China’s cultural footprint across Latin America is growing. One sign of that is the expansion of the number of Confucius Institutes in the region, where local students learn Chinese, and learn about Chinese culture too.
CGTN’s Stephen Gibbs reports.
In Venezuela, the economic crisis has meant that only one Confucius Institute has been established (several more are planned, but are currently on hold). But there is no shortage of students.
The institute is based at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. There the mandarin courses are heavily over-subscribed, with many students having to join waiting lists. Five teachers, all from China, are currently teaching around 800 students.
“Chinese I think is more important now than English, for Venezuela”, said Samantha Gray, 43, a businesswoman who had recently started learning the language.
Like many students from a European language background, she said at first she found the challenge “too difficult”, especially the tones and the grammar of Mandarin.
But she said she soon started making progress, and feels the course is proving to her that “there’s nothing you cannot do if you try.”
Owing to the exceptionally low salaries in Venezuela, the classes are cheap by international standards – as little as the equivalent of $4 USD a term.
But even that can be a struggle for some Venezuelans, in a country that is currently experiencing the deepest recession in the world.
Randy Moreno, 30, from Falcon state, around 300 km from Caracas, said he thought the effort he had put in to attend the course was worthwhile, as it would help his career.
He hopes to become a translator for a Chinese construction company. ”And if you like languages, it’s much easier”, he said.
The project is a joint initiative by the Venezuelan and Chinese governments, and there are two full-time directors, one from each country.
Esperanza Aquerreta, the Venezuelan director, said the students were of all ages and many different backgrounds. What they had in common, she said, was a thirst for “a wider scope of the world”.
Given the economic problems Venezuela faces, she added, many feel China is “an example to follow”.
Shen Jufen, the program’s Chinese director, said it was proving hard to get some students to pay even the very modest fees for the course.
“But I often tell my students”, she said, ”I was born in the 1960’s, and in my childhood life in China was more difficult than what it is here.”
“Chinese people never gave up working hard”, she said, “because we know that knowledge is power.”