From great walleyes to the Great Wall: A Detroit Laker teaching in Beijing
I am writing these lines on my aging laptop computer aboard an Air China jet en route from Munich to Beijing. For years this graduate of Detroit Lakes High School and too many universities in the USA, Norway, and South Africa has longed to serve as a visiting professor in China, imparting some of the wisdom of the Occident to students there while absorbing much of their own.
Pinch me-is this a dream? No, but it is the fulfillment of a dream.
Admittedly, my fascination with the Orient is of recent date. Since the late 1970s my career has taken me to teaching and research appointments at the Universities of Oslo in Norway, Uppsala in Sweden, Stellenbosch in South Africa, Cambridge in England, and California in You Know Where.
I've also had the privilege of delivering guest lectures at about 120 colleges and universities around the world, including a few in Hong Kong through the years. But the People's Republic of China? No, that has not yet been my cup of tea. "Red China" was long shrouded in secrecy, isolated from the outside world until Tricky Dicky Nixon and Henry Kissinger's renowned "ping pong diplomacy" of 1972 pried its national door open.
But I have yet to walk through it, despite having been a fairly adventurous world traveler since I was twenty and, armed with a freshly printed B.A. from Macalester College, flew off to sample European culture. Whatever happens after we land in Beijing a few hours from now promises to put me on a new frontier in my life.
How did it begin? One morning last February I was thrilled to switch on this computer and find a personal invitation to teach English literature for a year at one of Asia's premier educational institutions, Qinghua University in Beijing. (Also spelled "Tsinghua", it is pronounced approximately "Ching-hwa".)
I had received invitations from four other Chinese universities since 2005, but until recently my work in Cambridge prevented me from venturing thither.
Truth to tell, I know precious little about China; my trips to Hong Kong hardly allowed me to penetrate the mystique of things Chinese. The language barrier has always made them seem opaque, and who knows what challenges lie ahead?
My Chinese vocabulary does not run to more than a couple dozen words. My fluency in Norwegian, decent command of German, and varying degrees of incompetence in a few other European tongues certainly won't get me far in the streets of Beijing.
I've met a lot of very bright Chinese students in Cambridge and elsewhere, and I've noticed that Qinghua University ranks #1 or #2 in China, depending on whose list one consults. That was tantalizing bait. Never mind that Qinghua is the alma mater of President Hu Jintao.
I've either taught or temporarily lectured at universities on every rung of the ladder, from Yale and Cambridge to Mississippi Valley State University and Bluefield State College, and it certainly is more stimulating to be perched near the top.
Granted, despite my humble origins, I'm a little spoiled. During my misspent high school days, my esteemed guidance counselor, Mr. Urban Benewicz, cautioned me that the only way I'd ever get into Harvard was by donating my body to its medical school.
But somehow I managed to earn a few degrees there and at Johns Hopkins University without making a post mortem appearance in the anatomy labs of either institution.
I know a wee bit about Chinese history and remember the oddly named "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, when Chairman Mao and his radical cohort thought their communist restructuring of China was going soft and in danger of becoming corrupted by Western influences.
Believing that the heart and soul of the country lay in its peasantry, they wanted to force the increasingly urban nation to return to its agrarian roots.
Among other strokes of genius, they closed the universities for eleven years and sent the professors and students to the fields. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot.
Chinese higher education eventually recovered from that bout of temporary insanity. Owing to the dynamic growth of the national economy and a somewhat more open spirit of inquiry, since the 1980s China's elite universities have gained international renown and now rank high among the world's educational institutions.
They are not yet in the same league with Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, and Oxford, but don't be surprised if they find themselves in such cerebral company thirty years hence.
After all, China is on the move in what many astute observers believe will be its century, just as the twentieth was America's century. These are exciting times.
One question was how to get to China in the first place. The options have grown exponentially since Marco Polo trekked there along the legendary Silk Route in the 1260s. I briefly considered flying to Moscow, then taking the storied Trans-Siberian Railroad for nearly a week across Russia, followed by a two-day sprint down the tracks through good old Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, to Beijing.
Could I handle that and maintain whatever sanity I still have? Decades ago, I sat up all night in airports everywhere from Portland to Nairobi, rode a Greyhound bus across the USA without a change of undergarments, and drove my un-airconditioned Dodge Dart, well past its prime if it ever had one, from Phoenix to Detroit Lakes without sleeping.
But not even my masochistic tendencies made me jump at the opportunity to endure a marathon ordeal on a Siberian train. For that matter, I've never relished the thought of being sent to Siberia by myself or anyone else.
So here I sit in seat 35D, some 10,000 meters above Siberia, eager to get my feet back on terra firma and begin what should be the adventure of a lifetime. I can hardly wait! Stay tuned in, folks.