Building better ties with China

SUN JOURNAL

Educator: Through film chats and her literature course, the former president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland offers her students a friendlier view of America.

May 26, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI -- One of the more popular classes this semester at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University isn't even in the course catalog.

Students call it "the movie lecture," but a better title might be: "Sneak Previews with Sister Kathleen."

Every Tuesday afternoon, as many as 100 eager Chinese students converge to hear Sister Kathleen Feeley, the 70-year-old former president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, chat informally about movies that many of them have never seen.

Never mind that Feeley wrote her dissertation on Flannery O'Connor and -- until recently -- saw only a couple of films a year. Recognizing that Hollywood has created an international language all its own, she has become a self-enforced movie buff, taking assiduous notes while watching videotapes of films such as "Braveheart" and pirated video compact discs of "Shakespeare in Love."

The results have been rewarding. Students have come away with more insight into Western culture and -- returning the favor -- they have shared their own by inviting her to dinner with their families.

"The students are my lifeline," says Feeley, moments after four of them have left her off-campus apartment following a half-hour conversation and English tutoring session last week. "I just love them."

Feeley's friendships with her students are among many she has forged since coming to China 10 months ago as a Fulbright fellow to teach graduate-level American literature. The program is designed to develop stronger ties and greater understanding between the world's most populous nation and its most powerful one.

It is an effort that seems all the more worthwhile in the wake of the NATO bombing this month of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. China's state-run news media portrayed the attack as deliberate, sparking the largest anti-Western protests here since the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and again bringing the striking differences between the two cultures into bold relief.

While some Western teachers in China encountered hostility after the bombing -- and a few left -- Feeley says relations with her students have remained cordial. She regrets, though, that she did not talk to them about it the first day back in class.

"I don't think I knew what to say," she says in a pained voice. "I didn't want to start making excuses. I didn't know how to open it up, so I just didn't do it."

Her graduate students, who have many nice things to say about Feeley and her teaching style, were puzzled that she did not address the bombing as some Western teachers and managers here felt obliged to do.

"We were wondering what professor was thinking, but she didn't say a thing," says Lynn Wang, 23, of Shanghai.

"Maybe she feels it is very difficult to discuss," says Henry Tang, 26, from Jiangsu Province on China's east coast.

For a woman of faith living in an officially atheistic nation that still harbors suspicion toward foreign missionaries, it has been a challenging and fascinating year. She has not told her students that she is a nun, but said she has tried to impart the message of Christ by setting a quiet example.

In addition to the movie lectures, she corrects a seemingly endless stream of essays and documents for Chinese friends and acquaintances. Continuing the traditions she emphasized during her 21 years as president of Notre Dame in Baltimore, she has adopted nontraditional students who are struggling to find their way in this city of more than 14 million.

Each week, Feeley tutors so-called "self-study" students, who failed the national college entrance exams but have come to Fudan to sit in on classes and teach themselves.

Last fall, when she met a 22-year-old student named Bovey -- the name is his own creation from the Chinese characters meaning "Outstanding Man" -- he could barely speak English. Since then, though, the sweet-natured young man has come a long way.

The pair now chat together for an hour or so each week with Feeley gently correcting his pronunciation and Bovey all smiles. In return, Bovey has cooked Chinese meals for Feeley and friends, taken her shopping for shoes and bargained on her behalf with merchants.

After classes end in late June, Feeley plans to spend a weekend with Bovey's family in his hometown, a 12-hour train ride from Shanghai. Bovey's ambition is to return home someday and teach English.

In teaching at Fudan, Feeley uses the same methods that served her at Notre Dame: encouragement, openness and firmness.

She arrives for her 8 a.m. American Literature class wearing a plaid skirt, an embroidered, white blouse with a Chinese-style collar, short-cropped gray hair and rimless glasses. Walking between the desks, she presses each of her 15 students to find the deeper meaning in "Her Lips Are Copper Wire," a passionate poem from the Harlem Renaissance.

"That's good, you worked in all the metaphors," she says, after one student gives a particularly thoughtful and thorough analysis.

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