Final Reflection from Chongqing, China, July 25, 2008

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by Robert Carbonneau, C.P.

October 15, 2008
Introduction to this essay: There was a sense of peace when I wrote this short essay. I was conscious and most grateful for the fascinating year I had teaching at SISU. At the end of the semester I had been asked to stay and teach for a second year but for the most part I knew that the correct choice was to return to the United States. The most prominent aspect of this short reflection was my sense of trying to begin to appreciate what I had learned having had the opportunity to teach in Chongqing for one year. A secondary and real dimension at this time was reflective anxiety associated with the variety of ways that I could continue to teach myself and others about my experience in China and additional travels to Vietnam in February 2008 and the Philippines in July 2008. The essay was written and sent out as an email from Chongqing on July 25, 2008.

Tomorrow morning I leave Chongqing. It is my last evening here at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU). My year of teaching and living here has come to a successful end. Two days ago I went for a walk around the old city wall area of Chongqing. I walked past the historic remains of the French-sponsored hospital and a local operating Catholic church. In the early 1940s Passionist Fathers Cormac Shanahan and Caspar Caulfield lived and walked these same streets. This knowledge has been a comfort for me this past year.

Making sense of my year long experience will take time. Understanding my daily life in class with students; traveling on congested buses; watching heavy industrial cranes that look like skyline birds build a new Chongqing city before my eyes; walking along side a sea of people; speaking and listening to various dialects; and of course, eating hot and spicy Sichuan food fostered a sense of inclusion and exclusion often at the very same moment.

In the days, months, and years ahead I will ponder the impact of the kind and generous people I met. So many times their presence served to blunt the omnipresent reality of the Chinese government that had the capability to suddenly “block” a CNN news story or mobilize the army for search and rescue after the May 12, 2008 earthquake. Since my first trip to China in 1989 I have seen constant growth and modernization. In my classes my students try to articulate their dreams. I think I successfully gave them confidence to speak English and employ imagination and critical thinking. Many of these students were one year old when I first came to China and because almost all are from one child families the pressure of independent success often clashes with genuine respect for parents. In one year I gained greater respect for the nuances faced by this present generation.

Yet a walk outside the school gate allowed me to see industrious and hard working people in shops or those who constantly sift through trash for reusable plastic which they carry in large bundles. There a human world of recycling was in constant motion. On most days from noon to 2:30 p.m. these hard working people played a card game called “kill the landlord” or played mahjong. Others slept. Cell phone use was constant. With radar precision I joined in with the many people who crossed busy streets in between the buses and new Chinese middle and upper class that own their own cars.

Less easy to articulate is the religious dimension of my experience. I suspect most people will wish to be skeptical when I tell them that the Catholic Church and interest in religion continues to slowly grow. I had good experiences with church leaders here. In the last month I met long time Catholic leaders from the former Passionist area of west Hunan and in the next several days will be the guest of Rose Wang and her family. Her grandfather was the catechist for the Passionist mission in Yuanling, China. As time went on students asked questions about religion and some began to worship at local churches. Still other students, in candor, came to me and asked advice on how to deal with some American foreigners who were going around our campus and were trying to promote their Christian faith and use of the Bible.

Students, unaware of my vocation, sought out my ability to honestly bring peace to their dilemma. In turn, I told them they could seek religious understanding in books and I encouraged them to visit the Chinese Catholic and Protestant churches. I spoke with Muslim students and had some heartfelt conversations with some students with connections to Tibet. My advice was to remember to be always open and if they wish, learn to express their faith in their Chinese situation. I reminded them that the study of Chinese history had taught me that foreigners will come and go but a Chinese expression of belief is a gift that they will have to develop. This will assist them to live a life of compassion and peace in their own way. By expressing faith and belief in in this manner they could help build their Chinese society and and also become part of the world pulse of religion. This last aspect was the source of much prayer and patience for me. This was a key component of how I listened and talked with people.

In the year ahead there is every possibility that I will be part of a joint scholarly venture with Communist Party officials who wish to investigate the role of the Sino-American Cooperation Organization under General Milton E. Miles. During the early 1940s the Chinese-American training camp was located on the mountain behind the present SISU campus. The Party offers historical tours free of charge now; in fact all government museums are now free. Correspondingly the modernization of these museums has meant options for scholarly dialogue has increased. In this spirit, the Party wishes me to be part of a scholarly visit to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. This is a great cross-cultural opportunity to pursue in that it will test my knowledge and diplomatic skills.

My year in Asia has opened my mind to the continued Passionist presence that has a past history and vibrant future. My year here makes me one of an increasing number of Passionists who have worked and lived here. More will come, I suspect, and I see the challenge of China before them. In turn I suggest Passionist province leadership throughout the world might encourage venues of cooperative learning and reflection. China can easily enhance the lone ranger mentality, but a successful presence might be a means of letting go cooperation.

Second, I had the chance to see Passionists in Vietnam. There are marked similarities and differences between religious in China and Vietnam that means increased reflection. Third, I had a great visit this July to the Philippines. Passionists there let me visit almost all of the ministry sites and gain a unique view of the fifty year relationship between St. Paul of the Cross and the present Passionists. All these examples make me appreciate the role of history and archives. Used wisely the archives anchor memory and sound critical and still unused critical thinking that can be a creative source of Passionist compassion and cultural dialogue which has many future possibilities.

Finally, the sun has now set here. I have completed my year here. Thank you for your prayers and support. I have felt this and look forward to seeing you all after my August 4 return.