In China: On the World We Want to Build

By Trevor H. Paul.

Tianjin, China.   I came to China just over eight months ago to provide an American education experience for Chinese students in Tianjin.  Since then I have had the opportunity to become the director of U-Excel International Academy and to develop a program that assists Chinese students in attending universities and high schools in America.  Our role as an institution is to educate and by educating to make the relationship between China, the United States, and the world better for everyone.  However, we are facing immense challenges to that dream.

Just over a month ago a despicable individual attempted to assault a Chinese girl in Beijing and was, thankfully, stopped by local passersby.  In our U-Excel office, the foreign teaching staff, having learned the would-be assaulter was a westerner, were disgusted.  As educators, people who genuinely want to bring western education and experiences to Chinese students for their benefit, we were appalled.

Before that event, American presidential candidate Mitt Romney had expressed his disappointment in current President Barack Obama’s “soft” attitude towards China.  Romney declared he would “get tough” on China and American relations with the country.  As an American living and working in Tianjin and very happy with my relationship with the country and her citizens I was not pleased by this attitude.

The response which President Obama has made to these accusations, specifically the maneuvering of the American navy in the Pacific in an act that directly challenges China’s rightful authority in the region, also left me feeling frustrated.  All of these events, seemingly unrelated, highlight further the need for U-Excel’s greater goal: cultural exchange between China and the west.  This is not a one-way street either, though at this time U-Excel can only hope to assist Chinese students who wish to better understand western culture and thought.  Still, we face the very real challenge of our representation to China, which is increasing negative and confrontational.  Westerners are often seen as ignorant and uninterested in China’s people and her heritage, looking out solely for our own interests.

And yet that very misconception was countered in our conversation after the tragic attack in Beijing.  Our foreign teaching staff was sitting in our office voicing our support for the people of Beijing (and consequently of China) who stood up for the girl by forcibly stopping the westerner from committing such a heinous act.  We would have done the same had we been present.  The conversation drifted to our frustration with foreigners in China who do not make any effort to understand China or her people and culture.  This is not to say that we understand it completely, but we know enough to realize what we do not understand and to respect all of the cultural nuances, both known and unknown.  In short, we are guests in this country and we aim to behave respectfully.

Still, the rhetoric, particularly from my own homeland, has been at best vaguely worried by China’s growing power and influence upon the world.  This is distressing, but certainly not irreversible.  As a student and subsequently a teacher of history I have concluded that most conflicts around the world stem from lack of understanding and indifference to the values of other cultures.  Americans need to begin trying to understand Chinese culture, history, and values.  U-Excel wants to do more than educate Chinese students using the American system, we want to mold students that can communicate with American counterparts and share their culture and views eloquently.  We are taking this step, which I firmly believe is the first one to greater world cooperation, and I am left wondering why America is not pursuing the same sort of program.

To be fair, many collegiate Americans have sought educational experiences in China, but I fear they are beginning their studies too late.  Students at U-Excel are younger, their ideas are fresh and their minds are free to develop intercultural concepts that will better both nations.  At worst, they are going to be extremely well educated.  Well educated people typically do not commit crimes as hideous as the assault in Beijing, nor do they make blanket, aggressive statements about nations and people they do not understand.  The world is a better place the more China and America share their ways of thinking with one another.

So as we sat there, lamenting the behavior of a man who, however much we might dislike it, reflects back upon our culture negatively, we remained hopeful.  Our staff believes strongly in what we are doing and the education we are offering our students.  I believe personally that it not only is of the highest quality but also serves a greater purpose.  I am constantly impressed and proud of the students who have worked so hard in our program.  I want to send them to America to prove to my own country that they have so much to offer and, by extension, so does China.

I fervently hope that the rhetoric from the American presidential election does not continue to speak so negatively about China.  Ignorance and wide-ranging declarations only serve to further the poor representation foreigners have, at the moment, in a country many of us respect and think very highly of.  That day we eventually moved on from our shame at the actions of one man in Beijing.  We moved on because we had to.  We cannot change the behavior of a terrible individual or the words of men half a world away, but we can provide the best educational experience for students that come through the door and subsequently make their lives and, hopefully, the world better.  That’s the dream of U-Excel, even in the face of a tense international atmosphere, and it always will be.

Trevor H. Paul graduated from Wheaton College in 2008 with degrees in history and literature.  He is currently the Academic Director and social studies teacher for U-Excel International Academy in Tianjin, China.  He has happily lived in Tianjin for over eight months and plans to stay as long as he is welcome.

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Originally published in The Daily Kos, June 28, 2012.

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