“…the best account of being a foreign teacher in China I know.” Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is a Love Story
I began this project after reading blog posts on WordPress by I. J. Khanewala ( Don’t hold your breath). I saw photos of my “Chinese hometown” — Guangzhou where I lived and worked as a Foreign Expert in English in 1982/83. He wrote about everything he saw, the food he ate, the transportation, his hotel, and he mentioned that he wished he knew what the city was like before modernization. I badly wanted to tell him. That inspired me, finally, to scan the hundreds of 35 mm slides my ex-husband, Jim Richardson, and I took that year. Many had faded out of recognition. Others had shifted on the color spectrum to Warholian silkscreens, but the rest were clear, evocative of the year that defined me as a teacher and as a person.
I also realized from Mr. Khanewala’s photos that I had seen the beginnings of this incredible change. Riding my bike from the village where my university was located I rode on the bed of what would become a major freeway. Such an eventuality was so far from the day-to-day reality in which I lived, that I couldn’t imagine the modernization in which, in truth, I had a part.
Out of that experience came As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, an anecdotal look at my experiences as a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teacher’s University in Guangzhou (Canton).
My blogging pal’s photos showed me the “after” pictures to my “before” photographs. I was struck most by his photos of the “Pearl River New Town” with its shops, malls, museums, elaborate communal squares, parks. That was where I lived, and in 1982 it was farms and villages.
In 1982, even in a city historically as cosmopolitan as Guangzhou, there was only a handful of non-Asian foreigners. China had been “open” for only a short time, and even then the “openness” was relative.
My position as a Foreign Expert in English was my first real teaching job in a career that spanned more than thirty years. I’d been a Teaching Assistant at the University of Denver where I’d earned my MA, and I’d volunteered for several years at an adult literacy program in Denver, but I had never been officially hired as a university instructor. I was pretty young — 31 — and not very experienced — not as a teacher or as a “citizen of the world.” My journey to the People’s Republic of China was my first foray into the wider world. My knowledge of China and its history, modern and ancient, was limited. I could never have imagined China would be a destination in my life, but it was.
And at such a moment in history! Chairman Mao had been dead only six years. The evil Gang of Four had been “tried” only the year before. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still close in everyone’s memory, and people feared that the post-Mao moment of comparative freedom was a random blip. Deng Xiao Ping was determined that China would modernize and enter the world as a competitor. Every single penny of foreign exchange that came to China was used to buy technology to further China’s modernization. I was one of those “bits of technology,” too.
Propelled by a consuming wanderlust, I took my ignorance and inexperience with me, and ended up receiving some of life’s great gifts. My students’ diligence, curiosity and courage inspired me, and, in turn, I inspired them. The bridge between our cultures was a shared love of poetry and beautiful language. As for China? China was the great love of my life.
As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is available as a paper back with full color illustrations, in an economical black and white paper back version, and in Kindle from Amazon. You can also contact the author (who might cut you a good deal!) It is also available at other online booksellers. It is also available at the Narrow Gauge Newsstand in Alamosa, Colorado.