Drawing on ethnographic analysis of a Confucius Institute and two private schools, this article analyzes how diverse Chinese language institutes in Costa Rica have sought to capitalize on a growing local interest in learning Mandarin Chinese. It argues that a shifting global geopolitics has increased the perceived value of Chinese language acquisition and, thus, the stakes for language institutes seeking to assert their cultural authority as legitimate purveyors of Chinese and Chineseness. Through analysis of these schools’ projected identities and pedagogical styles, I show how they distinguish themselves from one another on the basis of public versus private ownership, choice-based versus authoritarian instructional style, and Taiwanese versus Mainland or diasporic roots. Building on the concept of the “Sinophone,” I highlight both the diversity of the forms and locations of Chineseness these initiatives represent and their implications for who can legitimately speak for China in Costa Rica.
In 2004, Lin Chang,1 a Taiwanese-born,
Unfortunately for Lin, her language-study institute was inaugurated on the very same day in 2007 that the Costa Rican state abruptly announced the end to its 50-plus-year partnership with the Republic of China (hereinafter Taiwan), and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China (hereinafter China). While Lin, like many Costa Ricans, felt dismay at the sudden change in diplomatic relations given Taiwan’s long history of friendship and development assistance, her reasons for ruing the new partnership were unique. After all, in appreciation of its new diplomatic recognition China gifted Costa Rica a national stadium and promised, among other things, the inauguration of a Confucius Institute — the Chinese state’s signature language and culture study initiative — to be managed as a partnership between Renmin University in Beijing and the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. The fruits of the diplomatic rapprochement thus provoked a protracted legal battle between dueling “Confucius Institutes” — one a private school located in a private building known as the “former Chinese embassy”3 and owned by a diasporic businesswoman with roots in Taiwan, and the other a Chinese state-sponsored institute located on the campus of the University of Costa Rica and supported by Beijing. The Chinese government eventually won that battle, forcing Lin to change the name of her school to Kung Tse Instituto Oriental Confucio (Kung Tse Confucius Oriental Institute, hereinafter Kung Tse), but the debate highlighted how the rising value of Chinese language as a global commodity was catalyzing competing intersections of identity and geopolitics on the ground in Costa Rica.
In this paper, I analyze three Chinese-language schools in Costa Rica that illustrate how shifting global geopolitics translate into local forms of cultural authority. In particular, I highlight the growing importance of standard Mandarin Chinese (putonghua 普通话) as a valued asset among Costa Ricans who seek economic opportunities in or through China. However, rather than a study of student goals for or experiences of Chinese-language learning, my main interest here is in how local Chinese-language schools have attempted to situate their own institutional and pedagogical identities as an authentic source of Chineseness in relation to this growing consumer base. To that end, I trace how these language schools have located their authority to teach Chinese along three different registers: (1) as private versus public initiatives, (2) as student-centered versus authoritarian instructional styles, and (3) as rooted in Taiwan, Beijing, or the diaspora. In doing so, my analysis moves beyond studies of Chinese public diplomacy through Chinese-language diffusion and its presumed political project (Churchman 2011, Hughes 2014, Sahlins 2014), to examine instead politics within the “Sinophone” (Barmé 2005, McDonald 2011, Shih 2007), or the multiple places beyond China where Chinese culture is being defined, engaged, appropriated, and even opposed by constituencies commonly understood as part of the Chinese diaspora. More specifically, how do competing purveyors of Chinese-language instruction in Costa Rica position themselves discursively and pedagogically in relation to diverse and often conflicting views of China and Chineseness as they try to legitimize their own institutional efficacy?
This analysis is based on five summers of ethnographic field research conducted in San Jose, Costa Rica, between 2011 and 2015. As part of a larger project that analyzes China’s growing impact on development politics in Central America, the research included more than 50 formal, recorded interviews with local politicians, diplomatic representatives, development-project administrators and engineers, foundation directors, and association members; countless informal interviews with Costa Rican citizens; and site visits and participant observation at various development projects and Chinese community events. I engaged the language programs described herein as one among many entry points into local perspectives and politics regarding China. In other words, what new initiatives had the shift in diplomatic relations inspired? Who was benefiting from the new diplomatic relations and how? Did people see China as a development opportunity or as a threat?
At each of the schools, I interviewed program directors, visited and observed operations, and spoke informally with students. I explored questions such as: What could their program and student body tell us about Costa Ricans’ perspectives on China? Who was teaching and studying Chinese and why? What was the relationship between their school and the Chinese embassy? How did the Confucius Institute — the emblematic focus of Chinese public-diplomacy efforts globally — compare with other Chinese language institutes in terms of its structure and local projection? At the Confucius Institute, I was able to sit in on a week of classes, while at the other schools I observed classes in session without participating personally.
This methodological overview thus prompts a few caveats regarding the contributions and limits of this analysis. First, the article analyzes the representations and strategies mobilized by these language institutions rather than student experience at the respective schools.4 Therefore, although I speak to general student motivations and classroom pedagogy, my concern here is not so much the content or outcome of language instruction but rather how the schools are promoting Chinese to prospective students and comparing themselves to one another. As such, this analysis examines Chinese language-learning institutes for what they reflect about China’s ascendance within the global political economy and the corresponding value attached to Chinese-language learning in places like Central America. The analysis also illuminates the dynamic and varied landscape of private Chinese-language initiatives that have emerged alongside the Confucius Institutes — a phenomenon often eclipsed in other studies of Confucius Institutes, but essential to understanding who gets to speak for China. Consequently, instead of offering a normative assessment of Confucius Institute language instruction, I ask how it, along with other language initiatives in Costa Rica, distinguishes and positions itself in relation to an emergent geopolitical context defined by China.
The Politics of the Sinophone: Saying “Global” in Chinese
China’s fantastic domestic growth, increasing power within the global political economy, and growing presence within international institutions over the last two decades have stirred widespread recognition that it is “transforming the world” (Kurlantzick 2007). And despite the continued global linguistic hegemony of English, acknowledgment of China’s ascendance has provoked interest in Chinese-language fluency as something of a passport into a global future (Ding and Saunders 2006, Erard 2006, Zhu and Li 2014) or even a new global language (Gil 2011). This dynamic is evident, for example, in the 51 per cent increase in Chinese-language enrollment in
Of course, the growing contemporary interest in putonghua is perhaps just the most recent example of a long history of local, national, and global politics staged on the terrain of language. Indeed, within the Chinese national context, language clearly figures as a site of power relations and state politics. For example, within China there are at least seven recognized regional dialects of Chinese; however, it was not until the Republican Period (1912-1949) that China adopted Mandarin as the official National Language (guoyu). And the ambiguous status of China’s 56 ethnic groups and spoken dialects reflects the ongoing centrality of language to national politics. As a case in point, Tibetan is recognized as the official language of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and yet many would argue that the Chinese state’s intense language-standardization policies have essentially rendered Tibetan functionally irrelevant and politically suspect (Shakya 1994, Yeh 2013). Furthermore, Mandarin continues to be the official language of international communication despite the fact that the majority of Chinese abroad speak dialects other than Mandarin (Li 2016:2).
The complex politics within Greater China — i.e., Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau — illustrate some of the broader dimensions of these language politics. For much of the Cold War, Taiwan served as the official site for international Chinese-language study through the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies (
Hong Kong, where Cantonese dominates, on the other hand, operated as the locus for the language of Chinese commerce and popular culture. Serving as the port of exit for nineteenth-century contract labor migrations from the Pearl River Delta area to the Americas, Cantonese has thus been the dominant language of diasporic communities (haiwai Huaren) within the Western Hemisphere. More recently, China’s export-commodity production in Special Economic Zones along China’s southeastern coastline has similarly privileged Cantonese as the language of international commerce within China (Pun 2005). Hong Kong has also served as the source of global cultural production such as books, kung fu movies, and culinary traditions (see Churchman 2011, Zhu and Li 2014). Therefore, Cantonese reflects a long history of Chinese flows and networks that speak to a global Chinese ethnic identity that is not necessarily correlated with Chinese state policy and has at times even been articulated in opposition to it.5 As these examples illustrate, differences in Chinese dialect and script connote and reproduce heterogeneity within Chinese-speaking communities and the dynamic politics that define relations among its subjects and circuits.
It comes as no surprise then that China’s current efforts to increase its global attractiveness or “soft power” have focused on the dissemination of standard Mandarin-Chinese language through public diplomacy tools like its Confucius Institutes (hereinafter
These heterogeneous language practices and histories, linked to both geopolitics and specific local places and identities, cue us to the politics of what some scholars have called the “Sinophone.” Shu-Mei Shih defines the Sinophone as “a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness, where a historical process of heterogenizing and localizing of continental Chinese culture has been taking place for several centuries” (2007:4). In this formulation, Shih highlights not a shared Chinese ethnic or racial identity across diaspora but rather places where Sinitic languages are spoken, be it Malaysia, Peru, Taiwan, or the United States. For this reason, she describes the Sinophone as a fertile space of everyday practice which can either corroborate or contest nationalist formulations, functioning as “a site of both a longing for and a reflection of various constructions of Chineseness; it can be a site of both nationalism of the long-distance kind, anti-China politics, or even non-relation with China, whether real or imaginary” (ibid.:30). In this sense, the Sinophone “maintains a precarious and problematic relation to China” rather than a natural affinity based on blood, birthplace or ideology (ibid.:30).
The Sinophone is an analytically productive concept for understanding Chinese-language study globally because of its ability to signal the importance of language as a defining feature of political relations within and across communities, especially relative to state policies. Rather than the concept of Chinese diaspora, which may suggest that Chineseness is an “inescapable, ontological, a priori condition” (Shih 2007:184; see also Groppe 2013 and Wang 1993), Sinophone helps us think through the diverse experiences of local agents in different historical and geographical contexts. These differences shape subjects’ claims to diverse forms of China, Chinese, and Chineseness, intersecting with Chinese state policies to change the meaning and value of Chinese language within the global landscape. To draw a connection to the case at hand, analyzing Costa Rican language schools through the Sinophone helps us to understand how they might alternately situate themselves within and capitalize on a rising interest in China and Chinese while actively contesting and distancing themselves from the Chinese state through the articulation of different forms of identity.
Scholars who have engaged with the concept of the Sinophone have also underlined the importance not only of the production of diverse Chinese language and cultural practices across time and space, but also the consumption of the same by new “communities of users of Chinese who learn, employ and creatively engage with living Sinitic legacies” (Barmé 2010). Zhu and Li (2014), for example, have studied how the instruction of putonghua within Confucius Institutes can alienate or “foreignize” ethnic-Chinese language learners who speak different dialects. Meanwhile, in his 2010 China Beat blog posting, entitled “China’s Promise,” Geremie Barmé emphasized the important role that these Chinese-language speakers will play in continuing to transform the Sinophone through their own enmeshment in Chinese:
Speaking, using, writing Chinese, imagining through Chinese, creating with Chinese colleagues — these are all acts that enrich not only those who live in Chinese but those who grow through Chinese, adding thereby to the multifarious heritages of the Chinese world.Barmé 2010
Therefore, when contemplating the politics of Chinese-language learning, we must consider both the shifting meaning and value of Chinese-language acquisition in the current geopolitical order, as well as the economic, political, and cultural stakes of embodying Chineseness by institutions that would promote its local consumption. These two strands of analysis draw our attention to heterogeneous forms within the Sinophone and how they come to bear on different local agents’ ability to assert cultural authority in relation to “complex relations with such constructs as China, Chinese, and Chineseness” (Shih 2007: 4).
Translating Chinese in Costa Rica
The significance of these global politics, as expressed through language, can be seen clearly in Costa Rica, China’s newest partner in Latin America. A longtime political ally and cultural admirer of the United States, Costa Rica is known within Central America for its strong democratic tradition, its lack of a standing army, its high level of education and literacy (95 per cent) and its high proportion of English-language speakers (estimated at 50.53 per cent by Education First, English Proficiency Index 2015). These linguistic attributes reflect, in part, a largely white, middle-class demographic as well as the nation’s strong investment in
Costa Rica’s linguistic landscape has been further defined by the presence of a small but notable and diverse ethnic-Chinese community, estimated to number between 10,000 and 30,000 and made up mainly of Cantonese-speaking migrants from Guangdong (see DeHart 2015, Ma and Cartier 2003). Community members range from third-generation descendants of nineteenth century coolie labor arrivals to Mandarin-speaking migrants from Taiwan who emigrated in the 1950s-70s to more recent migrants who left mainland China in the 1980s. Newcomers to Costa Rica from Hong Kong and Macao tend to speak Cantonese and some degree of Mandarin. Therefore, the Chinese community in Costa Rica reflects the diversity of the Sinophone, including the heterogeneous political, linguistic, and cultural attributes that define it more broadly.
However, with the 2007 diplomatic switch to Beijing, Costa Rica adopted a relatively more China-centric orientation made manifest by the adoption of a new free-trade agreement and the establishment of new municipal collaborations and university exchanges with Mainland China (DeHart 2015). The Costa Rican government began to cultivate a new cohort of diplomatic corps with which it could better engage China, while also promoting private transpacific business initiatives, investment by Chinese state companies, an increase in Chinese tourism to Costa Rica, and increased academic exchanges between university students and scholars. All of these efforts exposed the relative lack of language and cultural competence among traditional business and political brokers on both sides of the Pacific, thus catalyzing efforts to increase a new generation of Mandarin speakers in Costa Rica.
As a result, since 2007 there has been a steady uptick in the number of public and private elementary and high schools offering Chinese language instruction. By 2013, over 10 local schools were known to be offering Chinese-language classes (Ross 2013b). These programs included both language instruction through instructors arranged “in-house” as well as at least two private schools that were collaborating with the Chinese embassy and Hanban to promote Confucius Classrooms (Ross 2013b). By August 2016, collaborations between the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Education and the Chinese embassy had spread to incorporate Chinese-language classes in six public schools with instruction by native Chinese teachers arranged by the embassy (Cerdas 2016, Xinhuanet 2016). In introducing this initiative, Sonia Mora, Costa Rican Minister of Education, spoke to both its material and symbolic value, noting that “with the intensification of political, economic, commercial and cultural relations between both nations, knowing Chinese gives students more employment opportunities” (Xinhuanet 2016).
In addition to these governmental efforts, many Costa Ricans also began to perceive Mandarin language as key to global upward mobility in their own right (Levin 2011, Ross 2013a). In speaking to student motivations for Chinese-language study among Costa Rican adults, Lin, the founder of Kung Tse, highlighted her students’ changing ideas of China itself. As she put it, “Ticos7 know that the money is there [in China]. They’re interested in economic relations. They see China as trendy (de moda) and they know it’s important for business.” This instrumental perspective echoed a view commonly voiced in Costa Rican and Chinese media announcements but also spoke to the increasing personal experience of Costa Rican entrepreneurs trying to do business in China (Ross 2013a). More interestingly still, Lin located this shift in peoples’ views on China not simply in monetary terms but also in relation to the longstanding cultural hegemony of the United States and the promise of global upward mobility it historically symbolized. She described how “[i]nstead of the American Dream now it’s the Chinese Dream. [Costa Ricans] want to go study there, do business there. They see it as more modern” (personal interview, August 15, 2015). Although Lin couldn’t elaborate on how much people were referencing Xi Jinping’s formulation of the “China Dream” as a specific set of Chinese state policies versus a symbolic corollary to the myth of the “American Dream,” she affirmed their sense of China’s rising global status and their desire to learn Chinese to access some part of it.
Following this same logic, private, for-profit language institutes in Costa Rica have tried to capitalize on this growing interest in China, advertising themselves as a vehicle for Costa Ricans to access the economic potential of China. As one local school notes on its webpage,
The rising influence of China in an ever-more globalized world is making it so many more people need to learn Chinese and its millenary culture. The initiation of commercial relations between China and Costa Rica has made many businesspeople and enterprising youth seek to improve their professional horizons and they see learning Chinese as a real opportunity for growth.Universal de Idiomas 2016
And because these aspirational advertisements underscore the importance of acquiring Chinese-language skills as a valuable commodity for upward mobility, there are significant economic, political, and cultural stakes for the institutions that can claim to embody the right intersection of identity and transnational connections to authoritatively harness China for local consumption.
Changing Politics of Language Identity and Instruction
In what follows, I provide a brief sketch of three different language schools in Costa Rica in order to illustrate their competing formulations of Chinese language, each of which seeks to locate its cultural authority in distinct identities, geographies, and methods. One institution is the Chinese state-sponsored Confucius Institute. Located on the campus of the University of Costa Rica, the institute offers language instruction, cultural programming, and academic-exchange opportunities for Costa Rican students and community members interested in China. Its language courses are taught primarily by Chinese native-speakers trained and certified in China. The other two schools are private initiatives, located off the university campus but within the greater San Jose area. These schools also offer language instruction and cultural programming; however, their instructors include teachers from other locations in the Sinophone, including local ethnic Chinese and Taiwanese.
In describing who they are and how they operate, these three institutions distinguish themselves from one another through the discourse of private versus public initiatives, student choice versus state imposition, and Taipei- versus Beijing-based connections. Notably, the owners of the two private institutions, Lin (Kung Tse) and Kevin (
The 2007 diplomatic switch ushered in a new era of Chinese-language study for Costa Ricans, marked by new referents and new institutional structures. Following immediately on the heels of the diplomatic announcement, Taiwan withdrew its education funding to Costa Rica and terminated all scholarship contracts, so that 16 Costa Rican students studying Mandarin in Taipei were transferred over to Beijing to continue their studies there (Claramunt 2011, cited in Alexander 2014:81). The arrival of a Confucius Institute in Costa Rica in 2009 then solidified this larger shift from Taiwan to Beijing-based language authority.
When the Confucius Institute opened its doors at the University of Costa Rica in 2009, it did so under the name of the “Program for the Diffusion of Chinese Culture at the University of Costa Rica,” officially assuming the name of Confucius Institute in 2011 with the resolution of the lawsuit described at the outset of this article. Like the approximately 490 other Confucius Institutes throughout the world, the Confucius Institute at the University of Costa Rica was structured as a partnership with a Chinese university (in this case, Renmin University in Beijing), and uses teachers from China trained by the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (Hanban 2017). The
Despite its placement within the university, the
When I attended classes at the
By 2015, the Costa Rican
These changes in university relations and programs thus marked a new phase in Chinese-Costa Rican cultural relations that have cemented Beijing’s place as the official source of Mandarin-language learning. Since 2007, China has offered 40 scholarships to Costa Rican students, essentially doubling the number allotted previously by Taiwan and highlighting the emphasis that China puts on language study and academic exchange as sites of public diplomacy (Alexander 2014). What is more, the demand for these programs has exceeded capacity, a sharp contrast to the easily accommodated applications by students who wanted to study Chinese in Taiwan before 2007 (Ibid.: 82).
Kung Tse Institute Oriental Confucio
Lin Chang, the owner and director of the private language school (and Confucius Institute’s original rival) Kung Tse, was born in Taiwan, but moved to Costa Rica as a teenager. She completed her college education on the West Coast of the United States and is as fluent in English as she is in Spanish or Mandarin. Upon returning to Costa Rica after college, she became loosely connected to the local Chinese Association, and she initiated several private enterprises selling Chinese culture to the Costa Rican population, including a Chinese food service (See Figure 3), and eventually the language school. As a testament to Lin’s business acumen and the growing demand for Chinese-language instruction, by 2015, Kung Tse’s enrollment had doubled to more than 200 students and 10-20 teachers, most of Taiwanese origin, but increasingly including mainland teachers who had married Costa Ricans.
As noted at the outset, Lin’s language institute Kung Tse was one of the first language institutes in Costa Rica dedicated to Mandarin instruction. Like the other schools described here, Kung Tse’s student population consisted mainly of business professionals, university students, and children of local ethnic-Chinese residents. According to Lin, many of the business professionals who enroll at the school have traveled to China and have realized that even with English they are unable to maneuver effectively in even the most basic tasks. She described one businessman’s realization that in business negotiations the numbers seemed to inflate along with the translation, so he had sought out Mandarin-language instruction to keep better track of his bottom lines.
But Costa Rican professionals were not the only ones to recognize China’s rising economic importance, and the 2007 diplomatic switch engendered not only more interest in China as a global economic power but also more competition among local institutions that sought to feed the growing demand for language instruction. Lin recounts that when China came to town, then-President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias asked Lin to change the name of her school in deference to China’s proprietary use of the name
In describing the differences between the
At Kung Tse, by contrast, she noted that the classes focus on a more holistic education, anchored in the culture. That said, given the increasing proliferation of Chinese-language instruction initiatives and especially intercambio (conversational exchange) initiatives that students could pursue for free at other institutions in town, Lin emphasized how her institution’s intensive classes focus on rapid student progress and conversational competence. Indeed, she noted that their very rigorous curriculum made possible language proficiency within approximately four years. In this context of heightened competition, she justified her higher tuition fees — approximately
Integral Academy of Chinese Instruction (
As Lin suggested, the Confucius Institute’s inauguration in 2009 was accompanied by the proliferation of private Mandarin-language schools in Costa Rica. Already in 2011, the number of language institutes in Costa Rica’s central valley had grown to at least ten, and by 2014 there were significantly more schools, most privately-owned but at least one other supported by the Chinese embassy (but not a Confucius Institute). Among those burgeoning private institutions was the Integral Academy of Chinese Instruction (
Kevin co-ran the institute with his wife, Cindy, who had also followed a unique path to Chinese. Another first-generation Costa Rican of Chinese descent, Cindy had pursued a degree in business administration in the
A much smaller school than the
In addition to language instruction, the
As the above sketches illustrate, the rise in global interest in Chinese language and the growth of Chinese-state language initiatives have led to a burgeoning landscape of language instruction in Costa Rica since 2007. Because Costa Ricans increasingly see the economic utility of studying Chinese to enhance their professional
One of the most immediate ways we can see this diversity is through the distinction between public and private language initiatives. This distinction is not simply a technical one, but rather reveals deeper tensions between the Chinese state and the Sinophone. For example, both Kung Tse and
Therefore, these private schools highlight multiple dimensions of geopolitics, including both China’s rise and the “precarious and problematic relation to China” (Shih 2007:30) experienced by differently situated agents within the Sinophone. Both initiatives forefronted their own more fluid, dynamic and student-centered pedagogies, as the best way for prospective students from a liberal, democratic, free-market space like Costa Rica to move and do business in a Chinese world. So interestingly, even though Costa Rican students seemed to view China as a space of modern, global possibilities, Lin and Kevin’s critiques of the Confucius Institutes repositioned the Chinese state itself as a retrograde force, quite separate from the modern, desired China Dream. Both Lin and Kevin saw their bicultural — Chino Tico — backgrounds as offering students a better foundation from which to teach about China, accentuating their unique transnational relations with China as more in tune with Costa Rican sensibilities of individualism, freedom, and unfettered entrepreneurialism, and distant from the Chinese state and any threat it might represent.
That said, these criticisms have not necessarily diminished the legitimacy of the Confucius Institute. Instead, the Chinese state has been able to impose its authority through the Costa Rican legal system, drawing on its proprietary claims to the name of Confucius Institute and its placement within the public university. While that authority originally seemed tenuous in the face of ongoing Mandarin-language instruction within the university’s own foreign-language program, the
But these language politics go beyond public-private ideological divides to accentuate diversity within the Sinophone, including tensions among groups commonly included under the umbrella of Chineseness. In this case, both Lin and Kevin explicitly marketed their language authority on the basis of distinct linguistic and geographic roots, be they Taiwanese or Cantonese. On the one hand, these tensions reflect global geopolitical tensions, such as those highlighted at the beginning of this paper. Cross-Strait politics or the economic connections between Guangdong and the now retrocessed Hong Kong certainly illustrate fissures within Greater China, as expressed not only through language difference but also press censorship, business prohibitions, and political détente. Nonetheless, they also alert us to the “political and ideological significance of the ongoing currency, as well as the shifting currents, of discourses, claims and disclaims to Chineseness in the modern world” (Eng 2001:39). Contemporary China’s “rise” and the increasing market value of Chineseness globally has thus meant that “[w]hat seems to be at stake here is who has the legitimacy to represent the authentic Chinese language and culture” (Zhu and Li 2014:337). After all, which “brand” of Chineseness one wears has economic consequences in the marketplace, highlighting shifting regimes of value attached to different formulations of Chinese.
On the other hand, these politics illustrate something more profound about the place-based significance of Sinophone locations and experiences and whether and how they invoke Chineseness and in relation to what and whom. Both Lin and Kevin may be understood as diasporic, local-ethnic Chinese, yet they positioned themselves very differently within and in relation to China and the local Chinese Association. Despite her Taiwanese background, Lin had followed a path to the
In the end, the translation of geopolitics into language-school politics in Costa Rica is not simply a celebratory story about China’s rise or a cautionary tale about a potential China threat but rather an illustration of how the desire to access the global possibilities that China represents by acquiring Chinese language increases the possibilities for local agents to do so from multiple, sometimes contradictory positions of identity and geopolitics. Lin and Kevin’s efforts make visible efforts by agents in the Sinophone to localize their own Chinese identity and to spatialize it in ways that are both strategically connected to and yet also distanced from China. They do so through diverse formulations of what counts as China, Chinese, and Chineseness, as embodied by their own trajectories and identities. As such, they reflect a tension between multiple projections of China and Chinese culture, articulated from different locations within the Sinophone but all hoping to claim the authority not simply to speak Chinese but also to speak for Chinese and Chineseness.
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Following standard ethnographic protocol, all research subjects described in this article have been given pseudonyms. Pseudonyms are Anglicized, Sinicized, or Hispanicized to reflect the research subject’s self-identification.
The Chinese state inaugurated its first official Confucius Institute in Seoul, Korea, in 2004, after a brief pilot program in Uzbekistan that same year (Hanban 2017).
The physical address for the school is formally listed as “Antigua embajada China, Zapote.”
For more robust studies of Chinese classroom dynamics and student perspectives, see Hartig 2015, Hubbert 2014, Stambach 2014, and Zhu and Li 2014.
See Churchman 2011 on the production of texts in traditional script that are banned in mainland China.
Indeed, over the last decade, Costa Rica’s bilingual capabilities in English and Spanish made it a prime site for call centers for Amazon as well as production plants for Boston Scientific and Cargill.
“Tico” is short-hand vernacular for “Costa Rican.”
More heavily subsidized classes for younger community members were made available through the Centro Educativo y Cultural Chino-Costariccense (Chinese-Costa Rican Education and Cultural Center), a community organization, supported by the Chinese embassy.
Speaking with a dialect from Spain mattered here, as Lin and Kevin would criticize the
One of the debates surrounding