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UPDATED: October 10, 2011 NO. 41 OCTOBER 13, 2011
Finding Role Models

PASSPORT TO FREEDOM: Foreign educators in China are helping some of their aspiring students to plan their careers and navigate the world of knowledge (CNSPHOTO)

As a university educator, I employ literature as a guide for young women to navigate the field of choices. The educational gap by sex in China was wide in the late 1980s but has disappeared or moved in favor of women in recent years, said a UNESCO report. One of the country's educational goals is to eliminate gender disparities at all levels by 2015.

Fudan University, where I taught American poetry in 1986 and literature in 2007, admitted 3,871 students in 2006, and, according to a China Daily report, 52.3 percent were girls. It was the first time more girls than boys had been admitted to the university. Such new gender proportions could change the university itself. In addition to having a Gender Center, Fudan was planning to offer gender related courses at the English Department.

As for the young women in the translation and literature sections at Fudan, underperforming girls revealed some cultural and gender dissonance. One told me she really wanted to be a doctor, but her mother would not let her, insisting that she would never find a husband if she pursued the sciences. I encouraged her to talk with her parents.

In my courses, I try to introduce more stories by women, as role models, as I was teaching, predominantly girls. Along with reading select female authors, I included a section of "women written by men." Students take into consideration the viewpoint of feminist Simone de Beauvoir who espoused that women were more than their biological role, and needed to be represented more fairly by male authors, and that they also needed to be able to represent themselves in their own writing. Students very clearly see that stories by men about women result in different outcomes; in a male-dominated world, life happens to these women, rather than being determined by them. I employ the metaphor of women, like men who find the pen more powerful than the sword, find the pen more empowering than their needles, with which they sew and do embroidery.

Virginia Woolf used to be the only female author I could find in the textbooks in China. Reading To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway is now very resonant among students; I even reread The Waves after one of my graduate students took up the theme of the symbolism of "water" in Virginia Woolf's books. A major author unfamiliar to the Chinese students is Edith Wharton whom I introduce through The Age of Innocence, as well as her masterpiece, Ethan Frome, at Zhejiang University. The students responded well, to Ethan Frome, especially to a Berkshire mountain village life left out of the wealth of industrialization, and to the elliptical style Wharton uses in this novella, to collapse time, and to create multiple points of view. They were also fascinated by the introduction of a young girl, Mattie, into a discussion of the love triangle, with Zenobia and Ethan Frome, and are of course very sympathetic with Mattie because of their own youth. They learned to "read" symbols to find more amplification of the text, than a standard narrative summary, and to read encoded meaning of New England puritanism and of the inevitability of certain coded behaviors.

I enjoy, as an educator, working to help them find their way, as well as to raise their level of aspiration and performance. One of my prize pupils at Fudan always acted on every suggestion. She originally wanted to be an interpreter for the United Nations, so I helped her find a position with the only registered NGO in Shanghai, Roots and Shoots, and she translated one of their publications from English into Chinese, and worked with them for a full year. I proposed, however, that she raise her aspiration, and consider being a PhD project program manager for the UN, or even enter law. The next summer, she had an internship in a Shenzhen law firm. She won a place in a junior year program with UCLA, and with Georgetown in Washington, D.C.; she returned and enrolled in Pre-Law and is now starting Law School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, my alma mater. I could not be more proud of her; she makes all my teaching worthwhile.

Susan Sontag, author of Under the Sign of Saturn whose father died and was buried in China, makes a strong case for literature: "To have access to literature, world literature was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom." Sontag implies that literature of other cultures, in her time, Central Europe and the Caucasus, but now especially in China—provides readers freedom to think new thoughts, find new ways of feeling, and, even new ways of living out our own lives and of telling our own stories, enriched by the knowledge of our shared humanity.

The author is an American living in Nanjing

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