Building a Bridge Between China and the U.S.

The following is a guest post by Bob Eckhart, who will be the American director of the Wuhan University–Ohio State University Center for American Culture.

As the United States and China eye each other warily across the Pacific, a new effort is putting universities at the forefront of cultural understanding between the nations—and making sure that the American narrative in China isn’t dominated by “Friends” and “Desperate Housewives.”

This week the U.S. Department of State will award 10 grants to universities to establish American cultural centers and programs in China, including one that will go to Ohio State University.

“The U.S.-China relationship is one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships. A great deal of work remains to be done in fostering mutual understanding between the peoples of the two nations,” says the grant announcement.

Junping Liu, left, and Bob Eckhart will jointly lead a new American cultural center in China.

It goes on to mention the presence of Confucius Institutes on American college campuses (more than 70, I’ve heard), as well as the fact that despite Chinese national education policy requiring the study of English, “there is no equivalent understanding and appreciation for the strength and diversity of American culture and society.”

The State Department set aside $1-million to support new American centers and/or virtual programming which would “seek to help promote greater understanding of the United States among the Chinese public.”

Before you complain about U.S. tax dollars again entering the Cold War realm of soft-power and propaganda, think about whether you really want Hollywood painting the picture of America that China views most often. With Western entertainment one of China’s most sought after imports, will Chinese people think New York City looks like Central Perk or that suburban life is similar to Wisteria Lane? It is important that we tell our story in China, much the same way China is telling their story here. And what better way to tell it than through the strength and diversity that institutions of higher education can offer.

With a $100,000 grant from the State Department, Ohio State will work with Wuhan University to create a center for American culture that will offer limited programs this year with a full start next September.

Ohio State has worked with Wuhan University for the last seven years, offering a summer language and culture institute on its campus for first-year college students; with this background, we seemed a perfect fit to apply for the grant. But now that we’ve received it, the real work—and questioning—begins. How to foster mutual understanding? How to improve the most important bilateral relationship in the world? How to present both an image of the United States that is honest and true, while at the same time consistent with the State Department’s vision of fostering an appreciation for the strength and diversity of the country.

The answer is: it should be easy—as long as we keep it real. Real teachers with real interests, skills, and enthusiasm who are teaching real activities from American daily life. Starting with the summer of 2004, we have recruited and trained almost 150 teachers to go to Wuhan and teach classroom topics in contemporary American culture, and in the evenings, we offer extracurriculars that are as diverse as our teachers: cheerleading, football, self-defense for girls, cookie-baking, Campfire Club, basketball, Southwestern storytelling, Spanish for beginners, kickball, board games, wiffleball, square dance, hip hop, the Halle Berry workout, poetry and rap, comedy improv …  the list goes on. And this is just what we taught in three weeks last summer.

These were real activities taught by real Americans who were gay, straight, white, black, atheist, evangelical, Jewish, Buddhist, male, female, tall, short, young, old, and everything in-between. And the truth is, no matter whom we’ve recruited and trained, the Chinese students have welcomed them with open arms. This is how to teach an appreciation for the strength and diversity of America. We post a list of activities on the signboard in the lobby of our classroom building at the beginning of the week, and the students show up — 150 to play wiffleball, 75 to strike targets in self-defense class, 125 to stumble through Spanish greetings, 200 to sing songs and tell spooky stories at Campfire Club. No free pizza; no extra credit for showing up.

The new center will expand and build upon this model. Instead of three or four activities each night during the summer, we’ll eventually have three or four activities each week during the academic year. They might be led by an American teacher who is on campus throughout the academic year; they might be led by Chinese students or teachers we’ve hosted in Ohio on exchange programs and who learned the necessary skills.

If you’ve ever been to China, or even if you haven’t, you know that it’s half-a-world away. Sure, Beijing is worldly and cosmopolitan, and Shanghai has neon that makes Las Vegas look dull. But even in those places, and in particular outside of the major cities, the story being told about America has been told by Hollywood. Now it will be told by U.S. colleges and universities and we’ll have to wait and see how we do.

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