Carleton College Junior Explores Chinese Language and Culture
Northfield, Minn. — Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, is in extreme northeastern China — about an hour away from the Russian border, and a 12 - or 13 - hour train ride from Beijing. Eric Sutton ’03, Carleton College’s first Chinese major, spent six months studying in this remote region as part of an intensive Chinese-language curriculum.
Sutton didn’t consider studying Chinese until he came to Carleton. "I had 12 years of French before college," he said. "When I got to Carleton, I flipped a coin to choose between taking Chinese and Japanese, since I knew that I wanted to take an Asian language."
Sutton found himself increasingly interested in studying Chinese, and his fascination led him to request a special major, since Carleton does not offer Chinese as a major field of study. "I’m focusing on linguistics rather than literature," he said. "I would like to study the effect of standardization on the phonetics of Mandarin dialects as well as tonology, and possibly attend a Chinese university to further my language studies."
But Sutton would not have been prepared to study Chinese linguistics had he not spent time in China. In January 2001, he left with CET Academic Programs Harbin, which is well-known for its intensity and strict no-English rule. Sutton lived at the Harbin Institute of Technology with other American and Chinese students for six months, and was allowed three weeks of vacation.
Upon arrival, Sutton was disoriented. "Culture shock was difficult for me because my initial ability to speak was very low," he said. The learning process began immediately with constant exposure to Chinese language. Immersion in another culture gave him a unique perspective on the subtleties of language. "Language is an incredible indicator of how people view the world, as well as the way they quantify their surroundings," he said.
Sutton’s study of language and people meant constant interaction with local Chinese, and he took advantage of that opportunity. "I suddenly got to meet so many new people, and that was the best way to practice what I was learning," he said. " I could chat with taxi drivers, and hone my Chinese haggling skills."
After returning to the United States, Sutton found that he was often at a loss for words as he groped for the English equivalent of a Chinese expression. "I would think in my head fuwuyuan (a Chinese word generally meaning ‘server’) but I couldn’t translate it," he said. "I had so many experiences that changed me, and I felt out of sync — as if I was slightly alienated from my own society."
Sutton said that returning home has been positive. "It was an opportunity to view the culture I had known my whole life from a new perspective, especially in light of the changes since Sept. 11," he said. "I discovered many aspects of American society that I had previously taken for granted. Plus, around-the-clock hot water was great. In China, we only had it for three hours per day."
In the future, Sutton plans to travel to China as often as he can. "I would like to go back to China and teach English, study more Chinese, and maybe some linguistics," he said. "I could also get a job with a company in the U.S. that would send me to China." Either way, Sutton is content to have found a language and a culture that he loves. "Chinese is amazing," he said, "and it’s a fantastic stroke of luck that I have the opportunity to study it."