Why Am I a Passionist teaching in Chongqing, China?

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by Robert Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

October 15, 2008
Introduction to this essay: In the doldrums of February 2008, I got an email from Passionist Overseas Missions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania requesting that I write an article about my teaching experience for publication in their newsletter. I jumped at the chance for several reasons. First, Brother Leo DiFiore, C.P. and long time staff members Judy Amrhein and Beth Sabin have been steadfast in their promotion and fund-raising for the Passionist missionaries in the Philippines, Jamaica, West Indies, Honduras, and more recently Haiti. Second, right from the start they encouraged me to teach in China. But most important was the fact that their request for an article allowed me to summarize, for the first time after several months in China, what it was like to teach my students. Even though I found it hard to make generalizations about my teaching experience, I knew that it had to be done. I wanted to share my inspiration and my routine. Finally, my last reason for writing the short essay was a conscious decision for those who support Passionist Overseas Missions to think about missions in a new way. That new way was to read about me as a Passionist in Chongqing. Yes, as a Passionist I was llinked to a past experience of Passionist missionaries in China that, by the 1950s, was dominated by suffering under Communism. But I was in a new moment. In the end I wanted those who supported Passionist Overseas Missions to know how I found hope in Communist China from 2007 to 2008. While I could have easily spoken about my struggles as a teacher, the fact was that my teaching was freeing me and, I hoped, my students. I wanted that to come through in my essay, which was finally published in the Passionist Overseas Missions Newsletter (Summer 2008).

On September 3, 2007 I started my year of teaching in Chongqing, China. Why am I a Passionist teaching in China? I was motivated by the Passionists who came to China as missionaries from 1920 to 1955. During the 1970s, when China was closed to the outside world because of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Passionist Father Linus Lombard, told me “Let China love you.” Even though Father Lombard had gone to China in the 1930s and had endured Chinese house arrest in 1950s he still had hope for the people of China. His open heart and love of the Gospel inspired me to open my heart and mind as well. In 1992 I received my Ph.D, in American and East Asian history from Georgetown University and learned basic Chinese. For the last seven years have been Historian and Director of the Passionist Historical Archives.

Second, I am teaching in China because respect for learning and culture is an international value. All over the world students desire to learn English. So, with the assistance of Aitece, a facilitating organization based in Hong Kong which recruits and places teachers and other experts in China, I made the decision to teach for a year in China.

Third, my teaching in China brings to life the Passionist witness to help carry the cross of those who are suffering to learn. I know this understanding of the cross may surprise you. However, students all over the world feel like they are carrying a heavy cross when they enter a classroom. This cross gets heavier for some when they have to study a second language. As a teacher I believe I can make the cross of a student lighter. Moreover I hope my teaching can resurrect the heart and spirit of my students and instill in them peace, self-respect. To be successful I must have a passion to teach. To be successful I rely on basic support of the Passionists. To be successful the Passionists rely on your prayers and financial donations. This means that every time I walk into my classroom at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU) located here in Chongqing you are with me. This is a unique international relationship and witness to bring about peaceful learning in a world which too often lacks peace.

Good Morning Class
I teach as a member of the SISU English Department. From September 2007 through January 2008 I taught three different one and one half hour classes-all in English. The most demanding was International Relations “hot topics” to about 60 students. I lectured on pollution, the War in Iraq, world wide business, world religions, mental health, the 2008 Olympics, and my image of China in the world of today. United States history and culture to about 150 students was my second class. This included one class lecture on Canadian, English and Australian history and culture. Finally, I taught five classes of spoken English. Each class had about 25 students. From March through July 2008 I have taught six classes of spoken English. And in April I gave a large group lecture on “An Introduction to the US elections.”

A Little Bit Better Everyday
At the start of every class I write “a little bit better everyday”, “imagination” and “critical thinking” on the blackboard. The first phrase is said by my mother. After her stroke five years ago she has had to relearn how to speak English. I believe the last two points are necessary to develop the hope and skill to speak English as a second language. I always tell the students to learn from their books and speak English from their heart and use their imagination and not be afraid when they talk. They should have pride in what they say and examine an issue from many sides. I always tell them that critical thinking is not complaining. Rather, with imagination, critical thinking can offer a way for people to talk and work together for a personal and common good. I think this way of thinking instills faith and self-respect in the lives of a student and makes them responsible citizens in China who have respect for a world wide view on life events.

The Faith of a Teacher
Since 1989 I have visited China six times. I speak basic Chinese. This is the first time I have lived in China. While it is true that foreigners have to respect government regulations on religious activity, it is also true that the religious faith of the Chinese people is alive and slowly growing. Without problem I attend the Catholic Church in Chongqing and have met the priests and people. When my sister and I visited Chinese Catholic Churches in Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai during the February 2008 Chinese New Year we were able to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, see a wedding take place, and go out to dinner with a Shanghai priest who was a student of mine in Chicago. In many ways Chinese Catholics are like American Catholics. They love their local church, say their prayers, and draw great hope that they are like Catholics throughout the world.

Finally, I think my teaching in China reminds Passionists and those who know them that there are many diverse ways to live and teach Gospel values. No matter where you and I live we have the opportunity to use our knowledge and talent to lift the heavy cross of suffering that we see day to day. I hope my presence and teaching in China allows my students the chance to practice basic English skills with a passion and personal peace. For me teaching in China is a dream come true and I have every hope that it will free my students and people I meet to live out their dream.