- 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
In the past, information picked up from newspaper articles and books had planted a few notions in my head: Americans are not prone to express sentiment, and they have no sense of family. But at Susan’s mother’s house, in a lakeside town in Wisconsin, I saw a vivid and touching scene of family life. At Christmastime, except for the second oldest child (who was working abroad), all the children brought their own spouses and children home for a grand reunion. There were about ten or so people —certainly enough to create a lovely atmosphere! Every day Susan’s seventy-four-year-old mother would prepare and organize all the activities. Although it must have been exhausting, it was evident that she received great joy from her role. I was moved by the respect and consideration that the children showed toward their mother. On Christmas Eve, while laughing and joking, everyone circled the tree and gave presents to one another. I couldn’t help thinking, “Could anyone deny that this was true emotion and family love?”
Besides Christmas, there was another event on that trip which impressed me. In a huge forest in northern Michigan I met Lynn Day and her husband and grown children. I liked Lynn at first glance, for she had an amiable voice and a delightful face. I originally thought that she was a scholar of natural history, but then I found out that her husband is the manager of a large and famous company, and that she herself was heir to a huge fortune. Natural history was just an outside interest. This made me a little curious because I had never met a rich capitalist before. In my countrymen’s eyes, capitalists are people who glut their stomachs but don’t use their brains. But the capitalist couple before my eyes were caring, carefree, and gracious. Their four grown children were vigorous and lively. Not once did they exhibit the slightest indication that they felt superior because of their affluent background.
What struck me most was the fact that they had no servants; they relied on themselves to do everything. Lynn’s husband not only drives a car but he can repair cars too. (The morning we were to leave, Susan’s car wouldn’t start. Lynn’s husband and his oldest son braved the freezing rain and helped her fix it.) When preparing a meal, Lynn’s husband looked at recipes. When the meal was over, he helped everyone wash the dishes. Also, it was obvious that they were used to this type of living. I was made to think of a line in a book by the French author André Maurois: “Americans love the word ‘freedom’ … if anyone because of his wealth, background or position thought that he was better than someone else, Americans would say ‘Who do you think you are?’ and put him back in his place; they would treat him as they would anyone.” I think I am now really able to understand this statement.
I must admit that my year in America was a very rich and colorful one. I had wonderful experiences. Is there anything I didn’t like? To be frank, there are some things that are not very nice. For example, Americans are overly introverted (it is only on the surface that they pretend to be outgoing). This introvertedness did on occasion make me feel troubled and perplexed.
Another thing is how the idea of freedom controls their lifestyle so much that it can seem as though no one cares about anyone else. This caused me to feel lonely and alienated sometimes as well as distrustful. Perhaps these problems are the products of an advanced society where competitiveness is the only means of survival. These two aspects of American society remind me of New York—a bustling, thriving city where below the surface is a dark, dank subway track.
Right now I am back in the country of my ancestors. I have reunited with my family and have started my new teaching position. My students are juniors and seniors. Because they all have some knowledge of America (they took a course in world history as sophomores), added to the fact that American history is very short, I do not need to use a detailed chronological approach in my teaching. My emphasis is on analyzing history rather than narrating it. We treat the period from the War of Independence up through the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century, stressing the social and cultural aspects—for example, religion, civil rights, women. When lecturing on these areas, I naturally need to refer to specific people. But I try not to talk too much about famous politicians the students already know about —I want to place emphasis on lesser-known figures like Thomas Paine, John Adams, Earl Warren, and Martin Luther King, Jr.