Angela Sorby: Creating a Cone of Silence in China

For the Chronicle of Higher Education, Angela Sorby writes about her interactions with Chinese students and associates during her stint teaching American literature in China on a Fulbright scholarship:

Chinese people have to live in China, and they can’t apply my well-meant advice on their personal problems (“Dump the guy!” “Take an SSRI!”) when they re-enter the traditional world in which they circulate, and sometimes suffocate. So the same divide that makes me a welcome listener also makes it hard for me to offer usable advice: The cone of silence makes intimacy possible between us precisely because it blocks out the complications of Chinese society. I’m left with rescue fantasies, ones I would never verbalize, because they’re probably condescending and certainly unrealistic.

Likewise, at my host campus, Xiamen University, my college classroom feels like it sits in a private, liminal space between two cultures. Students in my class want to try out ideas about freedom and individualism, and they’re curious about how we Americans embody our ideals at home. Having an Anglophone teacher allows them some intellectual and psychological leeway, just as my Chinese guides last spring felt more comfortable sharing personal stories in English.

At the same time, I’ve learned to “mind the gap” and realize that I can’t guide my students through their own moment in history. For example, in class we sometimes hit the Chinese government’s Internet firewall. I’m tempted to just log into my VPN (virtual private network) to go around it, but I don’t. I’m unlikely to catch flack if I did, because as a visitor I have a certain privileged status, but decisions about when and how to break the rules are not mine to make.

Moreover, we can’t assume that our cone of silence is fully effective. That smiling girl in the Hello Kitty flip-flops might well be a Party spy. And anyway, my students don’t need me to preach baby boomer-style rebellion; they need me to give them space to explore their own values.