Chinese teacher on a mission to build ties with France

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/11 5:03:40

The French visitors learn to make dumplings. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Naping

The French visitors learn to make dumplings. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Naping

Visitors take a photo with students from the school. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Naping

Visitors take a photo with students of Bailu Primary School in Chengdu. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Naping

Gao Naping(left in front) leads French donors to visit Bailu Primary school in Chengdu in 2008. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Naping

Gao Naping(left in front) leads French donors to visit the school in 2008. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Naping

Relics looted from the Summer Palace in 1860 and wine sales seem to be two totally separate things, but in Gao Naping's class, they are inextricably linked.

"One day, two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned…Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England." Gao was reading to her French students in a class on China's wine market in a business college in Montpellier in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, south of France.

They are part of a letter written in 1861 by one of France's best-known writers, Victor Hugo, denouncing the sacking of the famous Chinese imperial park in Beijing.

Reading them has become essential for Gao at the beginning of every course.

Gao, 54, went to Montpellier 30 years ago. Between 2000 and 2006, she taught Chinese in a high school in the city. Now a general manager of a wine chateau in the region, she also teaches classes on how to do business with Chinese, such as the consumption habits of Chinese tourists in France.

"The history that the Chinese endured of going from great pride to extreme inferiority in the last century can help them to know the Chinese mindset better," Gao told the Global Times, adding that it can help explain why many Chinese like to show off, are always keen to earn money but neglect enjoying life.

They are also part of her efforts to correct stereotypes formed about China due to Western-dominated and prejudiced media, she said.

The family planning policy and pollution are always the first things that come to her students' minds when they think of China. But after they go through the 30-hour course, they look at China afresh. They get to know that the skies in Beijing are not smoggy every day, she said.

Tibet question

Gao started teaching about Chinese culture after encountering frequent misinformation about China overseas, especially in April 2008, when the Beijing Olympic torch relay was seriously disrupted by advocates of Tibetan independence in France.

At that time, anti-Chinese media reports had fanned hostility toward Chinese. Gao said that one day as she walked along a street, a woman tapped her on the shoulder and asked, "Why don't you Chinese get out of Tibet?"

Children of Chinese origin also suffer similar problems in schools. Her daughter told her that she was afraid of going to school as she didn't know how to respond to her classmates' challenges.

Instead of keeping silent like many other Chinese, she decided to do something. She contacted a Chinese student association in town, hoping they could publish brochures to advise Chinese people when they were challenged by aggressive questions, but her efforts went in vain. She then approached a media outlet, which later published her argument together with two other dissents.

"I just stated some facts, including the fact that there are several other ethnic groups in China that have a larger population than Tibetans, and that Tibetans enjoy many favorable policies such as a looser family planning policy," Gao recalled.

In October 2008, she initiated a forum with a reader club, inviting two Belgian historians with studies refuting Western media's false information about Tibet. About 300 people joined the forum, which was held over two evenings.

But the forum was violently interrupted the first evening by Tibetan Youth Congress members. Gao said, "They made a lot of noise in the venue and even grabbed the microphone, giving no chance for a peaceful debate." The next evening, she didn't pass the microphone to the audience.

In the past few years, a fair number of French people have asked to talk with her about the Tibet question, but she always declined, saying, "I will when both sides of the controversy are equally covered in publications one day."

Charity and worries

Gao admits the Chinese government and Chinese people do have flaws, but she wants to do something practical to improve the situation rather than just complain.

Originally an English teacher in the predecessor of Chengdu University of Technology in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, she quit her job and went to France in 1986 to join her husband, who was on a study trip in Montpellier funded by the Chinese government.

Since then, she has worked as a volunteer in EURASIA, an NGO in Montpellier dedicated to promoting cultural exchanges and understanding between France and China. In 1993, the couple obtained French citizenship.

In 2000, she became the association's president. With about 500 members, it regularly holds activities for French people to learn the Chinese language, calligraphy and appreciate Chinese songs, dances and tea ceremonies.

In 2003, the association began reaching out to China, aiding poor Chinese children in Chengdu, partner city of Montpellier. By the end of 2015, it had raised a total of 1 million yuan ($147,600) for more than 500 kids in poverty.

Gao made the decision after hearing of several tragic stories during her first visit back to China. One left a particularly deep impression: a laid-off mother jumped to her death in front of her 12-year-old son after he called her a "loser" when she failed to borrow five yuan from neighbors for his school fees.

"The more time they stay in school, the farther they will get away from poverty," Gao said.

However, her fundraising efforts in France were met with obstacles. Many people wrote to Gao expressing their opposition to donating to Chinese, saying that China was rich as it hosted the Olympics and the children being funded could be working in sweat shops to make clothes which were then exported to France. Some even told her that what she was doing could embarrass the Chengdu government.

Gao tried to clarify. She took some French to visit poor villages in Chengdu.

As a result of her efforts, many French people now have a more positive view of China. They see Gao as a Chinese cultural ambassador or their mentors. Raphael Lorin is one of them.

"She has opened the south of France to China over the last 30 years and inspired many French students and French entrepreneurs to go to China," Lorin told the Global Times.

Gao was Lorin's high school Chinese teacher from 2002 to 2004, and she ignited her students' passion for China. Most of her students visited China and some now live there or work with Chinese people.

Lorin went to further study in Beijing and lived there for four years before returning and established a Chinese learning company with over 1,000 students now in Paris.

Newspaper headline: Mending fences

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