Sunday, July 31, 2016

“How Was China?: Views And Vignettes From A Chinese Women’s College”

“Starry-eyed Victoria, the sentimental girl who had given me the Tang dynasty poem, had already shown signs of decline when I encountered her as a third-year student in 2003. … ‘Victoria! What happened to you?’ I inquired after I witnessed her sitting listlessly, day after day, in the back of the class. ‘Oh, teacher,’ she wailed, ‘I have lost my passionate!’”

Victoria, speaking in halting English, was one of Dodie Johnston’s students at Hwa Nan College for Women in China, “in a mid-sized city on the east coast, facing Taiwan.” Students at the trade school came to learn English, and each took on an English name (English instructors, who had come from abroad, found Chinese pronunciation difficult.)

Johnston traveled from her home in Grass Valley to Hwa Nan beginning in 2000 (she would return for five teaching semesters over the next decade). “Like Victoria,” she writes in her affecting memoir of Hwa Nan, “I had ‘lost my passionate.’ I needed to walk a different path as I entered my sixth decade. … Teaching English as a Foreign Language at Hwa Nan College was a tonic for my deflating self-esteem and lost sense of direction.”

In response to many who asked, “How Was China?: Views And Vignettes From A Chinese Women’s College” ($14 in paperback from CreateSpace) provides a nuanced answer that combines the history of the school, the lives of its students, and Johnston’s own experiences in the local neighborhoods into a work of “creative nonfiction.”

Johnston’s is a strong authorial voice, guiding readers into traditional Chinese culture, the impact of Mao’s reign (which shut down the school established by missionaries) and the re-emergence of Hwa Nan as a secular college.

Consider: There was no indoor plumbing in 2000, so squatting over holes was the order of the day; “toilet paper was not provided in most public toilets so we all carried our own.” Rural life in the area was crumbling; “when I told my 2000-20001 students I was from a small rural town in the foothills of northern California, they cringed with sympathy and condolence.”

Readers will be captivated by Johnston’s homage to Hwa Nan.

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