Thursday, August 20, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Studying in 1970's China

Madelyn in China in 1979
Madelyn Ross, Director of the HNC Washington Office, first studied in China in 1979. Below she reflects on her experiences and provides advice to incoming HNC students:

As the new director of the Washington DC office of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, I’ve been busy learning about the HNC and talking to students and alumni about their experiences in Nanjing. Recently I spoke to a group of American college students about my own experience living in China shortly after the US and China normalized relations. I thought I would share a bit of that here, as many of you get ready to begin your own China journey at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center this fall.

I arrived in Shanghai in August 1979, having arranged (with the help of college professors, persistence, and, finally, approval from the Ministry of Education) to teach English and take courses in Chinese literature at Fudan University following graduation. As the curtain around China began to lift, my main motivation was to see what the country was really like, have an adventure, and of course keep learning Chinese. Not very different from today’s students, though I had far less information about what awaited me than you do.

Shanghai was a different city then. There were a few old cars on the road, no colorful clothing and bright lights, and just a few warehouses on the Pudong side of the river. Under the surface, the scars of the Cultural Revolution were relatively fresh, which made some people wary and distrustful of foreigners. But it made others eager to reach out and learn as much about the outside world as they could, in case the Open Door started to close again. My students and friends wanted to know all about America. They devoured every issue of Time magazine I could find (available intermittently and only in a few hotels for foreigners) and every story I could recall. They wanted to learn disco dancing and, always, more American slang. With so few Americans in the city, most of us felt a responsibility to share as much as we could and comport ourselves well. We were viewed as representatives of our country whether we liked it or not.

Luckily, these exchanges were not a one-way street. While it took some time, I was able to make good friends who shared their own stories and invited me to be part of their lives. At the end of the year, I had a better sense of life in at least one small part of China, definitely better Chinese, and several grand adventures to boot.
Madelyn with students at Fudan University
Many stories I hear now have a similar narrative. While you may feel less pressure to be a cultural ambassador, you will still find great interest in learning about life outside China. And the friendships formed by sharing your stories and listening to others will likely lead to some of the most memorable learning experiences you will have. Despite the incredible pace of change in China over the past 35 years, some of the important student experiences have not changed, and people-to-people exchanges play an important and ever-growing role in China’s foreign relations. For those of you getting ready to study at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, I wish you a year of learning, adventure, and positive connections.