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Do you have student pen pals in other countries?

posted: 11.13.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Some 18 months ago, I spent three weeks lecturing in Beijing. I didn’t want to lecture, but they—quietly and patiently and persistently—insisted. So I delivered ten lectures on rhetoric and writing, most of them to the faculty. But on one occasion, my hosts took me to the large undergraduate campus, and I had a chance to speak to students—an intimidatingly large group that day. I talked about the history of rhetoric as an art of action, and about the power of language in our lives. I knew only a few words of Mandarin, and so I was careful to speak slowly and enunciate my English words as carefully as I could, and I was grateful to the students for listening and for responding, delighted when question after question came my way. After the lecture, I reflected on the fact that while those in the audience were primarily male, the majority of the questions came from young women, a number of whom stayed after the lecture to talk. Indeed, I began to notice some of these young women in the lectures I was giving to faculty, which meant that they had taken a very long bus ride from their campus to attend. So I began looking out for them and eventually met with three who came most often.

Though they never said as much, what I felt was that they wanted contact with an older woman who held agency, at least in their eyes. As we talked, they asked me about my teaching career, about how one “advanced” in that career, and eventually they asked whether I would write to them when I got back to California: “we want to work on our English writing,” they said.  “Yes,” I said, wondering if I would hear from them again.

I did hear from all three, but one of them, “Angela,” I’ll call her, has kept up frequent contact, writing first to ask if she could tell me her “stories” and “dreams.” I have read and re-read these emails, reading of the anguish and conflict she feels between what she thinks she may want and what her parents want (insist on) for her. She recently wrote that she believes millions of young women in China are struggling with the same tensions: their families want them to be educated, but as they grow more educated and more open to new ideas, they begin to question some traditional values (such as “marriage to a successful businessman,” which Angela says is absolutely expected)—and then their parents are very displeased with them. “I feel in a trap,” Angela wrote, and “cannot know to go one way or the other.”

So rather than helping improve fluency in English, I have found myself trying to respond to my pen pal’s questions and dilemmas—and her dreams, which lately are leading her to contemplate more autonomy, more agency. It’s a dangerous game she’s playing, and she knows it. Indeed, she knows it is not a game, but her life and future, and so do I. I received another long message about her attempts to make friends with a small group of Japanese students, about the language barriers they are struggling with, and about whether she will be allowed to be “really great friends” with one of the male students. I am struggling with barriers of my own, trying to find ways to respond with empathy and careful listening but without imposing my own values on her narrative.

I’m wondering how many other writing teachers out there are in similar cross-cultural conversations. My guess is that students like Angela turn more often to us than to teachers of math or science or philosophy, first because we form a bond through writing itself, and second because we are more likely to practice rhetorical listening than those in other fields. So I will continue to weave the written thread that connects Angela and me, even as I worry that the weaving I am doing is clumsy at best. If you have advice or experiences to share, I’m all ears!

[Photo: Chinese Mailbox by Michael Lusk, on flickr]

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