Friday, June 5, 2009

Laowai Philosophizing

Hi everyone, this post isn't really from me, but from Chris Panza who is teaching this semester in China and can't get to Blogger through the Great Firewall. He'd posted it to his blog here, but he thought it might make for a good teaching post as well.


Sadly, my (our) time in Beijing is slowly coming to a close (we leave in July). This is not something that I or my wife are particularly happy about – both of us feel as if we are, just recently, beginning to get our “sea legs” (so to speak) in Chinese culture. The quickly approaching end of the experience has led me to reflect a bit on what I’ve experienced already, especially with respect to teaching and thinking about Chinese Philosophy while here. There are a lot of subjects I plan to talk about in the future on this topic, but the one I’d like to discuss right now concerns the very general issue of doing Chinese Philosophy in China.

In planning for and looking forward to this trip, one of the things I was most excited about was the prospect of interacting with Chinese on the subject of pre-Qin philosophy. After all, I’ve only spoken to American students about it, and with American scholars. So I was eager to talk about these subjects with people who grew up in the same culture that emerged from those very thinkers I was studying.
Although I would have hoped for even more interaction in this way, there’s still a lot to talk about here. Let me start in a simple place: the reception that I received as someone studying/teaching Chinese Philosophy here in China. Before recording my impressions, I should put out a rather large caveat: my data set here is small. Vanishingly so, as a matter of fact; still, my experience is what it is, and it is formed regardless of the paucity of my data “points”. So I’ll just talk about the experience and let the reader take it with the grain of salt that is appropriate.
My general impression is that my reception by others (Chinese) can be split into two large categories – with one group of people generally approving, an another one not. Each group is a big umbrella, housing different reactions that can be thought of as “positive” or “negative”. I’ll briefly describe the two:
A. The Negative Group.
One “group” of Chinese that I meet seemed surprised, shocked, perplexed, and sometimes annoyed, that I would be teaching Chinese Philosophy here in China. To unify the whole group, however, I always found myself getting the same response from others — upon my saying that this is what I was doing here, the reaction was something like, “Huh? You are teaching Chinese Philosophy here?”
How should this be interpreted? What were they thinking when they said “you”? I’ve come away thinking that there are some different ways to interpret it.
a) The “I don’t teach in Chinese, and I read the texts in translation” problem. There is no doubt that some of the more negative interactions were based on these facts. This is understandable to some degree – if a student was studying Joyce’s Ulysses in Mandarin, I’d probably think that was odd too. That said, I did have a few students mention to me (who would read the Analects in Mandarin alongside my discussing it from translation) that they felt that the interaction with translation helped them to better understand what was going on in the original. That’s interesting, though my own grasp of ancient Chinese is not good enough to comment on the observation. Surely a controversial thing to say, however!
b) The ”I’m not Chinese (or at least Asian)” issue. I’d hate to think that this fact meant anything to anyone, but I can’t help but to think that this did bother some people. More times than not, when I would get the “you are teaching what?” reaction, it was from people who had no idea how good my skills in reading Chinese were (or speaking it for that matter, other than the fact that we were talking in English, though that wouldn’t necessarily indicate anything in this environment). This led me to think that the descriptor for the term “you” was “laowai” (foreigner). In the beginning, I thought perhaps I was getting the impression wrong, but after a while I started to feel as if some had a negative reaction to the fact that I – as a Westerner – was teaching the subject at a Chinese university (irrespective of language ability).
Sometimes it seemed as if there might be two different things going on:
B1) At times I got the impression that it was a “what could a laowai really know about this?” reaction. When I got that impression, I would think to myself “would I feel the same way about a Chinese teaching Melville?” I found my own internal reactions to be conflicting. On the one hand, a quick internal reaction said “yes” – what could a Chinese know about the distinctively Western challenges that Melville is dealing with? On the other hand, my more thought out cognitive reactions would then step in and say “no” – that it was silly to think such a thing. A Chinese can read Moby Dick and understand it just as well as someone from Melville, New York (I used to work there, by the way — gratuitous trivia there).
B2) At other times, the reaction I got felt more like the person I was talking to was insulted, like “even if a laowai could know about this, Chinese should teach it.” I’m certain here that if I were convinced that a Chinese could understand Moby Dick as well as anyone, that I wouldn’t care at all whether an American (or specifically someone from Long Island!) taught it. This one I can’t really figure out at all, if I read the impression right. I would hope that in these interactions, I was misreading the situation. But perhaps not.
B3) Third, some people innocently seemed to be genuinely perplexed. Why would this tall Western guy with the thick American accent care about Chinese Philosophy anyway?
Lots of difficult questions and issues here, I think, for anyone teaching/reading/learning about Chinese Philosophy (or any text read in a cross-cultural forum and context, for that matter). Of course, and once again, I might have misread these reactions, so I’m not sure how much stock to put into my own impressions. Still, I did feel them, whether they were veridical or not.
B. The Positive Group
I received just as many, if not more, positive reactions. They too fell into a number of groups, some overlapping.
C1) I definitely got the impression that some were genuinely excited that a Westerner would be so interested in their own culture and philosophy. I felt a genuine sense of pride from some people that a laowai would show such interest in a heritage that they clearly had a great pride for. Here I experienced a bit of a “good for you!” reaction.
C2) Some people simply thought (in conjunction with C1) that it was just great that Westerners and Easterners could talk about something like this, with the hope of forming a kind of “common language” to address common concerns and problems.
C3) Perhaps most controversially, the most common positive reaction I received pointed to a belief that Chinese texts (especially the Confucian ones) had been misinterpreted or misappropriated by this-or-that specific interest group through Chinese history. These interest groups differed – some thought of political groups (both ancient and contemporary) whereas other pointed to their own parents. People who fell into this group were genuinely excited by the idea of discussing these texts in a different context, without the assumption that those interpretations were obviously right.
Some people (in discussion) were genuinely intrigued by my own readings of the texts (Confucian, specifically). Some even indicated that whereas in the past they had had no interest at all in the works, they now saw that they “spoke” to their own concerns in life. Here, I need to be careful: I’m not suggesting here that “the Westerner” came in and saved Confucius from the Confucians (to bite an old Roger Ames article title). I think it was rather that they were simply happy to have someone read the texts in a way that didn’t simply seem to serve the interests of the group giving the interpretation. Some felt that Confucius had been used by parents to “control” them, make them feel bad, or whatever, and there were similar concerns that political powers-that-be had done the same in the past.

On this score – whether I was Western or not, and whether my readings were even accurate – I felt a genuine desire from some people to reconnect with these texts in new ways, as a way of “freeing them” from what they took to be strictly enforced (and wrong or at least rigid) historical interpretations. A few even found a new reason to be self-critical of their own particular way of engaging in their relational environments!

Positive and negative reactions taken together, this has been a great experience. I wish it could have been longer. I myself (well, my wife too, as she agrees) could easily stay here a few years. I, for one, know that what I could learn about Chinese culture, or even just Chinese thoughts about their own heritage and philosophy, just barely scratched some superficial surface. On one level, this is deeply frustrating, as I realize just how little I really know. On the other hand, I realize that I knew nothing before, so at least I’ve had the opportunity to engage in even this amount of superficial cultural interaction.

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