Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Student Profile: Randall Telfer

Name: Randall Telfer

Program:  HNC Certificate + Johns Hopkins SAIS MA

Hometown: Avon, CT

Undergraduate Institution and Major: Hamilton College, Chinese Language and World Politics

Tell us about your background and how you became interested in China.
My interest in China came from the early years of my training in martial arts. When I was about six years old, my mother wanted to learn how to defend herself and took me along to martial arts classes. I remember the instructor incorporating East Asian philosophical concepts into his teaching, which seemed to resonate in my young mind. Years later as a teenager, I became infatuated with Jackie Chan and his movies and daydreamed about becoming a part of his stunt team, endearingly referred to as the 成家班. I figured that, as a foreigner, being able to speak Chinese might improve my already slim chances of that happening. But once I actually started learning Chinese, I developed a passion for the language itself that surpassed my far-flung dreams of Hollywood fame. After absorbing as much language as I could from the films themselves, I began combing through the foreign language section of my local bookstore, and then finally had the opportunity to study with a Chinese teacher at a local university. My martial arts training and Chinese lessons each weekend held me over until I began studying Chinese language and world politics at Hamilton College.

What encouraged you to apply to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center?
I had actually known about and entertained the idea of applying to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for many years before I finally made the plunge. On a few occasions at our “Chinese table” dinners held by our Chinese department at Hamilton, I remember meeting former Hopkins-Nanjing Center students who came to discuss its programs. Knowing that I wanted to gain some work experience first, I worked in Wuhan as an education consultant for just shy of two years, and as an editor at Cheng & Tsui Company in Boston for three years. While I was very fortunate to be in a bilingual professional environment at both of those jobs, I was eager to put my world politics major to good use. Becoming increasingly keen to deepen my understanding of international politics while simultaneously boosting my Chinese skills, I remembered the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. At that point, I knew several classmates from Hamilton who had studied there, and at the end of my tenure working in Wuhan, I paid them a visit in Nanjing. Professor Cornelius Kubler, who I had known for years and was the American co-director at the time, was incredibly kind and welcoming. After joining my fellow Hamiltonian to listen in on his class on Ethnic Minorities and Chinese Society with Professor Hua Tao, I finally decided to apply.

How was your experience adjusting to the Chinese coursework? Do you have any tips for future students?
Although I already felt relatively comfortable using Chinese all the time at my previous two jobs, the sheer volume of scholarly articles to read in Chinese and keeping on schedule was definitely challenging. My advice would be to stay ahead of the game early on to make plenty of time to do the readings thoroughly and strategically. As a former editor, I had to make a conscious effort to get rid of my 职业病, or “occupational disease” of reading everything carefully line-by-line from start to finish. In graduate school time is limited and strategic skimming is important, especially when sifting through pages upon pages of Chinese articles. In addition, try to absorb as much Chinese as you can before arriving at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. If you’re still reviewing the basics and trying to catch up upon arrival, you might miss out on subtle ways to make your speaking more eloquent and writing more sophisticated. Also, come with an open mind and actively seek out opportunities to have heart-to-heart conversations with your Chinese classmates. There’s a tendency for people to engage in controversial debates with their minds already made up before the conversation even starts. If you approach these dialogues with an open mind, they can be all the more enriching and eye-opening.

What has been one of your favorite classes this year?
Last semester, I took a course in English called Politics of Rural Development taught by Professor Adam Webb. The culmination of that course was a field trip to a rural village near Jingxian in Anhui province, where we interviewed villagers about our individual research topics. For my study, I was able to combine research I had done for a Chinese-taught class I was taking, China and the Environment, on interprovincial waste transfer, specifically from urban to rural areas. The field trip was a remarkable capstone to my studies over the fall semester. I was able to do something similar for the spring semester as well by applying research I had done for a presentation in Professor Hua Tao’s class during a field trip to a local mosque we visited for the course on Islamic Fundamentalism. I became fascinated with how scholars during the Ming and Qing dynasties used Confucian concepts to interpret the Quran and make Islamic teachings more accessible to their followers among the Hui minority group in China. 

If you are involved in any extracurricular activities or student groups, could you please tell us about that?
I joined the student dragon boat team this year for the once-in-a-lifetime bonding experience that I didn’t want to miss. I was somewhat “indoorsy” during the winter months and didn’t explore Nanjing as much, so it was a good way to get outside and bond with classmates through a physical activity. Another highlight is the self-defense group that Nathan Gwira (HNC Certificate ‘19) and I organized together. We progressed from “softer” styles, with me introducing basic Wing Chun techniques, to “harder” styles in which Nathan had been trained such as Muay Thai and kickboxing, then ended with an Okinawan blend of “soft” and “hard” martial arts techniques. This was another great way to bond through a physical activity, and just as with anything else at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, we learned a great deal from the exchange of different ideas and perspectives.

What’s your favorite place in Nanjing?
Although I’ve only been once or twice, I have enjoyed taking friends of mine visiting Nanjing to 中山陵 (Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum). Climbing up to the top on a crisp autumn day last semester offered a beautiful panoramic view of the city. I also enjoyed the Wall Walk around Nanjing’s old city wall at the beginning of the semester. Because it consists of and winds around several landmarks throughout the city, it was a great way to develop our “mental maps” of Nanjing, as former Co-Director David Davies put it, from the very start of our tenure at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

Interviewed by Sam Olson, Master of Arts in International Studies ’20