Peking's Ru-lian is an English major at Wellesley College

Ru-lian Weng is living out a dream that began even before the 1966 Cultural Revolution in her native China -- she is studying in the United States. "The people here on campus [at Wellesley College] are very friendly," she says in an interview. Then she frowns. "But when I lived in Cambridge last summer, many scenes in Central Square -- like drunkards and poor old people -- depressed me. The poor looked worse in the United States than in China."

Walking around campus, you probably wouldn't notice Ru-lian. Wearing navy corduroy pants, red windbreaker, and clogs, she blends well with American students. If you stopped to ask her a question, you'd discover she speaks English confidently and emphatically.

Ru-lian comes from China's elite; her Peking home, she explained, is furnished with sophisticated things like television, a radio, a tape recorder, and a telephone. Both her parents received graduate degrees from American universities.

Out of 900 million mainland Chinese, she is one of about 4,000 first-rate Chinese students studying in the US. Slightly over 2,000 are private students, most, like Ru-lian, in their 20s and 30s; the rest are government-sponsored graduate scholars, generally in their 30s and 40s, doing study and research to accelerate China's modernization. In comparison, only 150 American students are now studying in mainland China.

Wellesley College enrolled mainland Chinese students in the early 1900s: It is the alma mater of Taiwan's Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, who received her bachelor's degree in 1917. As far as can be determined, the last mainland Chinese student attended Wellesley in 1947.

Ru-lian was enrolled last year as a "special student"; this September she became an official freshman. She will probably major in English.

The vast educational resources and freedom of choice for students in the US impress Ru-lian. "In China," she explains, "all classes are arranged for you from elementary grades through high school. If you go on to a university, you choose your major; but even all courses for the major are prearranged. In the Us it's up to you to choose them."

She likes to select her own courses, because, she says, "When a student is really eager to learn something, he or she knows best what weak points need strengthening. When classes are already outlined, there is less opportunity for growth."

To her surprise, she found her US teachers friendly and very accessible."They're different from teachers in China," she posits, "a little more considerate, and very encouraging."

Because she has seen many educational facilities such as computer terminals and scientific laboratory equipment easily available to students, Ru-lian remarks, "American students should study well." She assumes they do.

They would do well to study as industriously as Ru-lian, who now has a full Wellesley scholarship.

She recalls a time when she couldn't study. During two of her high school years she built houses, planted cotton, and dug wells in Hubei Province in central China -- far from her Peking home Chairman Mao Tse-tung sent students to work in the fields -- "to identify with the peasant" in compliance with his teachings.

According to Ru-lian, the hot summers, freezing winters, and mandatory political study-discussion sessions about Mao's works made studying impossible. Schools were closed four to five years in the late 1960s. When they began reopening in 1970, Ru-lian returned to Peking and taught English 6 1/2 years in a high school.

It was not easy, she says. Most Students she had in class refused to learn. Many shouted while she talked. They saw little use for knowledge and feared they would face more government repression if they learned too much. The schools were in disarray until 1977 and '78.

Would she be in the US if official educational exchanges between he People's Republic of China and the United States had not been established in January 1979 ? "I doubt it," she replies. "Before that time it was hard for us to apply. Universities in the United States probably didn't want Chinese students, and it was difficult to get approval from the Chinese government to leave."

Ru-lian gives her impressions of Americans with a mixture of smiles and seriousness. "Americans are so easily excited! They're warm. That's good." At a baseball game, she had more fun watching the spectators shout than looking at the game itself.

Last winter, when she heard Americans complain about clearing leaves from their lawns and snow from their porches, she thought: "In China, that is just something we do."

Neither Ru-lian nor her Chinese girlfriend, Ronni Wang, wants to stay in the United States after receiving her degree. Both say they would be frightened to look for their own jobs.

Ru-lian explains: "In China, the government will definitely find a job for you in your field of study. Your college immediately places you in a position after graduation. This gives you a feeling of security. You know you won't be unemployed." She says that as far as she knows, everyone is employed.

She adds: "Our system has a disadvantage, because the security is sometimes too secure -- people who are lazy often get paid as much as those who work hard. But now things are improving. Rewards are given to those who do best."

Would such a system limit the Chinese in changing jobs or careers? Ru-lian laughs. "Students just don't change their fields! And people rarely quit a job. If they do, it's very hard to get another one."

Ru-lian hopes to become a traslator or literary works -- particularly novels and short stories -- into Mandarin, China's national language. Ronni Wang, also at Wellesley, will continue her work in art when she returns to China -- but only after eight-hour workdays, since, as she explains, she is not an official "artistc of the state.

About China, Ru-lian says, "The best thing to do is to modernize the country. In America you look around and everything is modern. I really hope my own country advances more quickly."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.