In Beijing, Living the Story
COM prof talks about teaching journalism in China
Anne Donohue, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, recently spent six months in Beijing on a Fulbright award, teaching her craft at the People’s University of China. She was accompanied by her 11-year-old daughter, Katie, whom she had adopted from China. Now back at BU, Donohue shared with BU Today some of her thoughts on the unrest in Tibet this spring, on the catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province, and on the 2008 Olympic Games.
This trip was my second chance to visit China on a Fulbright. I’d been awarded basically the same deal four years ago, and three weeks before I was set to leave — boxes shipped, kids set up for private schools — my father was diagnosed with cancer. The trip was off. My father died three months later.
In the summer of 2005, we visited the orphanage where we adopted Katie in a small city in China’s Hunan province. We went to help build a playroom for the kids there. It was like summer camp for Katie, and she had a blast. We visited the town of her birth again this summer, and we went into the villages and talked to pig farmers and rice farmers. And this time, being a little older, Katie was a bit more aware of herself and her story. It was more real for her. She had, in fact, hoped to try to trace some connection to her birth family. But that wasn’t possible. And, in the local dialect in my daughter’s town, they say that Americans come to buy children and that Chinese sell children. That was disturbing, but that’s the reality.
Most of my time, of course, was spent in Beijing, where we were living on the 17th floor of an 18-story graduate student dorm. We had a three-bedroom apartment with a hotplate and no oven, no hot water, and a toilet that successfully flushed maybe three times during our six-month stay. It was a step up from camping, but maybe just half a step. Still, it was a palace compared to the dorms where my undergraduate students lived. They were packed in, six girls to a room. They move into this room as freshmen, and they stay there until they leave as graduating seniors. The girls have their computers on a sort of hospital tray that swings over their bed. Their rooms have no closets, so the hallway is the closet for the entire floor.
The thing that was the most lovely to me about Beijing was the outdoor life. People are out from 6 a.m. to midnight, dancing, playing music, strolling, or exercising. It was very calming to walk around the campus. It just seemed like a much more socially cohesive place to live, as opposed to the very atomized suburban experience of our life in Belmont.
On the other hand, the idea of personal space is very different over there. I never got used to the pushing and shoving and line cutting. In fact, the thing that made me the most crazy was going to the grocery store. It was just so incredibly noisy, with hawkers everywhere and the onslaught of the pressure and the noise and 50 people all with their hands on the same cantaloupe, and who’s going to get it?
I taught an undergraduate course on writing and reporting American-style and a graduate course on issues in American journalism. The graduate course covered a lot of interesting stuff: journalism history and legal and ethical issues that I was aware of as a working journalist, but had never looked at in depth. In that class, I realized pretty early on that a lot of things didn’t quite translate. For instance, if I talked about the McCarthy era, with Edward R. Murrow as a hero — well, McCarthyism seems like such small potatoes compared to the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in China.
Naively, I was hoping my students would be leftovers of the Tiananmen Square students — you know, dissidents simmering quietly beneath the surface. But, in fact, most of these kids think their government is doing a very good job and are pretty pleased with things in China today. I mean, 10 percent economic growth every year for 10-plus years means a lot in your everyday world, especially compared with the history of upheaval and struggle in China in the 20th century.
The students can read the New York Times and accounts in Western media of human rights abuses in China, but they say, “That’s just the West beating us up because they’re afraid of us.” And the fallout from the unrest in Tibet sharpened the edges of the West vs. China theory. I felt a little bit under siege at that time, as a Western journalist in China, when the headlines every day were about how Western journalists hate China. I’d never anticipated how heartfelt and right-on-the-surface the emotions would be.
A few weeks later, the earthquake happened in Sichuan. We could feel it here in Beijing. Our building swayed a bit. I’d never been in an earthquake, so I didn’t realize it at first. But everybody else got out and filed out onto the street. And then the death count just kept going up every day. I think the final tally was about 80,000 killed. It was just this slow drip of horrible news. It was a national period of mourning. A week after the quake, there was a three-minute moment of silence for the victims. It was extraordinary to see this city of 20 million people just stop. Everybody just stood still. Trains stopped. Cars stopped. It was really chilling.
Exactly a week before the quake hit, I had been in Sichuan. And I signed up to be a volunteer there this summer, but I was never called. By the time I was available, they were looking for engineers and medical people. I think the initial feeling was huge support for China worldwide, and it kind of put all that Tibet stuff back in the box. But slowly this story about the schools emerged — thousands of the buildings that collapsed were schools, and thousands of parents around the province accused local officials and builders of having cut corners in school construction. This was getting front-page coverage in the New York Times but almost no coverage in the Chinese media. And so again, it was me talking to my students about what was right to cover and what wasn’t. It was their opinion that it wasn’t right to criticize the government during this period of mourning. Or they felt only Chinese could criticize China. They were very civil and polite all the time, but I do think they felt it was inappropriate for me to come to their country and criticize any aspect of it.
Meanwhile, Olympic mania was going full bore the entire time we were there. We went out to the westernmost province in China and those Fuwa mascots were still everywhere, on every corner, on billboards. In Beijing, it was building, building, building, and the day the games began, 8/8/08, was electric. The city was on pins and needles. Are they going to pull it off? And they did. They’ve been pretty much flawless games. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s a pretty dull story. They managed to pull everything off without any major drama.
I applaud the Chinese for a successful Olympic Games — not necessarily the government, which took draconian measures to make it happen, but average Chinese citizens who wanted to show off their country to the world with pride. I am glad that the world got to see some of what is wonderful about China, and I hope it will give the Chinese the confidence they need to continue to move forward and become accepted in the world community. But the veneer of the Olympic gloss needs to sink in deeper, and the Chinese government needs to do for its own people what it did for the Olympic tourists: clean up the air, improve living conditions, and treat its people with the respect, fairness, and dignity that every human being deserves, not just Western tourists.
In addition to teaching, Anne Donohue wrote articles about China for the Christian Science Monitor and contributed pieces on Olympics-related topics to WBUR and WGBH radio, including stories on the Olympic organizers’ claim that 90,000 taxi drivers in Beijing would be able to speak English; on the history and culture of sport in China; on the so-called wu shu schools, which groom very young children to be future Olympic superstars; and on whether the Olympics would be a democratizing force for China as it was for Korea after that country hosted the Olympics in 1988.
To read Donohue’s China travel blog, click here.
Chris Berdik can be reached at email@example.com Comments