Mandarin language assistants hope to represent 'the real China'

At the start of the 2019 school year, Kaiting Zhou and Wang Yuxiao, along with 50 other university graduates from China, were welcomed onto Victoria University's Te Herenga Waka Marae. They’ll spend the year helping local Chinese language teachers in 144 schools across the North Island teach Mandarin as part of the Confucius Institute’s Mandarin Language Assistant programme.

“It’s my first time in New Zealand. I’m pretty excited,” says Kaiting. Like many young New Zealanders who do their OEs, she’s also curious about the world. After graduating from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, she went to Germany for a year and got a taste for travel. Then she turned her sights to this side of the world.

“I think the Southern Hemisphere is a totally new thing for me. I always want to have adventures and try new things.

“I had a better impression of New Zealand compared to Australia. I don’t know why — it may be the people and the landscape. You don’t have very ferocious animals like spiders and snakes… I just feel it might be safer. And I like hiking — I’ve heard New Zealand is a paradise for hiking and that’s another reason why I’m here.”

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Wang Yuxiao and Kaiting Zhou are in the Mandarin Language Assistants programme.

Meanwhile, Wang is returning to New Zealand classrooms for her third year as a Mandarin Language Assistant.

“I guess I’m really lucky — I have a really good relationship with my school colleagues and my home stays. And every year when it’s getting to December and time for me to leave, my students will ask me, ‘will you be here next year?’ It’s really touching.”

Wang, who also goes by her English name, Jade, says it'a a role that enables her to bring both her native language and culture to life for students. 

“I feel like I’m part of their life and their studies. I guess before they decide to learn, they must be interested in China. When people talk about China they say the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, but I don’t think they know what the modern China looks like. I want to introduce the new China, the modern China.”

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Mandarin Language Assistants were welcomed onto Te Herenga Waka Marae.

First-time MLA Kaiting hopes to be able to do the same.

“I’d like to introduce young people’s culture because all they have learned is from textbooks or media and sometimes media can be pretty wrong about China. When I stand there they know, ‘ok she’s here, she’s Chinese and she represents China’, then they can learn about the real China through me.”

Kaiting knows first-hand how easy it is to fall into stereotypes about people from different cultures and hopes to make a difference in the way young New Zealanders perceive people from China.

“I just think sometimes people have stereotypes about China. Not all Chinese are nerds or only focus on working and do nothing else. We also enjoy doing sports and going to the gym regularly.”

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Mandarin Language Assistants hope to break down stereotypes about China.

She's looking forward to getting to know what it’s like teaching a language in a New Zealand classroom.

“China’s education system is totally different from here. Yesterday I was in a year 13 boys' class, and it’s not hierarchical. Whenever the students have questions, they would just say it.”

Wang is also looking forward to getting back into the classroom and reconnecting with New Zealand students and teachers.

“The school I’ve been in is a co-educational school. It’s pretty different — there are no uniforms. Students and teachers are so comfortable. They come to learn, no pressure, you ask what they want to know — you enjoy it. You learn something from students, and students learn lessons from you.”

Images: Supplied by the Confucius Institute

- Asia Media Centre