East meets East: A Chinese at Swarthmore

During China's Cultural Revolution, when most intellectuals with an interest in the outside world were relegated to hard labor in the countryside, a young Peking schoolgirl was poking into novels by Mark Twain, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

These writers' names sounded to her as mysterious as the societies they portrayed.

Now more than a decade has passed, and she is studying those writers again -- this time on the continent that produced them.

Li Moying came to America to make better sense of America. In fact, she's doing it as a career. She has long felt that her country could benefit from a better understanding of Western ways. She dreamed of one day teaching American literature and translating it into Chinese. The resolve of China's leaders to restore ties with the United States finally gave her the chance.

The road West has been long and perilous. And fascinating.

Moying was born to a family known in China for its contributions to learning and literature. Her great uncle, a wellknown grammarian, compiled an influential modern dictionary. Other relatives of her grandfather's generation were educated in Europe. Her well-read father, once a chronicler of military history, turned his literary talents to social commentary through books and films.

But when the Maoist "purism" and severe isolationism of the Cultural Revolution swept China in 1964, the education of a whole generation of Chinese skipped a beat. Schools were shut down. Moying and her friends were sent home or to farms to be "reeducated" through labor alongside the peasants. Her parents were sent to the countryside, their treasured collection of world literature destroyed. Some of China's greatest literary figures were criticized , killed, or committed suicide.

Still, Moying was one of the more fortunate ones. She managed to keep her education alive, thanks to her father's encouragement, some books borrowed from family friends, and tutoring from a former schoolteacher who risked criticism to help.

The reopening of some schools in 1969 gave her the chance to resume her study of English at the Foreign Language School of Peking. In 1973 she was appointed to teach English.

After the passing of Chairman Mao, national college entrance exams were offered for the first time in 10 years. Moying qualified to enter the Peking Foreign Language Institute, considered by many the finest in China. And when the opportunity arose to study at an American college, she leaped at it.

Now her home-away-from-home is Swarthmore college, a "small Ivy League" liberal arts school situated in wooded Pennsylvania countryside outside Philadelphia.

Moying commands English vocabulary and idiom with impressive adroitness. But she is just beginning to fathom the "cultural vocabulary" that lies behind the letters that have intrigued her since girlhood.

How does a Chinese go about figuring out a land as remote and strange as America, anyway?

"First, I came well equipped with questions from my family and friends, "moying explains, hastening to get her books together. "Since diplomatic relations were set up between our two countries, there has been great curiosity in my country about America. We have been isolated from the outside world for so long. America is far away, so different, and over the last century advanced so fast economically and technologically.

"Also, the new diplomatic relations have aroused new interest in America among Chinese. They would like to know more, see what the true picture is."

Where, Moying has been asking, do Americans get their industriousness? The dynamism of their machine culture? Their frontier individualism?

How to understand the religious imagery that pervades American literature? The puzzling reports about soaring divorce rates and lack of care for the elderly? The new ideas about "women's liberation" -- aspects almost totally foreign to Chinese society?

She couldn't have found a more apt location to begin gathering answers. This part of Pennsylvania is where William Penn launched his extraordinary social experiments in religious tolerance and in peaceful cohabitation with native Americans. Here at Swarthmore, Quakers set up one of the first experiments in coeducation 120 years ago. The early American painter Benjamin West was born in a house still standing on the campus. In nearby Philadelphia, the young Bostonian Benjamin Franklin set up his first printing press.

Moying agrees that I should tag along with her to see American classes through Chinese eyes.

"I've been greatly impressed with Franklin's autobiography," she confides, as we drift across the campus to her American literature class.

"He was so industrious and resourceful. REally an all-around man. China itself, by the way, has been encouraging better-rounded education. Franklin himself was nearly self-educated; got his printing business started here despite competition from two larger presses. He got involved in a lot of social issues. There were the inventions and witty sayings. He seems to have had time to do everything."

Confucius, I suggest, might have gotten along well with Franklin, in an odd sort of way.

Moying grins. "I think so."

Will she be the first, I ask, to edit a volume of comparative wise sayings from America and China?

"Who knows?"

At Trotter Hall, Moying leads the way into a highceilinged classroom with tall arching windows and plain white walls. A tall bespectacled young professor in green corduroy jeans arrives, and American Literary History 1 begins. The discussion weaves its way through the world of the early Puritans -- their haste to set up a press for printing biblical literature; the tension between their severe religious devotion and their resigned acceptance that an individual's salvation was ultimately unknowable and out of his control; their interpretation of natural objects as metaphors with religious meaning; their discipline of "meditating," of daily reviewing their lives, keeping track of pluses and minuses like an accountant with his ledger, or, like a goldsmith, "hammering out" their ideas into the desired shape.

With class over, Moying and I leave the world of the Puritans and dash off again across the campus. She is quick to point out how hard it can be for those Chinese raised in an atheistic culture to understand the religous metaphors that saturate American literature.

"Of course, nowadays things have changed from the religion of those times. But those religious origins have helped me to understand today's situation, especially remnants of the moral code."

The delicacies of interpreting literature from different cultural viewpoints surfaced humorously last fall, she says, when she spoke out English literature class. Students had been debating Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," and whether Faustus should have bargained his soul away in exchange for temporary supernatural powers.

"I know that must have been a horrible prospect for religious people," Moying recalls, "but I was thinking along a different line when I read the story.

"It struck me that Faustus had a lot of couragem . He knew what the consequences might be. He knew he would be condemned to hell, but still decided to go forward. He wanted more knowledge. I respected that willingness to exchange his soul to gain 20 years to go around the world and get more knowledge.

"My professor was taken by surprise and said, 'Would all Chinese respond that way?' I said I didn't know, and we all laughed."

As we arrive at the Du Pont lecture hall, Al Blooms's class in psycho-linguistics is off to a rip-roaring start, exploring the sound patterns of different languages. The curly-haired, stocky professor dishes out explanations a mile a minute, gesticulating wildly as he prances back and forth across the front of the lecture hall. In every language, we are told, only certain combinations of sounds are allowed.

"In English, if I were to give you the letters TGSI and say, 'Is that an English word?' you would say, 'No!' Nor could you have TSIG, TGSI or GTSI. (Now for Chinese, that might be a whole different story.) On the other hand, we could in English have the combination STIG, although we might not know the meaning. (I, for one, don't know what it means.) Or you could have GITS. . . ."

A little breathless from the rapid-fire messages of Dr. Bloom, the sounds of STIG and GITS still ringing in our ears, we're off again across the campus to get to Moying's final class of the day.

She admits she is beginning to take on something of the fast American pace.

"In China we always walk much slower," she says, remembering more relaxed days at home. 'We could sit there and talk over a cup of tea for hours. Probably that's one of the reasons China produced so many philosophers -- there was time to sit and think."

But the American use of time has its advantages, she reflects.

"Time is valued here as precious, for whatever reasons, I was so impressed because in the subways you always see people reading books and newspapers. It's not something that they havem to do. It shows people really know how to make use of their time. I really respect that."

Some of us Americans, I respond, worry about packing too much into our days, running ourselves into a frazzle.

"Still, it's good," she returns, "that people don't idle away their time. They keep learning new things.

"That's what also impresses me about Ben Franklin. He never wasted time. He set up a timetable for activities from the moment he got up at 5 o'clock in the morning until he went to bed at 10:30 at night. And he tried to improve himself by keeping a record -- something like a Puritan meditation. He listed his faults and drawbacks: For example, I can't concentrate when I needed to, or I'm too aggressive to some people. Then he gave himself marks each day of the week, and checked to see if he improved. Even when it didn't work, I think it was a very respectable effort."

Back at trotter Hall, Moying leads the way into the dark film projection room where art history teachers do their daily slide-viewing rituals. A young, smartly dressed woman is already immersed in her discussion of how Boston and Philadelphia developed different artistic identities during the Revolutionary period, showing slide after slide of paintings by Boston's John Singleton Copley and Philadelphia's Benjamin West.

"The eventual journey of Benjamin West to Europe was a sign of the developing sophistication of the Americans who were no longer trying to import Europeans but to educate one of their own. . . ."

After her last class of the day, Moying talks about the progress she feels she is making in the US. She, like so many of the some 5,000 students from the People's Republic of China now studying in this country, is anxious to press on with her studies. But she worries that uncertainties in US-China relations could interfere.

Nearly half of the Chinese students studying here rely upon money from the Chinese government. Moying herself is one of the first to be funded independently -- through a scholarship from Swarthmore.

"A lot of my friends in China hope to come to the States to study," she says. "I'm very happy about that because they're very bright people. But I really hate to think about what could happen if relations are allowed to cool under President Reagan, for example, over his harder line on Taiwan. The government of China has been encouraging people to study overseas. But if diplomatic relations cool, I fear that they would think twice about sending more students."

To lose the enrichment brought by Chinese students like Li Moying would be tragic, according to one of her Swarthmore friends, Ken Leith, a senior who spent a year living in China.

"Americans may claim to be very sophisticated concerning socializing, sex, drugs, and alcohol. But inwardly we tend to be very insecure about our social relationships. We have had the advantages of having everything we want at our fingertips in this mechanized, mobile culture.

"But many students feel isolated as individuals from community and nation. We tend to have lost direct acquaintanceship with the day-to-day realities of friendships and community.

"On the other hand, the Chinese, though their social life may appear puritan by American standards, have retained that direct acquantanceship with their social world, close relationships in family life and with friends. They are more family oriented, have great respect for their elders, and their elders take great responsibility for their children. This is why they find it hard to understand the soaring American divorce rates, broken families, and shallow friendships.

"There's a mix someplace, I feel, between the positive values you learn from a culture like China and education in the modern mechanized world. Moying's a perfect example of that. She has managed to retain her values. I hope she can keep that balance."

Meanwhile, Moying does retain her optimism about the future. She hopes that the background of her Swarthmore studies will lead to deeper study in American and English --possibly a doctorate -- and eventually a career teaching and translating for a Chinese public increasingly curious about Western ways.

"Back in China my friends used to say, 'You're too much of a dreamer. You've got to be practical.' Well, I really enjoy dreaming. You've gotm to have optimism if you want things to come true. It's one quality I greatly respect among Americans. Here the attitude is that everything is possible, as long as you want to put effort into it.

"Years ago in China I would not have believed I could really come to America unless I actually had an airplane ticket already in my hand. On the other hand, in America people would say, 'Well, it's possible. Why don't you try for it?' Fortunately, when it came to studying here, I didm try for it. I wouldn't exchange that for all t he tea in China."

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