As director of K-State's Chinese language program, Wei Wu has the challenge of clarifying the complexities of Mandarin for her 60 or so American students. In her less formal role as cultural go-between, Wu has perhaps a bigger job of explaining America to Chinese students who find themselves on campus, but still at sea.
"The students are very young when they come to American universities," Wu said. "I like to say that they are born at the age of 18 on the plane over here."
She tells of a chance meeting with a Chinese student aboard the Road Runner shuttle from Kansas City International Airport. He wasn't sure where he was headed, though Wu eventually discovered that K-State was his goal. Other fresh arrivals have had no idea about where to buy toothpaste or groceries. (A shopping shuttle service from the Jardine apartment complex has since reduced that uncertainty.)
Her aim in her language programs as well as in her advising is to turn such "culture shock" into "culture balance," in which diverse populations enrich one another while maintaining their identities. China and the United States are two influential and competitive countries whose populations know little about each other. That has implications for business and education as well as diplomacy.
"The Chinese language has become a hot topic since 2005," Wu said. Mandarin has been dubbed "the new Latin," and in 2006, the U.S. government included it among the critical languages Americans need to pursue. "I have this urgency," Wu said. "If our students don't catch this train, then they will fall behind."
Which brings up Wu's third job, as "unofficial assistant to the provost" on China. In addition to translating at home and abroad, Wu has worked with two Chinese universities on establishing exchanges.
"I see Wei as having an expanding role at the university in strengthening our China initiatives," said M. Duane Nellis, provost and senior vice president. She will work not just with the provost's office but also with Steve White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Robert Corum, head of the English department; and with the office of international programs.
"This will include developing more activities to support our Chinese students at K-State, as well as facilitating high-quality partnerships with Chinese universities," Nellis said.
China too is pushing for foreigners to learn Mandarin, the country's official language. (Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong.) The China-sponsored Confucius Institutes are expanding operations abroad, including in Kansas.
The February Landon Lecture by Zhou Wenzhong gave one of Wu's students, Brent Pinkall, a Great Bend sophomore, the opportunity to test his skill by questioning the Chinese ambassador in his own language.
"Our students have a lot of potential," Wu said. "Some come to the course thinking, ‘I could never learn Chinese,' or they might only take it for a foreign-language credit. But it becomes part of their lives.
"And it's very good for the state of Kansas. We're one of the first states to establish a relationship with China, and so this is also preparation for our workforce."
She mentions that one of her students is working in the Chinese operations of local clothing firm GTM Sportswear. Five K-Staters are studying in China this semester, and two graduates with minors in Chinese now are teaching English there.
"Wei has been an extremely positive force for Chinese language and culture on this campus," Corum said. "For many K-Staters, she has become the face of China. She is a tireless advocate for East Asian studies and for the many Chinese students who come here to study."
Wu grew up in Gongzhu Ling in the northeastern province of Jilin. She was one of only two Jilin students to earn a place in the international economics program at Peking University. She earned her master's degree in public service and administration from Texas A&M.
If Wu is a lifeline for puzzled visitors, they represent for her "a very good resource for our students." She matches native Mandarin speakers with American "language partners" and requires them to meet every other week.
"To practice Chinese and English, of course," she said, "but most important is the cultural information you can't teach in class."
In bringing students together, Wu hopes she is leading two countries to a better understanding of each other as well.
Photo: Writing Chinese characters is one skill Wu brings to her students, in addition to teaching the complexities of a tonal language like Mandarin. They use fine--point pens; she has plied the traditional calligraphy brush to depict the characters for "America."