In the fall, 1997, issue of Bridgewater magazine, the
cover story was about Dr. Nancy Street's four trips to the Peoples Republic of China. The
following is that story.
"A Trip to the Other Side of the Moon"
In the fall of 1986, that was how Dr. Nancy Street described her just- completed, year-long stay in the People's Republic of China (PRC) after she and three BSC students - Helene Baldino, '87, Mary Azar, '87, and Steve Ricci, '87 - returned home to Bridgewater after participating in the college's first exchange program with Shanxi Teachers University,which is located in a poor, remote part of China that had been previously dosed to Westerners.
They were the first group from Bridgewater to go to China as part of an exchange agreement the college had with the university in the latter part of the 1980s.
As they were heading to Shanxi, a group of Chinese students and faculty were on their way to Bridgewater. "It is so totally different one cannot even imagine it," said Dr. Street in an interview when she came back to the college that September, now eleven years ago.
"I had absolutely no idea of what it would be like to go there. Inevitably, you take a lot of assumptions into another world and, suddenly, the old world isn't there anymore. And you're on the other side of the moon in terms of the way their world, their life, is structured."
Dr. Street was then, as she is now, a member of the faculty in the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre Arts at Bridgewater (she is currently chairperson of the department).
As the first member of the BSC faculty to travel to China
to teach at Shanxi, she had looked on the opportunity as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
"I had always wanted to go to, China, but it's something I thought I'd never be able
to do,' Dr. Street said in that 1986 interview.
Nor did she think she would be going back anytime soon, if ever.
But Dr. Street has gone back to China - so far, three more times.
She returned to Shanxi Teachers University for a semester in September, 1988, and two years later, in 1990, she made a six-week tour of the country, sponsored by a Fulbright-Hayes Group Study grant.
Her fourth trip to China took place this past spring and
summer - a five-month journey that included a teaching assignment at Southeast University
in Nanjing and visits to other universities in the Nanjing area.
"While life in the United States hasn't changed all
that much since 1985, in Mainland China life has changed a great deal since then,"
says Dr. Street. "I feel privileged to have seen China at various stages of, what is
the ongoing transformation of a great society and a great people."
Dr. Street has accumulated a wealth of experiences during these four trips to the PRC and has published two books, one devoted completely to her first two visits to China and the second with chapters based on her extensive first-hand knowledge of the country and its political movements.
In Search of Red Buddha, published in 1992, was described by Professor Donald Fishman of Boston College as a 'vivid account of the history, culture, geography and ideology of China, particularly the Cultural Revolution."
The book describes her experiences as an American professor in China and her perspectives on how that natiows changing economic and political conditions have affected its people.
Dr. Street's second book, Messages from the
Underground: Transnational Radio in Resistance and Solidarity, co-authored with Dr.
Marilyn Matelski of Boston College, explores how people are called into resistance and/or solidarity through the medium of
Case studies in the book document the influence of the Voice of
America, BBC, Vatican
Radio, and the relatively new Radio Free Asia/ Asia Pacific Network in shaping the destiny of world societies at the end of the twentieth century (including the pro-democracy movement in China in the spring of 1989 which was suppressed violently by the government during the so-called Tiananmen Square Uprising).
Now, a major focus of her professional life is developing closer
ties between Bridgewater and universities in China. "I came back from this most
recent visit con- vinced there are many ways that Bridgewater could develop joint exchange
programs with leading colleges in China that would benefit students and facfflty here and
there," she says.
"My goal is to help facilitate these arrangements in any way that I can."
Shortly after Dr. Street returned to Bridgewater from her most recent stay in China, she was asked about the changes she has witnessed and the people to whom she
has devel- oped such close ties.
Is there much of a difference, Dr. Street was asked, in the China she saw upon her arrival last February from the China she had seen during past trips there? 'In terms of its physical appear- ance, Beijing seemed much the same to me," Dr. Street replies. "In terms of the people, for the most part they still don't drive cars and instead ride bicycles. But the people riding the bicycles look totally different,' she says.
"They no longer wear the blue cotton Mao suits and baggy,
army- green jackets and trousers. In fact, they dress very fashionably. The fashions you
see in America now you also see on the streets of China's main cities, and people are
really into dressing well and colorfully." There are other differences too, she says.
"People in Beijing no longer stare at foreigners the way they used to," she replies, "nor do they ask to 'change money.' China has done away with the old two currency system, a real contribution to economic stability and equality, putting an end to 'black market' money exchanges with foreigners.
'I remember when I first arrived in Beijing twelve years ago. It
was August and it was hot. There seemed to be peasants everywhere, squatting in the
blazing sun and staring
at us. First, I couldn't believe how all of these people could sit in such uncomfortable positions, but that was their way of resting because they had no chairs - it was either that or sit on the ground. Later I found out that this was a traditional way for Chinese to rest. Second, looking out at this sea of faces, all staring at us because we were foreigners, made us feel odd. That's what I most remember about arriving in Beijing a dozen years ago."
Foreigners are no longer novel- ties in Beijing or other major Chinese cities, Dr. Street says, but they still attract attention in the countryside where life is still relatively primitive, at least by Western standards.
"During this trip, when I made a visit to the countryside - to Xingua City and Gaoyou City - these places in wealthy Jiangsu Province reminded me very, very much of the city of Linfen, in Shanxi Province, where Shanxi Teachers University is located," Dr. Street recalls.
"In 1997, the people were dressed much the same as they had been in 1985, uniforms
of blue or green trouser suits. Unlike Beijing and Nanjing, manual labor still
predominates in cities such as these - the streets are filled with people carrying dual
water buckets and/or construction materials on long poles across their shoulders. And as
happened so often in Linfen in 1985, the people would gather in large crowds to stare at
Dr. Street's most recent book, Messages from the Underground: Transnational Radio in Resistance and Solidarity, describes how the Voice of America was once very influential among Chinese citizens, but follow- ing the Tiananmen Square uprising in June, 1989 - when the govem- ment used brute force to end a rebellion by dissident students - VOA lost much of that influence. Why?
'Throughout much of the 1980s, and to some extent even before that, what the Chinese people knew of the world outside of China came from listening to radio broadcasts of the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation. In particular, they believed in VOA,' she explains.
"But following Tiananmen Square, they no longer believed VOA as much because it was often inaccurate in its reports, which the Chinese government hastened to point out. As a result, today by and large the people are listening more to their own government." Why is this so? "Because the improved economy and technological development inspire confidence in the people, as in the United States," she says.
Dr. Street says the students with whom she had contact were puzzled by what they
perceive as America's hostility toward China.
"Many of the students I encountered were confused about why the United States is so hard on China," she says. "There is among Chinese students today a bewilderment about 'what is wrong with America? Why does the United States seem to deal so harshly with China?' They just don't get it."
What sources of information are available to give them this impression?
"American news magazines - which were virtually non-existent in China when I first went there - are readily available," answers Dr. Street. "University libraries stock the most recent editions of Time and Newsweek, and they often carry stories about friction between China and the U.S."
What are the sources of friction between the United States and China?
"This is something that's irnpor- tant for us to remember," she says. "China has been in a turmoil for the past 150 years. Wartime invasions, revolution and internal upheaval dominate the story of China in the twentieth century. Stability has only come to China in the most recent decades, so there has been a lot of work to be done in restoring the functions of the most basic institu- tions, which the Chinese have been working very hard to do."
The Cultural Revolution, which Chairman Mao unleashed in the 1960s, set the country back severely, says Dr. Street.
"Even after the Communists came to power in 1949, their leader, Mao Zedong, who is hailed as a great revolutionary leader through- out the Third World, wa's a man of narrow background and virtually no personal knowledge of life outside of China. Mao was not at all worldly in the sense of other Chinese leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, both of whom had traveled widely and lived in foreign countries.
'Mao was a man of peasant background," she continues, "and during his reign he had the Chinese people doing some foolish things, such as making iron 'm their back- yards. And,it was Mao, of course, who unleashed the Cultural Revolu- tion, which nearly sent the country into the dark ages. All education stopped for nearly ten years, families were torn apart, and the country suffered. So he can rightly be criticized for many misguided acts and policies."
But Dr. Street believes that Western governments also made mistakes in dealing with China, mistakes that led the Chinese government to accelerate its increas- ingly inward turn.
"Mao is often accused of closing the doors to China, of trying to keep the West out of China. In my opinion the situation iswt as simple as that," she says. 'In the early 1950s the United States and its allies worked hard to keep the People's Republic of China out of the United Nations, favoring the government of Taiwan -Nationalist China' - for a seat in the UN and as a veto- holding member of the UN's Security Council."
The Chinese are a proud people, says Dr. Street. "They have long memories for slights."
As a result of an ages-old propensity and of being shunned by other nations, mainland China withdrew into itself. "China became more and more insular, and that became even worse during the Cultural Revolution when there was so little contact with the outside world," she explains.
That period of isolation is now over, she says. "The return of Hong Kong to Mainland Chinese control this summer was a pivotal point," Dr. Street believes.
"Even before this, one could see that China was growing more confident in its relations with foreign countries, especially the West. When the British formally relinquished their authority over Hong Kong, to the average Chinese this was a hugely symbolic gesture, reinforcing in their minds how far China has come in less than 50 years to restoring its dignity, honor and prestige."
As to the attitudes of conternporary Chinese students, Dr. Street says they have an outlook on the world that has little resemblance to the students she encountered in China in the 1980s.
"Without question, there is a big difference between the attitudes of Chinese students one meets now compared to the students I met in Linfen twelve years a " states Dr. Street. 'This is a quite different student population. Back in 1985, those students had grown up during the Cultural Revolution, and they were a whole different breed than today's Chinese students who, first, don't know much about the Cultural Revolution, and, second, don't want to know much about the Cultural Revolution - that happened to their parents, not them. I found myself in the very odd position of remembering a past they did not remember, and having to adjust mentally to dealing with the young who see themsleves and China's place in the world much differently than their elders, thanks to the new educational and economic policies of the Chinese government."