BEIJING — The 200 students crammed into tight rows for "Think in American English" class have mastered gerunds, prepositions, and past participles. But there's one skill that's keeping them from ultimate success: selling themselves verbally.
Student Xin Zhe grips a microphone, telling how his garbled speech cost him a chance to study biology in the US because he botched a phone interview with a professor.
Mr. Xin's teacher recommends a little more American- style assertiveness: In China, using the first-person singular goes against the Confucian grain of modesty. "Don't give us a story," he says to Xin. "Let us know about you." Chinese "think you have to be Bill Gates to [say you're] outstanding," says Victor Wang.
For the thousands of Chinese students eager to study in the US each year, a clumsy self-introduction is more than a social hazard. While many read and write well, their oral English falls far short. That can hurt in college interviews and ruin visa application interviews with overworked embassy bureaucrats.
It's that realization that has made the New Orient School perhaps the best-known test prep program in the country. It has tailored the usual GMAT, GRE, and SAT classes to the particular needs of the Chinese. The school pays close attention to areas in which Chinese students will be the weakest: cultural context.
Students like Chen Rong, an administrative assistant worried about finding a new job should she be laid off, shell out 500 yuan ($60) - about half a monthly salary - for the 30 hours of English lessons. They're paying for expertise Wang gained from his own sometimes humiliating experiences as a student in New Jersey years ago. Without anyone to guide him, he fumbled through faux pas that later became fodder for his classes.
There was the lesson about the simple greeting, "How are you doing?" The answer, Wang finally learned, is "fine," no matter what you're feeling.
Then there was the time he dejectedly spent a week waiting by the phone after an American acquaintance never followed through on a casual suggestion for a lunch date.
Since the early 1980s, the United States has been the leading destination for Chinese scholars. There are some 50,000 currently in America, the most from any foreign country. The US embassy grants about 20,000 student visas each year, though thousands more applications are rejected, and demand is only growing. According to an embassy study, less than 10 percent of Chinese students have returned home.
Most students want to come to the states for the economic opportunities. This year's hot pick by New Orient students is a Harvard MBA. That kind of high-powered credential helps students land a good job in the States - or in China. Increasingly, top foreign and Chinese companies here want "Westernized" employees - some want-ads for management positions are only printed in English.
Studying abroad offers one of the few opportunities to leave a country where passports are hard to obtain, because the government wants to control movement of the population, and tourism is still only for the elite. The result has been a brain drain that has started to worry the leadership. But the teachers at New Orient are not concerned.
"It is in the interest of China to send students abroad," says Xu Xiaoping, a music professor who left his job as a Vancouver band teacher to come back and work at the school. Citing former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping - himself once a student in France - Mr. Xu says, "Even if 10 percent return, each one will exercise the power of 100 people. They will influence the whole of China."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society