The cover of Joe Lurie’s book “Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures?” is of a cow. On the bovine’s nose, it is written “What am I? Divine? Dowry? Dinner?”.
In one picture, Lurie, who was the Executive Director Emeritus of the University of California Berkeley’s International House for close to 20 years, gave a snapshot into how easily symbols and words are interpreted, or rather, misinterpreted amongst different cultures.
In India, the cow is revered, and holds a higher status than even women in the 2nd most populous nation in the world. But halfway across the world, the Masai and other ethnic groups gift cows as dowry, while others slaughter and grill them into slabs of meat for dinner.
The cow makes just one instance in a massive tome of misconceptions that arise when different cultures come together under one roof with the purpose of getting a tertiary education.
Another is plagiarism. In China, the country which sends the highest number of students to universities abroad, plagiarism holds no meaning at all or a vastly different meaning than those from the Western strain of academia.
Due to this, some Chinese students copy and paste materials they find online, sometimes even directly from Wikipedia, when they are given English-language writing assignments. To these students, copying without proper attribution is just “not that big of a deal”.
The Cambridge Network proposes four possible root causes of plagiarism among these international students, from the role Confucian ideals play in education to the way intellectual property is conceptualised.
But one main reason stands out from The Cambridge Network’s piece, as well as in the myriad of reports written on the issue – how knowledge is taught in China’s schools.
Chinese students learn how to write by copying Chinese characters and memorising them.
One result of this method of learning is shown by how Chinese and Americans reacted diffrently to Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention last year, which was accused of copying parts of Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
According to one student of Kim Orendor, who taught at SAIS International University in Xinzheng, China, if Melania Trump’s speech was in Chinese, “there would be a high chance of writing the same sentence because of the way characters need to be used”.
Copying characters is just the tip of the iceberg. Referencing sources, another critical part of academic integrity, is reportedly just not done in Chinese high schools. Nor do they learn to write long essays or to practise critical thinking.
Irene Tieh, a strategist at USA College Connection, was once a student in both China and the US and has learned in Spanish, Chinese and English. She can attest to how different learning can be when it is done in Chinese.
“The language itself has influenced how Chinese students learn in general. It’s not like you can just look at the character and read it without knowing what it means like in English or Spanish. Either you know it or you can’t read it at all (no phonetics),” says Tieh in an email to Study International News.
“So that memorization method starts with learning the characters but is pervasive throughout the Chinese learning culture.”
This stark contast between these two learning systems manifests itself most clearly when students move from their Chinese-ed background into one that uses English as its main medium.
This year, Daniel Lim, a graduate of a Chinese-medium high school near Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, enrolled in a foundation in science programme at UK’s Nottingham University’s Malaysian outpost.
At the start of his course, his lecturer informed Lim’s class that plagiarism is not something to be taken lightly – any work that the school’s software found to contain plagiarised content above 25 percent will not be accepted and the student will have to redo the assignment. Lim had never previously heard of such a concept.
Commenting about how he feels about this new environment, Lim said: “It had affected me because there were no restrictions on plagiarism when I was in high-school. Everything you took from the Internet was yours, and the format of crediting was not introduced.”
“When writing out my first lab report, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept of citing and giving references because it wasn’t the normal thing to do ever since high school”.
And while the young lad had no problem finding the vocabulary to express himself in his interview with Study International News, he admits that learning and using the proper referencing methods can be hard.
Other Chinese students aren’t as lucky as Lim to be born in Malaysia, a country where English is widely spoken.
Students from China struggle from both lack of vocabulary and the knowledge to cite correctly. Sometimes, this hurdle is just one too high to jump and makes some resort to dubious essay mills to write for them instead.
Others plough on using their own hands and words but face the possibility of their assignment being returned with allegations of plagiarism and face disciplinary action, including suspension or worse – expulsion.
In a 2015 report, the Wall Street Journal found that U.S. universities expelled as many as an estimated 8,000 Chinese Students for poor grades and plagiarism in 2014, according to date from an US education group.
A Forbes article notes that this lack of academic integrity extends even into the upper echelons of Chinese academia, showing just how embedded plagiarism is in the Chinese education system.
Tieh believes things may change as schools increasingly adopt notebook computers – meaning students will now type or dictate, instead of coping handwritten notes. This could change how they learn language and the overall learning culture altogether.
For 18-year-old Lim, the solution is simpler.
“Just write everything in your own way, don’t copy it straight off the reference. This will get you somewhere.”