Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fulbright Comes to an End

At the end of June or so, the Fulbright faded away. With no official end to the program, no closing ceremony, simply the winding down of the semester, which itself in China just sort of stumbles to a close without quite the definitive commencement day or final exam week. They have those too, but they don’t seem to be strictly observed. And unlike my colleague Jill at Beijing Foreign Studies, they did not host nor roast me for a fare thee well goodbye. Alas. Of course, I am not going anywhere, as I decided to stay on as a visiting professor here at China Foreign Affairs University for one more semester. As a non-Fulbright, I had to negotiate my courses (supposed to teach six classes, negotiated down to four-I think) and my salary was basically set (around $1,000 per month plus free campus housing). So, after my upcoming work trip to East Timor, pleasure stop in Bali, and family tour across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa, I will start again at the end of August. I will teach “Academic Writing”, a sort of methods class for juniors to prepare them to write their senior thesis, and one graduate International Law class. Pretty satisfied with that arrangement, though my schedule is Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, not optimal for weekend traveling.

As for some final thoughts, I guess my big experiences were the numerous media appearances (my last two on the Supreme Court health care ruling:; and US naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean:, the guest lectures around the country, and then the teaching experience here at the Foreign Ministry’s school; in that order. Associated with that, was some great chances to interact with the U.S. Embassy functions, and our great organizer Nathan.

As for the media, I have had very little time to watch tv. Among the most popular are dating shows, generally where a stage of 24 young women are looking for life partners and one young man arrives to ask them questions and vice versa. The point of the show is more than a casual hookup but rather finding a spouse, thus the females in particular are very picky, especially concerning income, not so much on looks. Rarely does a match occur. Of course, across the multitude of national CCTV channels are ‘feel-good military movies’ as Jill’s son Kenny opined, and martial arts flicks, dynastic period pieces, daily life dramas, sports, culture, and the like, mixed with more dynamic provincial channels received by satellite. I can only speak to CCTV News, the one English language channel among all the options. I have always found the international news to be very objective and informative, with an emphasis on reporting news rather than the punditry and commentary of American media. Of course, virtually nothing looks critically at internal issues in China, at least sensitive ones. In essence, the one comment I would make is that domestic media coverage in the United States is very good in that any scandal involving a public figure will be exposed; we know widely what is going on across America. However we know very little what is going on overseas, our coverage of foreign affairs is dismal and getting worse. Only some notorious and salacious story like Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba or the exchange student in Italy attracts much attention, and again it manages to demean whatever country it covers with imagined inferiorities to the great American corresponding systems (i.e. the judiciary or police). In China, it is much the opposite, the foreign affairs news seems to be quite informative about a wide spectrum of international events, particularly political; though domestic news coverage is silent on popular protests, ethnic tensions, systemic corruption, and the like.

Nevertheless, I have greatly enjoyed my opportunities to comment on seemingly obscure crises over U.S. military exercises in the Asia Pacific region to major issues like Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s burgeoning civil war. I have tried my best to represent my own independent opinion along with what I understand to be the common or official American position, in an often interesting and contentious dialogue with guests from China and often the country’s involved in a topic (Iran, Russia, etc.). I also have enjoyed adapting to new situations, when to look into the camera and when not to, preparing for talking points and outlines and going on the fly with no preparation. The 30 minute format with several guests, lead-ins, and satellite feeds has taught me to say what I want to say when given the chance to speak even if it does not exactly fit the question. I cannot recall if it was Bill Clinton, but I try to keep in mind the adage to ‘answer the question you wished they had asked’ while also trying to always give direct answers and not vacillate or talk in generality. Essentially, I have decided if I am sufficiently informed on a topic to give my own point of view, if I feel the area is outside of my expertise I will research the U.S. position and try to reflect that the best I can for the show and audience who want to understand American positions and attitudes. The hour long radio show, usually hosted jointly by an American and Chinese more tightly follows a set of questions, and allows for more deeper considerations and has a more relaxed feel (since no one is watching, though not that many actually watch the CCTV English channel either). I have greatly appreciated the chance there to discuss American political issues. Judge as you will, but i will struggle to break from this media exposure back to my (no offense to any Sacramentans) dull life in Sacramento.

In summary, the Fulbright has been the best professional experience of my life. It is a fantastic opportunity for American and Chinese scholars and students to exchange views and ideas and conduct significant research. It also decidedly fulfills the foreign policy purpose of enhancing American public diplomacy, promoting mutual understanding between China and the United States, and facilitating the type of people-to-people exchange that builds trust and confidence between the peoples of both countries. As such, the emphasis on personal and cultural exchange is woven into the fabric of public consciousness helping to alleviate the animosity and fears that sometimes arise in U.S.-China relations. As a taxpayer in both countries, I feel confident that the money collectively put in by both governments is well worth it. To quickly summarize a story I often tell in my guest lectures; as a teenager in the late days of the Cold War, I greatly feared the threat of a confrontation with the Soviet Union, of a nuclear exchange leading to an Armageddon, of perhaps even remotely a Soviet invasion of the American homeland as depicted in the film Reds. Other movies like Rocky IV imagined the disciplined, martial, perfectly trained (and built up on steroids) Soviet soldier of Ivan Drago (Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren) that were far superior to our plucky, under-sized Italian Stallion who could only compete by sheer force of will. It was not until university that my professors of Russian history and communist political systems greatly changed my understanding of the Russian military and society (not quite as fearsome as I had imagined from my teachers in high school). Many Americans don’t have the chance to study in college or take such courses, and at that time the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in almost no trade, had only fleeting contacts between leaders in the long Cold War, and had almost no cultural or educational exchanges. I never met a Russian or Soviet citizen in my childhood in Iowa. But that is not true when it comes to U.S.-China relations. Countless student exchanges, sports events, tourist encounters, not to mention the enormous commercial relationships and diplomatic meetings, not the least of which is the interactions provided by the Fulbright program that allowed me to give lectures to what I estimate to be about 2,000 students across China, and presumably millions of viewers and listeners to radio and tv. This small part of American foreign policy is well worth the price, and I hope the U.S. Congress sees fit to maintain full funding of what should be a high priority across the world, and certainly with countries like Pakistan, China, and Russia where sensitivities could undermine the necessity of positive strategic relationships.

Although my Fulbright has officially ended, I will likely keep blogging through to 2013 as my stay here is an extension of the opportunity provided by the U.S. Department of State through its generous funding my year in China, now a year and a half.