I traveled to Nanjing, China, during spring break 2008 — for the first time as a member of the Russian department. The previous three times had been in my former capacity as director of the Center for International Studies, where one of my charges was to coordinate and institutionalize one of the most multifaceted international exchange programs in U.S. higher education.
Founded by the history department's Andrew Hsieh more than 20 years ago, our exchange program with Nanjing University has seen generations of Chinese and American students, faculty, and administrators visit each other's institution to study, teach, and do research - forging countless friendships and traditions over the years. As an administrator, I've enjoyed meeting my counterparts, negotiating our exchange agreement, and creating new possibilities, including an expansion of our teaching fellowship program, in which Grinnell faculty members teach each year at Nanjing University. Previously, instruction had been exclusively in English; last year, we decided to experiment with the foreign languages, and so March 2008 found me wandering the halls of the sixth floor of the Foreign Languages Building at Nanjing University.
Another thing made this trip different than those before: I was taking my two sons, Alex (16) and Patrick (11). It is hard to express what it felt like to watch them experience Asia for the first time, to walk in my footsteps, to discover a part of the world so very different from their home in rural Iowa. From Patrick gazing transfixed at Victoria Harbor from the window of our hotel in Hong Kong as we first entered China, to Alex's awe at the massiveness of Pudong and the Pearl of the Orient as we stood on the Bund in Shanghai on the eve of our departure, to all we experienced in Nanjing - the entire trip was, like every journey to Asia, eye-opening and life-changing. And apart from the usual tourist sites and obvious youth highlights of buying swords and cheap DVDs (can I feign the same ignorance here about bringing the latter back, as I did when we went through customs?), the boys enjoyed some of those everyday activities that make connection with a foreign culture so much more meaningful. Patrick attended some classes at the Nanjing middle school with the Grinnell Corps Nanjing Fellows (Logan Lewis and Maggie Connor, both '07); Alex played basketball on a team with Austin Dean '06 (a Grinnell Corps alumnus teaching history there) against Nanjing University students. We also enjoyed being hosted (at endless, sumptuous banquets) by our many Nanjing friends who had been in our home in Grinnell.
A personal highlight for me, though, was my experience in the classroom. And not because it was unusual, or "exotic" (a relative term that, together with "weird" and "strange," I encouraged my sons to avoid in describing this very different culture), but rather because it was familiar and recognizable. I was nervous before the first class (as most teachers are before the first meeting, I think), and had prepared far more material than necessary, just in case. But once things got started and we got through our introductions, I realized I was going to enjoy working with Alyosha, Lilya, Liza, Katya, Gulya, Panya, Ignat, Nadya, and Lyuda (yes, like here, students take Russian names).
Working through the content of the course (the dynamic Russian poetic movements leading to the 1917 revolution), we also talked a lot about how Russian is taught and learned in America and China. It became clear in our discussions that there were far more similarities than differences. I'd like to give one example, which I'll dedicate to the students in my Russian 221 class in the fall of 2007 - one of my favorite groups in my many years of teaching at the College. As I quizzed my Chinese students about their knowledge of Russian, I asked whether they knew any proverbs (my Russian students here will smile knowingly at this point, recalling my obsession with this aspect of the language); indeed they did. As we went around the room to see how many we could come up with, I experienced one of those epiphanic moments that everyone ought to have in their professional life: when we realize we're in the right place, and we can't imagine doing anything else. It's a feeling I experienced more than once teaching second- year Russian the previous semester; that I experienced it again halfway around the world told me something about the importance of educational exchange and the bridging of cultural borders. It also brought home to me how glad I was to be returning fulltime to the classroom here at Grinnell.
An American in China teaching Russian? From my perspective, I can't imagine anything more ordinary.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Spring 2009