Saturday, 6 December 2008

Was Kipling Right?

Rudyard Kipling famously said that "East is East and West is West and Never the twain shall meet" at a time when colonialism was the order of the day and jingoism was called patriotism. I used to hate these words when I was a child - especially having been in the charge of two Sri Lankan nannies from around the age of 6 weeks.

As I grew up I used to dismiss this saying as I dismissed everything that smacked of colonialism and, continuing to live in countries where I, a Caucasian, was part of the minority, used actually to take umbrage at it.

But lately I have been wondering whether I was too hasty in my repudiation of Kipling who, whatever his failings, had a genuine and abiding love and knowledge of India and the Indian people. I have begun to wonder, now that I have made up my mind to leave this University, if perhaps Kipling was more the pragmatist than the racist, and I the idealist rather than the humanist.

One of the reasons that impelled my decision to leave was the knowledge that, no matter how long I stayed here, or even if I made The Supreme Sacrifice, I should never be anything other than a Foreigner here. There have, over time, indeed been Westerners who were born, grown and educated here, spending their entire lives in service of their fellows and China rightly honours them. But always as Foreigners.

Although an entire generation has grown up since Expansion and Opening, China remains a land apart and, despite programmes to teach English, Cultural Exchanges, the Olympic Games, the Chinese continue to see themselves not as part of a global community, but as onlookers. It has taken a huge shift, and many years for them to welcome the rest of the world into their country but, since The Games, even the last of the die-hards has come to see the advantages of tourism and of attracting markets into what still remains the largest unknown bloc in the world. But how long will it take for the Chinese to see The West as a destination rather than as a source of visitors?

From students to taxi-drivers, office workers to labourers, the average person here delights in talking about their country, showing it off, explaining its history and heaping its culture upon visitors. Yet more and more I am realising what a one-way street this is. Their interest in The West, fueled almost exclusively by Hollywood block-busters, is no more than peripheral and, were it not for The Dream Machine, the average person would have as little knowledge of the countries outside of Asia as they had in the Ming Dynasty.

As a term paper this year, I have set four of my classes an Essay entitled East and West: Will they Ever Meet? and have outlined my expectations and the requirements necessary for them to complete this assignment. In an article entitled America is NOT The West ( I have tried to urge them to undertake a voyage of discovery by mentioning the geographical features, different cultures, unique sights and adventures which await them if they simply open a book or click their mouse. They have been given a month to prepare for this task and, to whet their appetites, I gave them all pamphlets to read that I had picked up overseas detailing the wealth of experiences, separate histories and cultures at the other end of the world.

With only one or two exceptions, however, they continue to rely on misapprehensions culled from Hollywood; things I have told them in class; or power points I've presented for their "knowledge" of the West. Indeed, several finished their essay on the day it was set without a single reference to guide them.

It could be argued, of course, that independent study is an alien concept to them, and that one cannot inculcate the habits of a lifetime of research into students in the space of one short semester. All this I am perfectly aware of. Yet I recall the research, the excitement and the professional and innovative presentations of which they were capable when the subject has been Chinese Modern Art, Chinese Music - Traditional and Contemporary, or Chinese Folk and Traditional Stories.

One cannot blame the students, of course for this lack of interest. It is one of those huge cultural divides which has caused me to reappraise my views on the quote with which I started this article. It is only when one spends some time here and is just getting to think one is gaining some insight into the culture, that one of these chasms yawns unexpectedly in front of one, and causes one, as Fagin did, to start reviewing the situation.

From the time the Celts started spreading out from their Northern forests to France, to England, to Spain and around the Mediterranean, Europe and The Continent have continually been trading with, conquering, invading, converting and marrying each other. Pedlars, jongleurs, and pilgrims have carried stories of strange sights and customs from country to country and traders have taken exotic goods, animals and even human cargo from one country to another. Crusaders brought back pictures and artifacts to the West, scholars have exchanged manuscripts and knowledge, and explorers and sailors have been sent off on voyages of discovery. Western countries have never known the isolation and self-sustainability that has characterised China throughout most of its past.

The pooling of knowledge and the arts which characterised those two great upheavals of The Renaissance and the Enlightenment by-passed China completely and the Industrial Revolution which saw the apogee of trade between all countries, did not extend here. All that The West brought in the wake of these great movements was the Opium Wars and the determination on China's part to shut out all foreigners even more securely than ever before.

The turbulent twentieth century saw China completely immersed in its own struggles which included famine and war and which turned her eyes more inward than ever. The three short decades since the historical decision to open to The West have encompassed change on a scale that has never before been experienced here and have been taken up with trying to drag an ailing, agrarian economy into the commercial world. Bringing The West to China has been the imperative that has impelled these changes: looking outward has not yet begun.

It will be argued perhaps that the thousands of students who increasingly set out to be educated in schools and universities in the West represents an outward surge. Yet a closer look reveals a different reality. Unprepared by parents or teachers, these students are sent off with inadequate language skills and are completely ignorant of the fact that they will be plunged into an educational schema that is as alien and incomprehensible to them as the societal mores or laws of the countries by which they will be expected to abide. Instead of broadening their horizons this experience has the effect of making them almost completely dependant upon each other and they turn inward for support in this complex environment. Many do not complete their course and those that do are often so traumatised by the experience that it has the opposite to the desired effect and makes them never want to travel again.

Colleagues at overseas universities tell of students arriving from China whose English is barely adequate even for travelling from the airport to their destination, let alone allowing them to follow lectures; and students who have gone overseas send me emails telling of black despair and thoughts of suicide. Twice only in the three years I have been at this university have I given prep classes to students and even then the courses have been of such short duration it is impossible to give them an adequate or comprehensive idea of what they will encounter. Indeed it would be impossible to do so even given more time as the majority of students consider such classes unnecessary and do not even show up, and of those that do, a high percentage do not have enough English to be able to understand what is being said.

I heard with envy the other day of a teacher who has been allowed to establish a compulsory department at his university for students who are going to study overseas. This ensures that students' language levels are at least adequate; prepares them culturally, societally and educationally; and also provides a support system they can access while they are away. I would give anything to be able to establish such a department here, but I know it is only a pipe dream. While the Old Guard continue themselves to have no conception of life in the West, it is impossible to impress upon them the need for such preparation - or even to persuade them to take the first steps of learning even some basic geographical locations and information.

Will the twain never meet, as Kipling insists? I would not be comfortable employing the word "never" - but I do realise that, this early in the Opening and Expansion experiment, the chances are very slim. I am also coming to see how, without some very radical changes to the current situation, unpreparedness and lack of understanding could still work against cultural understanding and respect between East and West even now, and the chasm which yawns before us now may even deepen further.