A Week With My Chinese Counterpart
ENS Jordan J. Foley ’12, last year’s Brigade Commander, visited China’s Dalian Naval Academy last year (their naval academy for surface warfare officers) to participate in their international week, a first for our Naval Academy, and compare notes with their brigade commander.
After spending a semester in China, I did not think my experience at the Dalian Naval Academy would differ all that much. I attended classes with Chinese students and made some good friends from those experiences at Beijing’s Capital Normal University (CNU). Other than the additional rigors of military life, to me, this was going to be another Chinese university, but I underestimated the strictness and discipline.
Dalian Naval Academy is China’s premier institution for surface officers, oftentimes referred to as “the cradle for naval officers.” The curriculum focuses on preparing midshipmen for surface vessels. After talking to my brother who attends the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Dalian is very similar to USMMA’s academic structure. The Dalian Naval Academy began hosting international midshipmen in 2009 as part of an International Week to foster multinational relations and promote understanding. After a few year break they had their 2nd International Midshipmen Week this year and invited Australia, Germany, Japan, the UK, Pakistan, Korea, Turkey, Italy and, for the first time, the United States.
ENS William Henry '12 (LCS-2 Gunnery Officer) and I were chosen to participate in this program through the Naval Academy’s International Programs Office. Will and I both studied Chinese at the Academy and spent time abroad. He participated in a summer program in Tianjin last year and I spent a semester in Beijing in spring 2011. We were excited to find out that we would be the first midshipmen from the US to participate. Right away we began prepping our uniforms, shining our shoes, and practicing our Mandarin. We wanted to make a good first impression for our Chinese counterparts. A good first impression, however, was anything but the start of our relationship with the Dalian midshipmen.
Will and I arrived at the Dalian airport around 1700 and were welcomed by our escorts made up of midshipmen and officers. They gave us welcome bags with itineraries, information packets and gifts for home. It was the same Chinese hospitality I had grown accustomed to while in Beijing. The Chinese midshipmen were both surprised and flattered that we spoke Chinese as the conference was to be in English and they did not expect any Mandarin speakers. In fact, Will and I were the only two international midshipmen who spoke the language. Each one of us had a personal midshipman escort who would be with us 24/7. Due to the sensitivity and security of Chinese military bases we were required to have an escort at all times, but Will and I did not actually think 24/7 meant 24/7.
After we arrived at the Naval Academy, we dropped off our bags in the dormitory and headed to dinner with our escorts. The schedule was light compared to the days ahead only listing “dinner” and “lights out” as military obligations. Will and I were hungry and jet lagged, so we decided that after dinner we would unpack and go for a run before bed. It was around 2100 when we got into PT gear and headed off on a night jog around town. An hour later we returned to a calamity of confusion and worry like we had been MIA … and to them we were. Our escorts frantically asked, “Are you alright? Where did you go? Why did you leave the base!?” Apparently, international midshipmen were never allowed to do anything without an escort for the entire week. Will and I apologized for the misunderstanding and thought that nothing on the schedule meant we could go about our business as usual. We explained to them that we told the Chinese midshipman on duty we were leaving for a jog. When we told him, he smiled and nodded his head, but later found out that he spoke little English and nodded out of politeness. We agreed that although the conference was in English, we would speak a combination of Mandarin and English in order to mitigate confusion in the future. From then on it was smooth sailing—ignore the pun.
Besides the choppy first impression, the rest of the week went by just as the conference intended. We worked together with the Chinese and international midshipmen in physical events like the 5-km full-gear run, obstacle course training and rowing race. Each day was packed with activities and usually consisted of sitting in on classes, a physical activity and then nighttime discussion sessions. Topics in the sessions remained relatively neutral as we mostly spoke about our respective naval academy systems and how the process for commissioning officers is similar and different between countries. I not only learned how the Chinese system works, but how all of the other countries in attendance operated as well. The conference was truly a multinational event.
One of the most memorable experiences I had was talking with the Chinese midshipman “Brigade Commander” equivalent, Wang Ke. The US Naval Academy’s midshipman leadership system has the brigade commander as the highest-ranking student in charge of the school, a position I had the pleasure to serve last spring. Wang Ke was also that for Dalian. I never thought my experiences would be so similar to Wang Ke’s. We shared stories for hours and it was funny how the common denominator was always “ … and then the Commandant chewed me out!” Wang Ke and I had some good laughs and became friends. As a bright, young officer I am sure I will see him again in China’s upper leadership during my career.
In my eyes the week was an astounding success. The midshipmen involved took away memorable experiences and lasting friendships. Dalian wishes to make this an annual event and I believe experiences like this are the kinds of military-to-military exchanges proving most beneficial to our young officer corps. I now have a better understanding of how China produces its naval officers and will carry this experience well into my career. Whether or not I have sustained interaction with the Chinese Navy in the future remains to be seen, but I am now confident that I can operate amicably and efficiently with my Chinese counterparts