Beijing Foreign Studies University – Susan M. Rigdon – China 1992

In August of 1992, I took up residence at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) as a Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies. The remnants of the actions taken against department faculty for supporting the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 were still in place. There, troops had been stationed in the building that housed American Studies, while faculty members had been detained and questioned with some of them placed under house arrest. When I arrived, several faculty members were not allowed to resume teaching duties.

I was there primarily to teach courses in American government and politics for graduate students, including a seminar on the 1992 presidential election, and a course for undergraduates on comparative democratic governments. I took with me c-span videos showing proceedings in various European parliaments and footage from the presidential nominating conventions. The only pushback I received concerned Bill Clinton’s 1992 acceptance speech in which he denounced dictators from “Baghdad to Beijing.” This clearly made BFSU’s Fulbright liaison uncomfortable and he gently suggested that I not show it. I did not want to make trouble for the liaison, whom I liked enormously, but USIS assured me that I was allowed to show it. And I did, without repercussions as far as I know for anyone in American Studies. The liaison received a Fulbright to study in the U.S the following year.

The situation was quite different than I had experienced during the 1989-90 academic year at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies that was established by an agreement between universities, rather than governments. The school year began just three months after the Tiananmen massacre, the country was under martial law, and some grad students were still under interrogation, but no member of the Center’s Chinese administration ever interfered with any aspect of instruction. The experience was different from that at BFSU because Fulbright lecturers were required to live in housing for foreign experts whereas at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center all Chinese and American faculty in residence lived on two floors of the same building and the graduate students (with foreign and Chinese room-sharing) on the floor below us. We all took meals in the same cafeteria and traveled together– requirements of the cultural exchange. In Nanjing I got to know graduate students much better than at BFSU, but at BFSU I got to know Chinese colleagues better than in Nanjing.

One way I got to know BFSU colleagues was attending meetings of the Women’s Studies group. This was a vigorous group with interesting presentations and outside participants.

The strongest memory of my time at BFSU was how the Chinese faculty worked together in productive and cordial relationships after having been in intense opposition years earlier. During the Cultural Revolution, some had suffered through brutal interrogations and self-criticism sessions, often led by colleagues. Whatever hurt or bitterness that created between interrogated and interrogators had been buried by the time I met them. I did ask a few faculty I knew best how they managed it but got a shrug of shoulders. It’s how it was and is and one just got on with it.

When I went back about five years later to spend a month writing with a BFSU colleague, I found the formerly quiet campus surrounded by urban construction, with most of the small shops at its entrance either closed or have moved. The atmosphere was substantially different, with evidence of an ad for a “Mao Dress Ball” displayed on a campus billboard.

Susan M. Rigdon – Fulbright to China 1992

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