Ni Hao! Here I am in Beijing, China, half-way through co-leading (with colleague Michael Krajsa) a group of twenty-three Penn State students through the field study portion of a six-credit intercultural exchange.
Since this is an academic field study, I was especially interested in discovering something about my speech communication discipline and in my first class lecture here I accomplished my goal.
I saw a lesson that I’ve been teaching in my public speaking class for more than twenty years come to life like no textbook can make it. In my Penn State CAS 100 class, we always have a unit on multiculturalism. The notion of an individualistic vs. collectivist society always drew a few notes of interest from students as I explained that the typical response from Chinese students when invited to give a speech is, “I am not a very good public speaker,” even if they are very good public speakers.
In my class here in Beijing at the Capital University of Business and Economics, I offered the class of about fifty Chinese students an overview of public speaking. Then, because the university wanted us to teach “like typical American professors,” (I thought: I can do that), I pulled out the bag-o-speech-topics that is always a sure-fire hit back at Penn State Lehigh Valley. I even toned down the exuberance with which I invited students to the front of the class to make an impromptu speech, realizing that they are accustomed to a more subdued teaching style. After what seemed like the labor and delivery of both of my children, Igor (his American name) rose to his feet and approached me and my “speech bag.” He put his hand in (no peeking) and pulled out chopsticks. In a cogent, entertaining style he said that chopsticks are meant to be used together, which is something that is useful in other areas of life. After I praised his presentation he said, “I am not a very good speaker.”
Of course, I disagree! Not only is Igor a good speaker, he gave me my first “take-away” of the trip: “People should be like chopsticks and work together!” (Thank you, Igor.) Even more profound, the class cemented in my life forever (and gave me a good real life example for the next time I teach) the lesson I had taught for decades: The United States is an individualistic society, and China is a collectivist society. I get it now.