Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Fulbright Tag Team

Due to some weather-induced rescheduling, Glenn Mott and I had the opportunity to deliver lectures together at Northeastern University in Shenyang. This turned out to be a combination I personally would have enjoyed taking on the road several times over the course of the year. There was enough overlap in our respective interests in journalism and politics to give the students a kind of continuous narrative. Yet, at the same time, there was enough that was distinctive in our topics, so the students did not hear things that were truly repetitive.

For me, the highlight of the two days was when Glenn initiated a conversation with the audience on the idea of failure in China. Sitting there in the audience, I listened as the conversation kept coming back to the ancient master Li Bai, who failed on the straight and normal path of administrative service to the imperial court and subsequently carved out on an alternative lifestyle as a poet.

What struck me was how difficult it was for all of us to sustain a discussion where the examples came not from past history but from contemporary outcasts, people who do not neatly fit into the "get rich, don't make trouble" version of success that permeates the China of today. What about Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire in opposition to central government policies? What about petitioners who descend upon Beijing by the thousands, complaining that their farm land has been taken without just compensation in order to make room for factories? What about environmental activists around the country who protest major dam projects like Three Gorges?

What Glenn and the audience taught me over the two days is that I really need to shut up and listen to what others have to say. We often come from different perspectives on sensitive issues, that is a given. Can I stop talking long enough to learn why we interpret the same events in such contrasting ways?

~Steve

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