A Geek in the Middle Kingdom

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Professor Matthew Christensen, director of the Chinese Flagship Program at BYU, discusses his new book and the importance of cultural literacy.

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 12, 2017)—Imagine visiting America as a foreign student. Just when you feel like you are able to follow along in a conversation, someone quotes Shakespeare and you see everyone’s head nodding but yours. This cultural disconnect in conversation and media is a problem that Professor Matthew Christensen, director of BYU’s Chinese Flagship Program, has noticed with American students during his time abroad with them in China. “Oftentimes,” he explained, “our students have pretty good language skills, but they miss all these cultural references that come up in everyday speech or in TV shows or . . . the news.”

Christensen’s new book, A Geek in China, is written with a student audience in mind, with the goal of helping them understand cultural references in speech or on TV. The book is composed of essays on a myriad of topics. They cover, in part, historical periods and figures, Chinese cuisine, music, art, business, and some basic information about visiting China.

A Geek in China
is Christensen’s second book for a non-academic audience, following his 2013 book Decoding China. He commented, “[That] book is really geared toward people that are going to China to stay for an extended period. It’s a really practical, hands-on handbook for living and surviving in China.” Decoding China focuses on the everyday, essential things a westerner would need to know in order to function well in Chinese society, including how to understand the train numbering system, buy a cell phone plan, understand a Chinese menu, open a bank
account, shop and study. It is an invaluable resource for his students participating in the Chinese Flagship Program, who live, study and work in China for a year.

Christensen explained that the Flagship Program is a federally funded response to 9/11, when the government decided they needed more citizens with excellent, in-depth knowledge of “critical languages,” one of which is Mandarin Chinese. “The goal of the program,” Christensen said, “is to take students who already have high levels of Chinese and train them to function at a professional level within whatever discipline they’re studying.” Students spend two semesters taking intensive language study courses, after which they spend a semester in Nanjing University in China in direct enrollment. For the second half of the program, they are placed as interns within Chinese companies for four to six months.

Even these advanced-level students, though, can benefit from the information in A Geek in China. It is written in a way that makes it relevant to serious students of Chinese, but also interesting and easy to understand for Christensen’s Chinese 101 students, or even someone who is simply interested in learning more about the country’s history and culture.

Christensen’s passion for sharing Chinese culture is evident on his blog. He writes about his travels across China, as well as language, food, communication, culture and much more. Especially evident is his love for Chinese cuisine.

“I’m a foodie,” he admitted. He owns a stack of notebooks filled with a record of the food he ate during his many trips to China and what he thought about it. He has plans to write a book devoted to Chinese cuisine, including the regional differences of Chinese food and how to find good restaurants.

—Olivia Madsen (B.A. French Language, ’18)

Olivia is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in International development. She covers events for the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages.