On reteaching in Asia
For whatever positive or negative repercussions from previous incarnations, I have found myself included in a university in Asia after some 60 years. I am teaching summer school at Yonsei University in July, but this new experience evoked remembrance of things past ― my China university days.
From Dartmouth College, I was among the last batch of American undergraduate exchange students that went to China in 1948-49 in the midst of the Chinese revolution. I was in Lingnan University in Guangzhou (Canton).
My two experiences were vastly different ― impossible to compare in most respects. But one element seems similar ― the interest of the families of Asian students in encouraging their children to have local, binding experiences. In the Yonsei case, most of my students are studying in the U.S. but they have families in Korea and are home for the summer to be with their relatives and have a structured academic experience that will earn them credit at their U.S. institutions.
Lingnan University was somewhat unique. No summer school or semester ― sea travel took too long. They went to Lingnan because it was in their closest linguistic community ― most Chinese-Western students’ parents were from Guangtung. But there was a significant difference. While cultural and familial ties were to be strengthened or reestablished, there was also an ulterior motive. Many Sino-American or Sino-Western males were sent back to continue the Chinese tradition and education ― plus… And that plus was to get married.
Overseas Chinese elders often did not want their sons to marry overseas Chinese women ― incomprehensively Westernized. These often well-educated Americanized women were likely to be too independent, lacking in proper daughter-in-law social graces that the elder generation valued, and would not easily adopt the subservient position that a conservative old group expected from a new female family member. So introductions were arranged through the extended family system, matchmakers found, and alliances performed.
The male students would then eventually bring back their home-grown brides overseas to continue the traditions that the elders had valued. Even if they didn’t speak English, they were entombed within a family structure that deemed that capacity less significant than their familial duties.
For Sino-Western women it was somewhat different. Chinese education seemed not devoted to getting married, because mainland-born men might not be able to adapt to overseas living. They might have trouble getting visas and their English was likely to be poor, which meant their earning capacity was probably limited. These female students had no intention of going back to China for the rest of their lives. They wanted modern lives.
But their duty was to get re-acculturated into traditional Chinese behavioral norms for proper Chinese brides. They were supposed to have learned what it was to show respect to the family, especially their future mothers-in-law, and to assume roles that they had never learned overseas. It may have been far more painful for them than for their male counterparts.
In the Neolithic era of this my life ― my youthful excursion to China ― there was little socially evident or public displays of affection between the students, not that they felt any the less attracted to each other. But social norms were far more stringent and previous socially public relations could affect their marriage possibilities, at least for those women brought up in “good families” ― those from China who could afford to attend such a university.
Today, in China or Korea, we live in a different world of public affection. No doubt we are more open and have more individual choices, which at least from my American vantage point is a positive achievement. But Confucian values still dominate both eras ― students are supposed to study.
Korean students today are also different from their previous generations. They don’t want to marry early. They want careers and independence and however they may define the good life. Korean men and women live modern, professional lives with the independence that befits their educational attainments. Although Korea's birthrate may be down, as a result of late marriages, personal satisfaction may well be up.
Age has perhaps tinted my reflections, but the vigor of today at Yonsei, and I assume other Korean universities, so evident in all aspects of student life and in their goals, is contrasted in my mind with the more obviously placid student relationships of that earlier Chinese era ― an era marked by authoritarian control and the activities of the secret police. But the cataclysmic chaos of Chinese society in the midst of profound social and political change at that time beyond the campus also contrasts with the relative calm of Korean political life today beyond Yonsei.
No matter how vituperative the language of the Korean public sphere and how ardent the political emotions building up for an election next year, Korean political life has become anchored in a socially accepted process, boding well for political continuity within the changing landscape. This is a far cry from my memories of China past. As China sought revolution, Koreans may seek evolutionary change, but not revolution. Differences across cultures between student life then and now seem as dissimilar in their way as the contrasts in the political sphere.
David I. Steinberg is a distinguished professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University. In the mid-1990s, he wrote a weekly column called “Stone Mirror” for The Korea Times; some were collected into a volume and published as “Stone Mirror: Reflections on Contemporary Korea” (EastBridge, 2002).