A group of accountants and tax collectors from China is in Sacramento, California, to study the U.S. tax system. But, as we hear from Steve Milne, they're learning more than just American accounting. They're also getting a firsthand look at American culture.
Students from China are nothing new at California State University, Sacramento. But what makes this group different is its large size: 18 men and women, and length of stay: one full year.
Professor Kent Meyer is teaching an international accounting class to about 15 of the students. He starts out with a discussion of current events. Students bring up stories about how a fuel-efficient carmaker is benefiting from soaring gas prices and how gold is a safe haven in a time of uncertainty. A little bit later, the class gets into more cerebral ideas covered in their textbook, comparing international accounting standards with domestic principles.
Meyer says the class is covering complex material, and that's especially difficult for students who've only been speaking English for a few years. He says that makes this subject especially challenging. "Accounting concepts are not that difficult, but when you get down to the actual implementation, they don't have the background in the technical language."
All of the students are in their 20s and 30s. They're professionals who work for the Hubei Province Local Taxation Bureau in Central China.
Jenny Luo, casually dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, says China is opening up more to Western businesses. "I think you may see more foreigners working on the street in our city than before. I mean a lot of foreign companies come to China and invest in our city. So we need both language and business rules." That's why her government sent her here, she explains
Luo says she and her colleagues are also learning things not in a textbook, like how to socialize with Americans. "In China, seldom there are strangers (who) say 'hello' to me," she says with a laugh. "But in America, usually you meet strangers in the street, they will say 'hello' to you. It seems American people are more friendly. Maybe the Chinese people seem not so open. Maybe it's because of our culture I think."
Her colleague Meng Yaning has worked for the taxation bureau for 10 years. He's enjoying his first experience abroad. He says Sacramento has more trees and less people than Hubei Province. "You know in China there are very many people in the streets but here it's more peaceful. I like the fresh air and the big trees."
Yaning, Luo and their colleagues are living in newly constructed apartments close to the campus. The building is also home to American students. As a way to introduce themselves, the Hubei students threw a mid-autumn Chinese festival and made food for the whole building. Their American neighbors returned the favor, including a new dessert for the Chinese students: brownies with walnuts.
Bernadette Halbrook, with the school's College of Continuing Education, spent a week in South Central China last summer. She says the students are coming from an area that's rapidly changing. "You still see people on bicycles carrying all their goods with them," she says, adding, "but right next to it you've got Toyota Camrys zooming by. It is a combination of the old China still hanging on, but very rapid growth."
Something else that's changing is China's willingness to let its citizens come to the United States and be exposed to Western styles of conducting business. However, Halbrook notes, before Chinese officials granted their visas, the students had to pledge their commitment to Hubei province and promise they would return to China after finishing their studies.
At Sacramento State, it's not uncommon to see an occasional protest rally aimed at China's controversial human rights policies. The Hubei students were recently invited to such an event. Halbrook says she spoke with the rally organizers first. "I had to be very clear: these students are here to study. They are not here as official representatives of their government and I would not want them to be put in a situation where they had to answer any questions about government policy."
But Fei Wang says her conversations with American students have been respectful. "They have many curious questions about China and I'm very glad to tell them about something I know, good or bad, it doesn't matter because they will understand that whatever will exist in the world, it's the same situation."
Wang says she misses her family and friends back in China. But a little homesickness isn't so bad she says, considering this is a rare opportunity to study in the U.S. She says living in Sacramento is a great experience but she has a nagging question about local nightlife. "We are curious about what American people doing in evening," she admits with a small giggle, "because we don't see many people outside. Maybe they are staying at home. You can see people everywhere in China at anytime."
She and the other students got part of the answer over the Thanksgiving break in November, when half of them celebrated the holiday with American hosts, and the other half went to Disneyland. The students will return to China at the end of the spring semester in July.