While many Chinese travel half a world to study languages, science and technologies in Western countries, some others have found a place to learn the essence of exotic Asian cultures without leaving their home country.
Nearly 500 students are learning southeast Asian languages and cultures at the foreign languages department of Guangxi Institute for Nationalities based in Nanning, capital of the southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Students here have easy access to live radio broadcasts, newspapers and magazines of southeast Asian countries and hold discussions with their teachers, some of whom native speakers.
"I'm here to study Lao. It's not a very popular language but sure has great potentials," said Liu Yue, an undergraduate studentwith the institute. "In fact, Lao speakers enjoy many job opportunities these days."
Instead of feeling inferior to learners of more widely spoken foreign languages such as English and French, Liu said she felt rather "proud and advantageous".
"Some of our teachers were bigname statesmen in these countriesand they have helped us gain more insight into their culture and history," she said.
Besides Lao, the institute also teaches Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian. Its foreign languages department was inaugurated by theMinistry of Education in 2001 as a base for southeast Asian language studies. Many of its graduates are playing a leading rolein foreign affairs, news communications, international trade, tourism, customs and public security.
Wei Huimin, a tour guide with a travel service based in Nanning,said she had benefited greatly from her major.
The Vietnamese major has been a tour guide since she graduated from the institute in 2001. "All the Vietnamese-speaking guides inChina have a tight schedule because so many Vietnamese are coming to China nowadays," she said.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is also in need of Chinese-speaking guides, said Wei, who worked as a part-time guide when she studied at a Vietnamese university as a junior student.
According to Ye Zongbo, an official with the school board, mostforeign language learners at the institute are sent abroad in their third year to acquire more first-hand knowledge about the language and culture they learn.
"We plan to include Indonesian, Malay and Myanmese into our curricula and set up branches in some southeast Asian countries tohelp locals learn Chinese," said Ye.
In an effort to boost its overall cooperation with countries ofthe Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), China has stepped up the training of professionals who are expected to speaktheir languages and bridge the gap in bilateral and multi-lateral trade, economic and cultural exchanges with these countries.
Another base for southeast Asian language studies has been launched in Yunnan University for Nationalities in the southwestern Yunnan Province, which presently teaches Thai, Vietnamese, Myanmese and Lao.
"Such training will provide high-caliber human resources to bolster trade, economic and cultural ties between China and the ASEAN countries now and in the future," said Peng Hui, professor of Cambodian with Beijing Foreign Studies University.