SHEAFER August 1, 2013, 10:21 am

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    The students filed into the classroom, excited and nervous. It was the first day of ulpan, an intensive course of language study, and most of them didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. Looking back on the day, Yang Cao remembers his initial feeling that it was a “nightmare.”

    “I didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Yang Cao, 21, a student at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing. “It was a challenge.”

    Each year, Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School welcomes a diverse group of students from all over the world. Students from more than 80 countries have attended the school, situated at the university’s Mount Scopus campus. For one month, they study Hebrew, learn about important Israeli figures and participate in cultural outings.

    This year, 47 of the 250 summer participants were Chinese students who won scholarships to study Hebrew, part of a national initiative of the Council for Higher Education in Israel.

    There’s usually only a handful of Chinese students, said Mimi Ajzenstadt, provost of the Rothberg International School, and this summer’s larger crew made the program unique. The university made a major effort to recruit more Chinese students, visiting top universities last spring in order to promote the program.


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    The ulpan student’s notebook (photo credit: Sophie Gordon/Flash 90)
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    “Five people from Hebrew University went to China as a delegation and met with people at top universities,” said Ajzenstadt. “We promoted this program and as a result, we have these students. It’s very exciting.”

    Encouraging Chinese students to study at Rothberg is part of an initiative that aims to strengthen ties between Israeli and Chinese universities. Twelve additional scholarships will be offered in October to Chinese students interested in obtaining a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and the council will continue to offer additional scholarships to Chinese students over the next two years.

    “The perception of Israel in China is not favorable, to my knowledge,” said Azjenstadt, noting that the Chinese are often scared to come to Israel, knowing only what they hear in the news. “This program shows them that life goes on here and Israel is not a scary place. It’s an important diplomatic mission. Forty-seven students won’t change China, but you have to start somewhere.”

    Some of the Chinese students who came to Israel study Arabic back home and wanted to learn another Semitic language. There were also a few who study the Middle East at university, or are Christian and wanted to learn the language of the Bible.

    “I learn Arabic in Peking, but I didn’t know any Hebrew,” said Yang Ni, 21.

    Most of the students didn’t know any Hebrew and weren’t familiar with Israeli mores, either. In order to prepare the teachers and staff at the Rothberg International School and avoid a tremendous communications and culture gap, the school administration offered a preliminary workshop about Chinese culture prior to their arrival. Rothberg also hired two Israeli counselors, Hebrew University students who speak fluent Chinese, in order to make the process smoother.

    Still, communication was difficult at first, said ulpan teacher Tali Debbi, who taught a class of the Chinese students.

    “To be fair, Chinese is very different from Hebrew,” said Debbi. “Learning Hebrew was easy for some and hard for others.”

    The ulpan teachers weren’t the only ones who found communication difficult. Many of the students struggled learning the new words or pronouncing them correctly.

    “There are too many words to remember,” said Huang Rong Ying, 21. “Pronunciation is hard and where do you put the stress?” she added, using rudimentary English to describe the confusing rules of Hebrew pronunciation.

    The students also found tremendous differences between Chinese and Israeli culture. Yang Ni, 21, said life in Israel was “completely different” from China and he didn’t know “where to start” to explain.

    Even getting a haircut was nearly impossible, he said.

    “The barber here didn’t know how to cut East Asian hair because it is softer,” said Yang Ni, pointing to his top-heavy mop of hair. “Now I’m embarrassed by my haircut.”

    While many enjoyed trying Israeli foods, especially falafel, some found cooking to be difficult. One student commented that if she returned to Israel, she would make sure to bring a rice cooker along. Yang said he heated up hummus the first time he bought it, since most foods are heated back home in China. “I felt so sorry for that hummus,” he chuckled.

    As they reached the end of the program, some of the students were already planning their next trip. Yang Cao is interested in the physics program, while Yang Ni wants to apply for a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. Others are already looking for places to continue learning Hebrew in China.

    “I can bring back awareness and the feeling of the Jewish people,” Yang Cao said. “Some people think it is not safe in Israel, but we realized life is normal here. It is a beautiful place.”