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Special letters sent and specially received

Updated: 2024-04-17 06:13 ( China Daily )
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Every year, hundreds of international students travel thousands of miles to study in China, leaving their homes and native languages behind. As some of them immerse themselves in intensive Chinese language study at Tongji University in Shanghai, one unique assignment helps them bridge the miles that lie in between — writing a letter home in Chinese.

The letter-home activity has become an annual tradition in Tongji's pre-university Chinese program. After months of studying vocabulary, grammar, and composition, students from all over the world are tasked with composing a letter to their families, written entirely in Chinese characters.

"At first, this activity was operated in a few classes. But when other students saw the letters on display, they took the initiative to write home letters on their own," explained Zong Qian, associate dean of the International School of the university.

Crafting a personal letter requires more advanced skills compared to simple classroom writing exercises, said Zong. "We were hoping to give them an authentic reason to put their language learning into practice."

As the letters started coming in, the teachers were impressed and touched by the students' efforts to express emotions across cultures. Zong noted that most of the students had zero prior Chinese ability before arriving in Shanghai for the first time just months ago.

"We realized that these letters offered a special window into the students' experiences and growth in China," said Zong. "The letters were very moving to read."

International students at Tongji University in Shanghai read the home letters they wrote in Chinese. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

Chipo Bard Shanzuwa Chintu from Zambia wrote about her adjustment to life in Shanghai: "Before I came to China, I was a little upset about having to leave my home. But now I'm so happy here. I think Shanghai is beautiful and safe. Learning to write Chinese characters is very challenging but rewarding."

Neth Chanranuth from Cambodia described his progress after settling in: "Time flies and my Chinese language ability has improved a lot. I've gradually adapted to life in China. Although I'm very busy with intensive studying, I feel rather happy overall. I have an excellent class with skilled teachers. I've also made some new friends and even joined the university karate club."

The university plans to publish a collection of these home letters from students, including some of the responses received from their families. Zong believes this reunion through writing has special significance.

"Although today's students can instantly communicate with their families online, there is something more permanent and traditional about handwritten letters that allow experiences to be recorded and remembered," Zong explained, adding that students' families are willing to get to know about their loved ones' lives in China in such a traditional way.

One example was when a father in Turkmenistan wrote to his daughter, Jennet Gurbangulyyeva: "I'm sure of one thing — we were not mistaken in choosing for you to study in China. I can say that my main expectation came true — you have fallen in love with this country. I think without this love for China, its people, and rich culture, even hard work would not have helped my daughter achieve such results in learning the Chinese language in such a short time."

A grandfather in Panama expressed his expectations to his granddaughter, Fu Jiawei: "We hope you can continue learning more about Chinese culture while studying there. In doing so, you will not only win honor for our family but also set a good example for your younger brother and sister."

For the students themselves, home letter writing proved to be an invaluable milestone in embracing their adopted language and surroundings.

Neth said that during video calls, he and his family usually only have casual conversations to catch up on events, but when writing a long letter, he can really convey how much he misses them. "Since I had never written letters before, the words ended up being more thoughtful and touching for my family to receive," he said.

For Fu, who has Chinese ancestry but was born and lived in Panama, writing a letter in Chinese was initially "weird". However, she could see how proud her grandfather was after receiving the letter. "Although China is geographically far from my country, Chinese culture has always been present in my life. One major reason I came to study here was to understand my grandpa's beloved China and ancestral roots better."

Chintu also thinks that letters are a more special way of communication. "Once they are received, that physical paper held in hands becomes a lasting memory one can revisit again and again, reminiscing over the heartfelt words that initially moved them," she said.

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