- Historic Sites
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
However, I do not like the America that is full of racial prejudice. I do not like the America that incites wars in other countries, the America that treated the American Indians so violently, the America that treats black people unfairly, the America that ruthlessly bombed Vietnam. This America leaves me feeling uncomfortable and horrified. Being of a plain and gentle character, I was too timid to criticize these darker aspects of American history. Hence, I adopted an attitude of resignation. Also, I supposed that Americans themselves didn’t dare to face these problems. However, in just five short months, the materials that I read as well as the classes that I took all served to change my opinions. The attitude of Americans toward the Vietnam War is a most striking example of how mistaken I was about this.
After experiencing the longest war in American history, most Americans recognized what a big mistake the war was and how it should serve as a lesson. American historians used facts, maps, television, mathematics—in fact, all sorts of materials—to demonstrate and expose just what America was doing in that Asian country. Many of the historians unabashedly criticized the foreign policy of that time while praising those who participated in the antiwar movement. Now this is what I call the true spirit of self-criticism!
Perhaps this is one reason the United States is able to stand in the forefront of the world after a mere two hundred years. I think that only this type of spirit enables a nation to relentlessly reform and continue along the road of progress. I was deeply, deeply moved by this spirit, and I want to tell all my compatriots of this new discovery. While we Chinese feel pride for our brilliant and ancient past as we forge ahead on the road toward modernization, perhaps we also can learn from this American spirit of self-evaluation.
After all these new revelations, I decided to switch my field of study from America’s early history to the period after the Second World War. In August I began to do my own research. My topics were “The Vietnam War and America of the Sixties and Seventies” and “The American Civil Rights Movement.” Before I went back to China, I read and collected a large amount of material. I also wrote some articles on these subjects, which have now been published in China.
I devoted almost every day to research and studying. It was a trying and busy life, but since I knew that my work was useful, I also felt comforted and satisfied. Moreover, when I had leisure time, I was able to travel and to experience other aspects of American society. I visited Hannibal, Mark Twain’s hometown, as well as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. I even had the opportunity to admire George Washington’s mansion, Mount Vernon. Finally, the night before I returned to China, I visited New York. These trips not only gave me much pleasure but also allowed me to have a taste of some of the customs and of the genuine hospitality of Americans that one cannot learn from books. I was left with some very deep impressions.
Above all, the placid beauty of the small town of Columbia, Missouri, was very special to me. I loved the small hills, which become gloriously verdant in the spring. I loved the soft sounds of the summer streams. I loved the autumn paths blanketed with colorful leaves. And I loved the campus wrapped in white and silver during the severe winter. I loved the abundance of books in the library. I also loved the student union, which was filled with the breath of youth. But the most important reason I loved Columbia so much was the close relationships I had with the people there.
I made a lot of new friends. Besides my colleagues in the history department, I also made friends with some young students at the university. In short, I got the feeling that all Americans are broad-minded and loquacious, but most of them are not willing to reveal any of their personal thoughts. They are happy to help people, and they do not expect any reward, although they are certainly career-minded.
One person who is a perfect example of the kind of friends I found in the United States is Professor Susan FIader. This distinguished history professor has devoted all her energy and time to the expansion of the new field of environmental history, in which she has become one of the foremost scholars. As our friendship grew, I slowly began to understand her and inevitably grew to love her. I spent many holidays and weekends with her.
Of all the days I spent with Susan, the most memorable ones were during a Christmas vacation that she graciously invited me to spend with her. We traveled through five states: Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The imposing Northern scenery coupled with the thrill of meeting new people delighted me. Everything I saw and heard during this trip made me revise previously held prejudices about America.