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Society & Culture

Tootle Goes to China: Red Flags Real and Imagined

Oct 03, 2013

In a classic American children’s book, Tootle is a baby locomotive attending train school.  He is taught to stay on the rails no matter what. He must pay no attention to the interesting meadows along the tracks. When his instructor Bill discovers that Tootle likes to play in the meadow, he devises a way to bring him back to the rails. Red flags pop up in the grasses everywhere and the only green flag is in the hand of Bill. Tootle learns the lesson and stays on the rails no matter what. 

American study abroad programs in China sometimes make Tootle out of the students: they must stay on the rails no matter what. The justification is that they are in China, not any other country, which will not tolerate curiosity of American students. Like Tootle, they see only green flag held up by the program operator. Only if they knew that the Chinese are not planted in the fields raising red flags to scare them, they would experience China as a much friendlier place. 

I taught a research seminar and a course on Modern Chinese History this past spring in the Beijing Center, a study-abroad program of Loyola University Chicago located in the University of International Business and Economics.  The American students, most of them third-year undergraduates, are prohibited from conducting impromptu interviews, making informal surveys or publishing while in China, lest they run into trouble with China’s regimented system of information control. This kind of self-censorship is unwarranted. In China’s Tsinghua University, where I taught for six years, foreign students were encouraged to send their commentaries to English language newspapers such as China Daily and Global Times. Editors of these publications welcome different voices to enliven the Opinion Page. What could go wrong if a young American student comments on how co-eds embrace the globalized image of feminine beauty or Chinese yuppies take on organic food? I used to tell the foreign students not to be afraid of expressing themselves. Like writing for any publications, there are editorial rules and guidelines. For fledgling young writers, many topics await them to explore; there are more they can put their hands on than those considered off-limit. The students usually are thrilled to see their by-lined commentaries published. 

For foreign study abroad programs, Chinese educational authorities are quite laid back once giving their approval. Program operators usually run a quick calculation to set their parameters. A lot is based on their perception and second-guessing. This is no different from study abroad programs in any country. “Because we are in China” is a convenient excuse to slap on more rules and restrictions, some of which are totally arbitrary bordering on paranoia. By preemptively compromising themselves to stay in the good graces of China, the exchange programs reinforce the stereotype of China as a police state. Sadly for the students, they are deprived of a wide range of meaningful experience while studying in China. They should be allowed to test the limit and find out for themselves that China may not be as terrible as the officious rules make it out to be. 

It is time for foreign administrators to stop blaming the perceived pressure from outside and recognize that their self-imposed limit is impoverishing the study abroad programs.   

Nailene Chou Wiest is a visiting professor in the School of Communication and Design of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China.

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