Visiting Scholars

At the time, the Internet was not yet in common use, so letters were the only way to stay in touch with family. The cost of phone calls was prohibitive. I learned years later that because of the cost of postage, many of the visiting scholars from China limited correspondence to a letter every two weeks. There was another downside to having experience overseas. Once they had lived and worked in the relative freedom of Western universities, returning scholars often found it hard to take the backwardness and bureaucracy of the system in their own country.

Our job was to teach these scholars the English language skills they would need to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), required for admission to American universities. And we needed to teach them living skills so that they could rent an apartment, obtain health insurance, find a roommate or buy a bus pass.

The teaching methods traditionally used in Chinese classrooms involved memorization and recitation. Classroom behavior was regimented, even at the university level. Students were expected to sit silently at attention and raise their hands if they had the answer. If called upon, they were to stand and recite the correct answer almost verbatim from a text they had memorized.

Our students were fixated on having the “right” answer. They were frequently frustrated by our reply when they asked us, for example, which of two words was “more correct” in a particular sentence. Gauss and I often answered that one was not “more correct” than the other, they just had different shades of meaning. It probably didn’t help that this was an engineering and technical university: the students weren’t accustomed to fuzzy answers.

Admission to Chinese Universities was highly competitive, and although a few of our students had made it into our class because of their political connections, I felt that most were brighter and more hardworking than Gauss or me. They knew what a rare and valuable opportunity lay before them, so they were highly motivated and hard-working. Teaching them turned out to be the most satisfying and rewarding job I’d ever done.

Although many of our students were old enough to be our parents, they treated Gauss and me with a deference and respect that made us uncomfortable. The Chinese have historically had great respect for teachers, and they usually use the title “Teacher” when addressing an instructor, the way we would use the term “Doctor” or “Professor.” When I first began teaching, my students rose before talking to me, and sometimes they bowed slightly before or after speaking. Given the intellectual horsepower of these people, and the fact that I was several years younger than most of them, I felt silly being shown such deference.

I conducted my class while sitting on the desk in front of the students, or walking up and down the aisles drilling them individually to repeat a phrase in a sort of “call and response” pattern. Many seemed aghast that I adopted a conversational tone instead of standing behind a podium and lecturing. I could tell it made them squirm, but within a week, I managed to communicate to them that my behavior was something they could expect to encounter at western universities and they would need to be open-minded about it. To their credit, they were usually successful at putting aside their preconceived notions and made the effort to learn in this manner.

Because in China the work unit made so many life decisions for them, the students were concerned about how to accomplish such tasks as signing a lease, obtaining health insurance, getting a phone, or buying food and furniture. The sheer number of tasks for which they would be responsible was intimidating to some. The idea that their western universities wouldn’t supply housing had some terrified; others were puzzled that grain was not rationed, and many were incredulous to find out that if they didn’t purchase health insurance, the cost of medical care could bankrupt them. The most interesting cultural barrier we encountered was when one of the students decided not to go abroad because he could not be sure he’d be given time for an afternoon nap. In 1981, this two-hour siesta was guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, and people took it very seriously.

Many of the older students, having experienced radical swings in government policy—and looking to finish their careers without incident—were afraid to appear too friendly with foreigners. They would participate adequately in class, but they avoided non-official contact with us. A few stopped by our apartment or offices on occasion, but only after receiving official permission. The bravest in the class eventually sought us out on the street, or stopped by our home to practice their English. They would show up with their best friends, those they could trust with the knowledge that they were socializing with foreigners. Ironically, the students who seemed most fearless about socializing with us were those who had lost family members, or whose college educations had been derailed as a result of the Cultural Revolution. It was as if the worst had already happened, and whatever discipline might be dished out to them couldn’t be all that bad.

It became apparent after a few class sessions that our students knew each other very well, almost like family. Being part of the same work unit, most had been neighbors for many years. The younger students’ respect for their elders was clear, and the older ones showed an almost parental concern for the younger ones. After their initial stiffness subsided, their comfort with each other was obvious. Gentle, affectionate teasing became commonplace in the classroom.

“Henry can’t talk right because he’s from Hanzhong. People from Hanzhong have short tongues.”

“Walter looks like an American Indian.”

“Mary gets to see all the good movies [Star Wars had come out two years earlier] because she’s a Party member.”

Giggles ensued, even from the older, more dignified students.

As their nervousness diminished, my job became easier. One of my students, Andrew, was a diminutive man with a pinched face: sharp little nose, thin lips, and tiny, intense eyes. He’d been very reluctant to speak in class, to the point where it almost hurt me to call on him. But one day, equipped with an outline, he told the whole class about his home province, something he’d probably already done many times in Chinese.

“I am from Gansu Province. It is very dry in Gansu. The wind blows from desert. Not so many people live there.” He spoke hesitantly—but he spoke!

I left the classroom that day feeling like I’d really done some good. Gauss and I walked out of the building together, and the sun was shining—actually casting shadows—for the first time since we’d arrived. I looked across the weedy lot to the next classroom building and, gray and shabby as it was, I began to feel at home. For the first time I felt that yes, I did belong in this place.

I thought of how weird everything in the United States would seem when I got back: classrooms and hallways brightly lit, clean and orderly, with polished floors; antiseptic bathrooms with gleaming white fixtures; manicured lawns between buildings.

As we walked through the campus back to our apartment, the smell of roses filled the air. We stopped in at the Foreign Affairs Office where David Liu gave us the booklets that would allow us to use RMB in the Friendship Store. Knowing that the next day, I would have a bicycle—I would be free—made me happy. I forgave the dirt and the weeds for a minute and almost forgave Hao Keqi for being a snake.