Last week I attended a five-day in-country orientation in Xiamen for the twelve 2009-2010 Fulbright Lecturers in China, most of whom arrived in September to teach both semesters. We first met in Washington, D.C. last summer. Xiamen is a lovely city on China’s southeast coast near Taiwan. After dealing with unseasonable freezing weather in my Chengdu campus apartment, I boarded the plane to Xiamen wearing about six layers of clothing, happily shedding them in warm Xiamen.
Our orientation involved meeting a number of American Embassy and consular officials, who discussed some of the outstanding political and economic issues in U.S.-China relations, as well as cultural differences. The program highlighted China’s diverse cuisine with a seeming endless number of dishes served at Chinese banquets. We also saw a Sichuan “face-changer” dancer, a Fujian local opera performance and a charming puppet show.
At the orientation I met my Sichuan University “waiban,” or foreign affairs officer, assigned to help me. He was traveling with his wife, a marketing professor at SU. The program, banquets and side trips provided us with time to informally talk and get to know one another. I mentioned to my waiban that I wanted to hire a Chinese tutor, he text-messaged his office, and two hours later told me a lady who had a Masters degree in teaching English as a second language was available at Sichuan University.
One day we visited the campus of Xiamen University, which sits on a beautiful beachfront. The coastline, sand-colored buildings with red-tiled roofs, palm trees and the laid-back atmosphere on campus reminded me of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I received my Masters and Ph.D. degrees. Only on Santa Barbara’s campus, their Spanish style red tile roofs don’t curve up at the corners in the traditional Chinese manner!
We spent several hours walking around the very large Buddhist Putuo Temple. I am always confused by the number and significance of the many portrayed Buddhist statues. But fortunately, unlike the Taliban’s destruction of their historic Buddhist carvings, the Chinese government has preserved many of these religious sites. Chinese people throughout the temple were lighting incense, bowing and praying for good fortune before the major Buddha statue.
I delayed my return to Chengdu to deliver my first Guest Lectures at Xiamen University. The Fulbright Program encourages and sponsors our travel to give speeches in our field. I spoke in the morning to an undergraduate course on key American government principles and in the afternoon to graduate students and faculty about changing U.S. Foreign Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations.
Chinese students are generally quiet and simply take notes from their Chinese professors. Then, they memorize and write out the professor’s notes in their final exam. The American teaching technique of asking questions in a Socratic manner, seeking student opinions or generating class debate is unfamiliar to most Chinese students. However, when I did get questions from students, not unexpectedly the queries concerned America’s policies of hot button issues as the recent U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan, the Dalai Llama’s visit to the White House and the Chinese currency issue.
Since I’m not with the State Department, I could give background information and my personal perspective on the issues. However, I was struck by how many Chinese have a view of American foreign policy that totally ignores the variety of factors and groups that influence U.S. actions. Checks and balances isn’t a familiar concept. Many Chinese seem to think a President has vast powers and Congress just follows (or should follow) his lead. I’m sure both Presidents Bush and Obama often wished that was the case. One of my challenges is to try to reveal to Chinese audiences what really occurs within the so-called “black box” of U.S. policy-making.
And as Bismarck warned, you don’t want to visit a factory to see how sausage is made; nor do you want to see how laws are truly crafted in the back rooms of Congress. Since I have worked on Capitol Hill, I know it’s not always a pretty or rational process.