USIA Fulbright Scholar in Hong Kong



To quote Emily Dickinson (my major academic focus), in this Fulbright year I "dwell in Possibilit[ies]." It is a "fairer house than Prose," prose being the Minnesota world I left. Without slighting my home university, I must say that in many ways, this one is "more numerous of Windows,/ Superior--for Doors," the windows and doors being the multitudinous opportunities for academic and personal growth. To use another Dickinson word, I am "out upon Circumference" on the learning curve.

Yes, I came to teach, and have been doing that at a hefty clip: last semester I taught two classes of my own and participated vigorously in two team-taught classes. This semester's load is somewhat less heavy but the travel will be brisker and I'm embarked with another Hong Kong Fulbrighter in a project which will occur in March. My own load last semester consisted of a class of 30 Second Year students in Early American literature. Considering that our study of classic texts such as The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible coincided with some pretty amazing activities in the White House and Congress, the responses of the students were witty and wise. The other class was one we called "Performing Ethnicities," in which we looked at texts by most of the "hyphenated American" writers, the students' favorite being Fae Ng's Bone, a slim but beautifully written novel set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Again, the students responded to the ways that community paralleled and differed from their own. Team teaching had its own rewards, not least was learning from colleagues. The one I'm still working with is the Second Year Foundations in American Studies, one in which the student teacher ratio is almost that of mentors: five or six regular lecturers to 25 students. The other one has been supplanted by a class of my own at the same period, but it was interesting as well: 225 First Year students in the Introduction to Literature class. Trying to explain Feminist Criticism in 50 minutes and in a sloped amphitheater and later working in that forum with some intimate Welty and O'Connor stories challenged me in ways I had not been challenged since graduate school.

Teaching WAS learning, and outside of the classroom there was plenty of that as well. During the semester I also took part in the several seminars on campus in which papers are presented for faculty and graduate students. For the English Department I shared my work on Dickinson's "Fascicles"; for the History Department the presentation included Dickinson but was much more focussed on the intellectual (revolutionary) contributions of a number of American "Scribbling Women" in the Nineteenth Century. Hearing the work of others in these two departments and in Contemporary Literature--papers which ranged from American diplomatic and military history to theories of Umberto Eco and the Chinese reception of Oscar Wilde, and much, much more helped to nudge me toward that circumference on the learning curve, as has all the contact with the fine faculty here at Hong Kong University.

This is a most hospitable intellectual climate. Colleagues in American Studies, chaired by Gordon Slethaug and composed of a varied group of Americans, have made me one of them in more ways than in the classroom. Each of them has made me a guest in his or her home, as has Robert Laing, the Public Affairs Officer of the Consulate--many times and always delightfully. In fact, Rob and his colleague, Lance Sung, and their support staff were the first to explain the mysteries and joys of living in an island city of this complexity and have been helpful in large and small ways every week of this process.

Contacts widen daily: those beyond the American Studies community in this University, particularly several colleagues in the History Department, have literally showered me with hospitality, information on where to shop, whom to see when I travel, and substantive household items such as quilts and curtains. By the way, the housing provided the Fulbrighter at Hong Kong University is quite spectacular. The apartment is perched on the sea; one might be in another of the many ships passing in twinkling processions all day and night. In the silent night one can almost hear the conversations on those other ghostly ships and small fishing boats entering the harbor. Past Fulbrighters and present colleagues have furnished the one bedroom, one study flat conveniently. It is a good place to work, entertain, and rest.

Resting is minimal in a place with such stimulation. Beyond the considerable amount of academic stimulation at this, the flagship English-speaking university in the area, there is much beyond. Networking with those in the other universities has happened naturally and easily through contacts with other Fulbrighters, with friends from past lives (mine and theirs), and with Mark Sheldon at the Hong Kong-American Center. In fact, this week here are two ways my students and I will benefit from collaborations across campuses. You may know that there is a superb Faulkner collection at the Chinese University, left by a previous Fulbrighter, the distinguished Faulknerian James Meriwether. On Saturday my current literature class (American Lit. III--Modernism to Postmodernism) and I will spend the morning looking through its treasures (manuscripts of Faulkner's film scripts and novels, the most complete collection of articles, historical documents, for example) and meeting the curators of the collection. Also this weekend I will have tea with two poet/ professors, the Chair of the English Department of Chinese University Andrew Parkin and the Senior Professor in Linguistics at Lignon University, Laurence Wong; they have collaborated on a collection of poems which should be circulated much more widely than it is, but I am interested in their process as much as in in their product. My own Dickinson research on her "Fascicles" includes interviews with contemporary poets on their work and educated guesses as to what she might have been up to. Andrew and Laurence will be included in my work. Another productive collaboration has been that with Glenn Shive at the Chinese University and the Hong Kong American Center. Along with Mark Sheldon, the Consulate USIS office, and our colleagues at a number of universities, we are planning a Film Festival for past, current, and future American Studies students. If you visit us on a Wednesday in March, we welcome you to "American Myths; American Movies.

These are samples of the ways work and pleasure overlap, scholarship being continually enhanced by the presence of so many other dedicated scholars in a wide range of academic areas. Thanks to colleagues here and a small travel grant arranged through the Consulate, I was able to participate in an international literature conference in Bangkok two weeks ago. During this second semester I hope also to meet with academics in Vietnam, in Taiwan, and in a number of Chinese cities, including Harbin. The latter is an interesting story, one with which I will (almost) end. One of the ways I have met like-minded individuals around the world is an Emily Dickinson chat line called the "emweb." For several years I have been interested in two participants. One, Bonnie Poon, turned out to be a high school students who is busy applying to excellent universities in America but who already knows more about Dickinson than most university professors of English. Meeting her and planning a visit to her classroom has been a delight. The other is Dr. Bai Jinpeng, Professor at Harbin's Heilongjiang University. If we can work things out--and Thomas Hodges, Public Affairs Officer in the Shenyang Consulate is helping with this--I will meet with Jinpeng'students and colleagues in May. I hope to do the same with academics in Shanghai and Beijing during the same period.

All of this--and much simpler things such as negotiating the bus and ferry system, finding and "bagging" necessary items, getting to know local and ex-patriate families--has been aided by the kind colleagues and Consulate contacts I have mentioned. The one disaster was solely my fault. It is a cautionary tale worth passing on, and with it I truly will end. Early in my term I planned a trip to Shanghai, partly to visit my son, a graduate student there, and partly to meet with contacts at Fudan arranged through my host university. It was a trip to which I looked forward eagerly, and all went well until I met the immigration officers at the Shanghai airport who pointed out to me that my visa, one obtained at great effort the summer before my departure and one which had never been used, was three days out of date. No conversation, no mediating kindliness, no telephone calls made the rapid departure back to Hong Kong (on the same plane from which I had just de-planed) easier. While my son spent the day looking all over Shanghai for me and wondering how his mother had evaporated, I spent the rest of the day in some distress. Even this little version of being "Shanghaid" or "given the 'bum's rush'" ended happily, however, as I obtained (at considerable expense) an "emergency visa" for the next day.

What one learns from such mistakes (and, of course, there have been others) is how many, many people around the world live on a daily basis within rigid systems and with rules they do not understand. Added to the thousands of friendly encounters with kind citizens who give bus directions, of heady meetings with brilliant tri-lingual academic counterparts, of treks on beautiful mountains, of fish dinners overlooking rosy sunsets and the gathering neon blossoms of Hong Kong, this year is one of almost unlimited "possibilities" for something that goes far, far beyond "prose." As a literary person with a penchant for theories of the "romantic," I call this my "Year Elsewhere," but one which will mark my teaching and writing when I do return to the more solid, real, prosey world of advising and committee work which is the lot of the non-Fulbright American professor. Thank you for the part the Washington office plays in all of this. Let me know if I may be of any help from this end in the Fulbright program. You are right to be "tremendously proud" of it; I have met many predecessors on e-mail, have met all my fellow Hong Kong Fulbrighters, and have met those who have or currently are researching, teaching, producing plays in other countries. That remarkable Senator from Arkansas, whom I remember well from his brave stands in Congress, should be pleased--wherever in "possibility" he now dwells--of the program which bears his name.

Eleanor
Hong Kong
January 1999

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