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Monday, May 5, 2014

pop-we Reviews Yin-Yang American Perspectives on Living in China

Do you feel China’s Pull? Then, you will be in good company when you read between the covers of Yin-Yang American Perspectives on Living in China. The preface by one of the editors, Alice Renouf relates how receptive China has become in the past few years to Westerners living in their country compared to when the Colorado China Council (CCC) started sending Americans to teach English in Chinese Universities in 1991. It is a sequel to Dear Alice: Letters Home From Americans Learning to Live in China. It is quite lovely to read her viewpoints on the changes in China she observed firsthand and through letters and later emails over the years.

Renouf contacted Mary Beth Ryan-Maher to see if she would do the tireless work of editing the 10 years of emails. She had been a former CCC teacher and a co-director of CCC Shanghai Summer TESL Institute. Ms. Ryan- Maher and I were in the same grade at Marian High School in Omaha, NE. In 12th grade, we both had a gifted teacher who made The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and the Chinese Village in pre-WWI come alive. Of course, high school shapes your world view in so many ways and it has been wonderful to compare notes with her about her high school experience and teachers. She really admired teaches from Marian High and credits them with providing some of her motivation for wanting to explore the world and to teach. I have a memory of Ms. Ryan-Maher sitting very attentively two aisles away from me in the same row in religion class during our 12th grade year. On occasion when she spoke in class, it was in a very respectful manner. Given the emphasis in Asian culture on respect for elders, I would think she would be well received by the people of China.

My desire to immerse myself into this book was heightened by reading Devin Thorpe’s Your Mark on The World. Find out for yourself and read my review on Thorpe's book here. This book had some interesting insights into Chinese culture as Thorpe’s worked in China and some of the charity work featured in his book takes place in China.

Yin-Yang American Perspectives on Living in China did not disappoint! How I wish I had written more descriptive journal entries and letters after reading from this book. There are such beautiful and poignant passages. Amusing moments and touching moments abound. I loved experiencing different facets of China and regions that I had never heard about. The pull that the country holds for the teachers is so evident. Some teachers were of Chinese ancestry and went there to connect with their heritage and family still living there. The book is organized to help the reader experience many aspects of living in China from the initial observations to the reflections of those nearing departure. Ryan-Maher provides a cohesive thread by inserting transitional background information throughout the book.

Ms. Ryan-Maher shares her experiences in a Q and A below:

Q.  What were your impressions of China prior to visiting there the first time?

A.  I really didn’t know what to expect. What minimal knowledge I had was based on U.S. news media, which is rarely positive, and novels set in pre-modern China. I wasn’t sure what we would be able to buy, what we would eat. Naively, I wasn’t particularly worried about China-U.S. relations or how that might affect people’s perceptions of us although we arrived only a few months after the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (May 1999). Needless to say, that was a sore spot among Chinese and still is. One of the mothers in the book Yin-Yang writes how all her worries and fears about China never materialized. I must say that it wasn’t easy at first, but it exceeded my expectations in every way.

Q.  What were your initial impressions of China?

A.  My initial impression was Wow. We were living in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Southwest China, which in the scope of China and Chinese cities is considered a small backwater town. It was more than 3 million people! There was tons of commercial activity: stores, vendors, markets, neon signs, taxis everywhere, bicycles, buses. By U.S. standards, it’s a major city. It’s almost as large as Los Angeles, the second largest city in U.S. I was also so stunned by the natural beauty of Yunnan Province. Being from Nebraska, I was delighted to see corn growing!

Q.  From what I gather in reading the introductions to the book, it was a huge undertaking to read the emails spanning the time the students taught English in China and edit them for publication, “Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China” What was it like for you to read the emails of the students and decide which ones to share in the book?

A.  Yes, it was a major undertaking. Alice Renouf, the director of the Colorado China Council, saved all of these emails (from basically about 10 years) from teachers she had placed in universities in China. For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed reading all those emails. They brought back many memories. Some emails were from folks my husband and I “trained” in the Summer Institute in Shanghai in August before they started their teaching assignments. It was great to read about their experiences. Of course, tone is so hard to read in emails. And email is not necessarily the best venue for introspection and insight. The emails selected had to resonate with me and/or Alice in some way in order to be included. Some of the writers are great storytellers. Some emails are a bit superficial but are included because they lend themselves to capturing the day-to-day rhythm of life and unique celebrations like National Day. We didn’t always agree with the all writers’ opinion, but we still included them to show various interpretations and experiences. We also had to track down the authors to get permission to use their emails in the book. Of course, we couldn’t find everyone, and we had to leave some good ones out.

Q.  As someone who has co-led the Colorado China Council’s Shanghai Summer Institute for new teachers do you have advice for anyone considering either teaching or working in China for a period of time?

A.  Number 1, of course, is read Yin Yang! Number 2 is to learn some Chinese. Robert and I took a 20-hour crash course in Chinese before we left and found a tutor soon after our arrival. It really helps, and if you try, people will help you.

Q.  I liked how you gave the different settings in China with some important landmarks or facts to correspond with the appropriate emails that matched that section. What places in China are most near and dear to your heart?

A.  We were fortunate to visit many parts of China in our year there and in subsequent summer visits. The city of Kunming where we taught and the towns of Yunnan Province are most dear to my heart, particularly Yuanyang for its remarkable rice terraces, Lijiang for its Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the hiking trail along Tiger Leaping Gorge above the Yangtze River, and Zhongdian located in the foothills of the Himalayas with the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Yunnan County. Many people don’t realize the cultural diversity in China. The majority is Han and people know about Tibetans, but there are 56 distinct ethnic groups. Yunnan Province is home to 25.

Q.  In what ways do you think Confucius thought still permeates Chinese thought and culture?

A.  We visited Qufu, the hometown of Confucius, and Brian E. Lewis writes about his visit to the Confucius temple there in Yin Yang with both awe and disappointment (disappointment in terms of the lack of reverence for the site by the mobs of tourists). The popularity of Confucius’ teachings have waxed and waned in China throughout its long history, but it is nonetheless an ever-present and undeniable influence. In my extremely simplified understanding of it, Confucian values are about harmony: family harmony, social harmony and political harmony. One of the first books I read after returning to the U.S. from China was Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West (Random House, 1999) by Washington Post journalist, T.R. Reid, who lived in Japan for five years with his family. The book credits Confucius’ influence for much of the success of the “Asian Century” not so much economically but socially.

Q.  Is there anything else you would like to share?

   1. China is both the most beautiful and most brutal place I have ever been.

   2. “Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.” ~ Confucius

   3. A great book of essays about China today is China in Ten Words (Vintage, 2012) by Yu Hua.

Thank you so much, Mary Beth Ryan-Maher! I know from our correspondence that your feelings for China are deep. Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China can be found on and all other online book outlets. This book is a great resource for someone like me who wanted to vicariously experience living in China. It is also an excellent choice for those who are considering moving there or who have lived there and want to recapture some memories.

-population-we™ blog post by  Barb Bohan
© 2014 population-we, LLC 
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