The Chinese fascination with United States culture was a surprise for the Trumbull County native.
By DENISE DICK
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
GIRARD -- A city native traveled overseas to teach but returned with a few lessons of her own.
Erica Berensci, 19, returned last week from Shanghai and Beijing where she spent six weeks of her summer break teaching English to Chinese students.
Berensci, a 2000 graduate of Girard High School, and a sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C., learned about the Shanghai International Studies University program through her friend, Eric Liu, a 2000 Austintown Fitch graduate and a sophomore at Dartmouth College, who also participated.
The ages and knowledge of English of the students varied from class to class. Most of the students were better at writing and reading English than at speaking and understanding it, she said.
Some of her observations varied from the ideas she had about the country.
"It's a more capitalist society," she said. "They care about money as much as we do."
Misconception: She also thought all Chinese women had small feet and stayed home to care for their children but learned that most Chinese women work. In some ways, professions are more open to women in the Communist country than in the United States, she said.
"I told my class that I thought I wouldn't be able to say 'democracy,'" she said. "They laughed. 'Of course you can say it.'"
Another surprise was the Chinese fascination with American culture. They dress like their U.S. counterparts and listen to the same kinds of music. Photographs of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cindy Crawford dot the cityscape and some Chinese even undergo surgery to round their eyes.
The bubbly redhead was offered modeling jobs and appearances in television commercials because of her American good looks.
"All of the students are aspiring to go to the U.S.," she said.
They want to get an American education that will enable them to get a job of their choice when they return to China.
"I've thought that if I can't find a job when I graduate, I could go back to China," she said.
Chinese people are prohibited from calling their leaders unflattering names, but Berensci, a self-described die-hard Democrat, believes that contributes to a national pride.
She views some of the criticisms levied against U.S. leaders as inappropriate.
"Just have some respect," she says. "You can state your political views without being ignorant."
Future: Berensci plans to go on to law school after graduation. She worked part time during the school year in Rep. James Traficant's office, and seeing how things are accomplished on Capitol Hill turned her off from a career in politics.
Berensci's visit abroad also caused her to re-examine some of her beliefs. She has always considered herself pro-choice but has a difficult time reconciling that belief with her disapproval of China's policy limiting families to one child.
Berensci's stay coincided with the Olympic committee's granting China the 2008 Olympic games.
"The whole country went crazy and there are Olympic circles everywhere," she said.
The release of American University Professor Gao Zhan, who had been held by the Chinese, also coincided with her visit. Although Berensci hasn't had the professor for class, she led a march of university students to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, advocating the professor's release.
While in China, she logged into a news wire service using the Internet and learned of the woman's release. She printed a copy of the article to show her students to start a conversation about spin.
Wanting to compare the spin of the American vs. Chinese press, Berensci asked the students what they heard of the release. They hadn't heard anything.
"I thought, 'Oh, that's their spin. They don't tell you,'" she said.
The Girard native then realized that the Chinese government, which censors CNN, likely wouldn't have approved of her printing the story and sharing it with students.
She didn't see any human rights violations while she was there and was surprised to see only one police officer with a gun.
Cuisine: Berensci and her friends were treated by the university to many of what are considered delicacies, but the finicky eater had a hard time adjusting. Sparrows cooked and eaten whole and sparrow vomit were among the selections she avoided before settling on less exotic edibles like sweet and sour chicken.
She isn't sure whether she'll return to China, saying she hopes to study for a semester in Rome and visit Japan next summer. But she learned enough Chinese during her stay to impress friends and workers at Chinese restaurants.