Getting To Know Us
After a year at the University of Missouri boning up on American history, a Chinese professor tells what she discovered about us and how she imparts her new knowledge to the folks back home in the People’s Republic.
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
In my mind, my life has been very uneventful. But to other people, it seems that I should have nothing more to wish for: my husband and I both work at Lanzhou University in northcentral China, where my husband is a professor of Russian history and I teach the history of the world’s Middle Ages as well as ancient Chinese history. At the university, we are considered to have a good future. Besides this, I have two adorable children. It seemed that I should be content because life had blessed me with so much. The only thing I needed to do was to preserve the normal flow of this long river of life. But, as I was born with a nature that is never willing to maintain the status quo, I inevitably created some ripples in the calm stream.
In the spring of 1983, I received a notice from the authorities of the university. Under the auspices of a cultural-exchange agreement between Lanzhou University and the University of Missouri, I was selected to represent my university as a visiting fellow in 1984. I was to do research in American history at the history department of the University of Missouri, in Columbia, Missouri. Naturally this news was very exciting to me. Since 1979, when China began to dispatch students to study abroad, I had wanted to see the world. And so, in 1980, I studied English in my spare time (my first foreign language is Russian) so that I could be prepared for any opportunity that arose. When I received the notice, my dream became reality.
However, even in the midst of my excitement, I felt apprehensive—if the plan went through, it would mean that for one whole year I would not see my husband or my children. Furthermore, in order to fulfill the assignment from my university, it was necessary for me to disregard my original field of study and switch to that of American history. Although I had read a bit about American history in the past, I had never considered the subject from a scholarly point of view. So my biggest responsibility in America would be to start studying anew, which would be arduous work. For an instant I hesitated. But in the end, my hesitation was overcome by my belief that we should control life and not let life control us. Thereupon, my eyes brimming with tears, I took leave of my beloved husband, children, and friends, crossed the vast Pacific Ocean, and arrived in a country that I had never been to, but that was not entirely unfamiliar either —the United States of America.
To be honest, when I boarded the China Airlines jet on its way to San Francisco, I was in a nervous and fretful mood. I worried about my future superiors and colleagues, and I worried about the environment of the university’s campus. Every possible type of question flooded my brain. It got to the point that when my comrades from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco took me, and other comrades who had just arrived from China, to view the sights, I did not have the heart to appreciate the invigorating sight of the elegant shore and the Golden Gate Bridge. I decided first to telephone Professor Gerald N. Barrier, who is the chairman of the history department of the University of Missouri. I nervously dialed the number and awaited a response. Almost instantly the telephone receiver transmitted a soft but clear voice: “Ah, Miss Hou, I am Professor Barrier. We are all waiting for your arrival. …” At that instant I suddenly calmed down. This warm and friendly welcome caused me to realize that, whatever happened, it was sure to be wonderful; the thought of living among gracious and caring American friends reassured me. And this confidence was justified by all the experiences that followed.
From the middle of February to the middle of July, following Professor Barrier’s suggestion, I started taking some English courses to improve my speech and listening comprehension. I also took several courses in American history. During this period, because I was reading quite a bit as well as attending classes, my interest in American history grew dramatically. Before I came to Missouri, the America I had admired was the America of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. The glory of America’s War of Independence, her extraordinary support of people’s rights, and her exalted humanitarianism have all made America occupy a special position among the countries in the world. In this position, America shines a bright and luminous light. I particularly like the Emma Lazarus poem that is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Yes, I love and respect the American spirit of freedom and liberalism. I admire the fact that Americans do not blindly revere the past but instead bravely continue to reform. I think highly of their emphasis on taking real action and their willingness to work strenuously and endure hardship. As a result, the part of American history that interested me most was the period beginning with the War of Independence and going up to the beginning of the First World War.