Monday, September 5, 2011

China - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Back in 1985, when I arrived at Rollins, the first course I taught, more or less as an experiment, was on Chinese culture. I continued to teach that course year after year until 1993 when I went, with my family, to spend a year as a visiting professor at Qingdao University in China. At Qingdao, I underwent a "through the looking glass" fliparoo: after having spent a decade teaching Chinese culture to American students, I was now suddenly teaching American culture to Chinese students.

Qingdao, in 1993, was a pleasant enough town, if you could overlook the widespread poverty and shaky sanitation standards. (Which I could. Not everyone in the family was ready to accept the loose garbage control standards, but that’s a story for another day.) Qingdao, according to the Chinese, is “a beautiful seaside town,” and, in fact, it is considered something of a resort city. I had to explain to one of my deans back then that I had “accidentally” arranged my sabbatical to be a year spent in a seaside resort. When I reported this to him, the dean raised an eyebrow and said, “Qingdao…isn’t that also the beer capital of China?” It is. It’s the home of world famous Tsingtao Beer, so I was obligated to bid good-bye to everyone at Rollins by saying, “I will be spending my sabbatical year in a seaside resort known as the beer capital of China. Wish me luck.”

Teaching the Chinese university students was a dream. Everyone spoke good English and had an attitude that said, “We are ready for anything. Give us homework and we will do it.” Also, they were quite polite and hospitable. Two groups of students volunteered to come to my apartment after Darla and Grace had returned to the U.S. and fix dinner for me. Two of the peasant boys invited me to spend a weekend at their respective homes out in the country and many of them, males and females, spent time giving me information about life in China in the 1990s.

Qingdao University Juniors 1993

China had left the madness of the Mao era behind by then, but it was still more restricted than it is today. We had to report to the university whenever we intended to travel out of the city and all of our packages from home were closely inspected by the customs office.

The guys at the customs office had some of the best jobs in Qingdao. One of their perks was being able to see all the videotapes sent to us and the other American teachers, since it was their duty, or that of an associated office, to inspect these tapes for unacceptable materials – videos on sensitive political topics or of a “pornographic” nature. But we teachers were a straight-laced bunch. In fact, about a third of our group were Mormons, so our videos turned out to be harmless. Actually, the customs people complained a bit about this. Someone in our group had “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” sent to her every week, and the Chinese officials informed her that they found this show entirely too boring.

We became friends with a family from Iowa living near the university since they had children who were about the same age as Grace. They had asked their family to videotape the Superbowl for them, and, once the game had taken place, they waited anxiously for their tape to make it through Chinese customs. One day, while they were in this waiting limbo, they happened to see the Superbowl game on a local Qingdao station. They watched the game, but as they were watching, they noticed that during the commercial breaks, a lot of the ads were from their Iowa hometown. Curious that. The next day they received word from the customs office that their tape was ready to be picked up. Apparently, someone in the customs office had a relative or a good friend at the local TV station, someone for whom he was willing to do a little favor by loaning him the exotic American sports tape to be broadcast for all of Qingdao to see - complete with ads for Harvey’s Roadhouse Barbecue – Des Moines’ Best!.

China is not as restrictive today as it was in the 1990s, but there are still some barriers to what Americans consider ordinary freedom. For example, China blocks access to Facebook, though many young Chinese have found clever ways around the “Great Firewall of China.” Given that millions of bright young Chinese are growing up with the expectation of communicating freely with each other, and sometimes finding ways to do so by getting around government restrictions, I wonder how long the Beijing authorities can manage to stifle some of these streams of communication that seem so ordinary in the rest of the world. Not too long, I’m guessing. My hope is that by the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth student uprising of 1919, today’s student generation will convince the government that choking off major avenues of citizen discourse is not the best approach to tapping the nation’s resources. Then won’t China be ready to soar?

And I have some cause for optimism. This semester I am again teaching American culture to Chinese students, this time in partnership with Brother Li Wei here at Rollins. And from everything we’ve learned from our Shanghai students so far, I’d have to say, China’s future is in good hands.

Grace with Chinese Friends - 1993