Reflections on Teaching in Chongqing, 2007-2008

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By Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. in China

Chongqing, China: Ghosts from the Past and Inspiration for the Present

On August 31, 2007, I landed at Jiangbei airport outside Chongqing, China. Through the overhanging mist and pollution of the Yangzi River, I saw large, pulsating, neon advertising signs. As I got into the waiting car with my luggage, I found myself seeking consolation from past Passionist and Chinese history. First, I said a silent prayer to Passionist Fathers Cormac Shanahan (1899-1987) and Caspar Caulfield (1908-1993). I sought their wisdom since they both lived in Chongqing (Chungking) during the 1940s when it was the war-time capital of the Chinese Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-shek. Next, the more I spoke Chinese, the more my confidence increased. I thanked myself for all those years of studying Chinese language and history. By 10 P.M. I was unpacking my luggage in my campus apartment at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU) in Chongqing. I was now an expert foreign teacher. My site placement had been coordinated by the AITECE (Association for International Teaching Educational and Curriculum Exchange) Teachers Program. AITECE places teachers in Chinese universities. I sent my resume and AITECE made contact with SISU, which concentrates on language studies.

The next day, September 1 at 10 A.M., a representative of the SISU English Department welcomed me with the news that two days later, Monday, September 3, from 8:30 to 10 P.M., I would commence teaching international relations “hot topics” to about 80 students. On Tuesday, September 4, from 12:30 to 2 P.M., I would begin lectures on U.S. history (with one class on modern Canadian, English, and Australian history) to about 150 students. Then, two weeks later, I was to start my Spoken English class for five sections of freshmen SISU students—about 25 students per class.

Meet My Students

The spoken English classes for freshmen allowed me some fascinating moments. Almost 90 percent of my students were girls because modern Chinese culture supports the idea that girls will go into teaching, so English language skills would be useful. Others, of course, hope to use English for business and have a good job for themselves. At least 20 percent of my students have a brother or sister, but the rest are from single child families. Chinese students love their parents and extended family. They were always on time for class and polite. Steeped in Confucian tradition, teachers still command respect. Even today the Chinese education system, especially on the pre-university level, promotes memorization. Chinese students have to endure many tests. Generally, students do want to succeed in school and are excited to have a foreign English teacher. All students select a foreign name in the language they study. My students selected names such as Cloud, Number 26, YoYo, or Andrew. Honestly, while these freshmen students spoke English better than I expected, I still faced many individual challenges as a teacher.

The story of three students (I will not use their real names) will help you understand my experience. Fortune, a quiet boy, usually offered me a kind smile when I asked him to speak English. With calm consistency I told him I wanted to see him do more than smile, I wanted to hear him speak! Ever so slowly he gained confidence. By the time the semester came to an end, he still always smiled, but in class he had developed skills that let him offer personal opinions and speak with his classmates. Outside of class, he walked up to me and had an English conversation about what he will eat and the events of the day. Approximately 10 percent of my students were like him. Teaching them is very important and personal. Crystal is another student. She always offered her opinion. With ease, she spoke about the Internet, U.S. movies, and world wide news events. She used new vocabulary in group discussion. She was confident in role-playing as a businesswoman or news reporter. She was like 80 percent of my students they were like intellectual sponges. All these students were not shy in that they knew the best way to learn was to speak, listen, write, and use English whenever possible. They enjoyed English and worked hard. The last 10 percent of students were the smartest. They were like Kobe. I found them in my class, or I sometimes met them on the SISU campus or even in the city of Chongqing. They all had motivation to speak their mind or just walk up to me and ask for help with English. Their perseverance to learn and desire to take on special projects or debates actually challenged and inspired me. Students’ questions made a walk around the SISU campus or a bus ride into downtown Chongqing a memorable experience. So many of these students had a passion to study and overcome any personal cross which prevented them from learning English. They saw language and learning as an adventure.

Only once was my lecture content censored. In the spring of 2008, I was asked to give a presentation on “American Culture and Heath Care” at the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing. In sum, my plan was to include a short, contextual segment on religion as part of American society and hospital care. However, I was respectfully told that I could not discuss the role of religion at an institution under direct authority of the Party officials. After an honorable debate, I decided to substitute the role of religion with the idea of seeking peace. In the end, all went well. This incident served as a reminder to me that I was a guest in China and, in addition, how important it was to understand what that means in the public educational and social sphere. In retrospect, I do not think I felt myself being oppressed through this incident. Rather, I felt frustrated with what I felt was select control. It was like someone was telling me what clothes to wear. They were very hospitable; in the end the clothes would fit nicely, but they were just not going to be my preferred style. It would be their style.

Two other talks proved engaging. One was at Zheng Da Software and Technical College, Chongqing on December 12, 2007. The topic was “Computers in Everyday American Life.” The other was in Spring 2008 at the Number 8 Middle School in the Shapingba area of Chongqing where I spoke on “Five Ways to Understand America.” By far, however, my most challenging lecture was in late June 2008 when I stretched my mind, experience and intellect to reflect on “How to Seek World Knowledge.” I remember one question being what I thought the difference was between citizenship of one’s country and world citizenship. To be honest, I am not sure of my response. I was just intrigued by the question and am still reflecting on the issue!

The Classroom Outside the Classroom

As mountainous as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Chongqing municipality proper has about 4 million people. The larger Chongqing government economic zone for the Yangzi River valley developed in support of the Three Gorges Dam Project has a least 31 million. This confluence of people and interests meant I was in the middle of a sightseeing adventure. I had the opportunity to practice my basic Mandarin with locals who usually spoke Chongqing and other dialects. Many times, a ride on a congested bus, a walk along a street in a sea of people, or a stroll down a side alley made me feel like I was in a time capsule. At some moments I was looking at Chongqing as it was in the 1920s. At other moments I was brought back to modern reality by looking up and across the horizon to see a flock of heavy industrial cranes that looked like skyline birds. Chongqing was being destroyed and rebuilt before my eyes in an era of modernization. Fortunately, I had no problem eating the spicy Sichuan foods and world famous Chongqing “hot pot.”

I never grew tired of watching the famous “bang bang” men of Chongqing. For 5 to 10 Chinese Yuan—it depends on the distance: $1 US was just under 7 Yuan—these men carried the heavy loads of others whether it was boxes or even heavy equipment. They simply attached the goods to their bamboo poles placed them strategically on their shoulders and walked the material to the destination. They waited in the hot sun or constant drizzle of rain for a customer, running after the many city buses hoping that when the doors opened someone with a heavy load would need their services. They are unique and historic to Chongqing in that they represent, even today, how hard work remains the backbone of the Chinese economy. I came to respect them. They have a hard life.

Then, there was the May 12, 2008, earthquake. My second floor classroom walls shook; the floor moved beneath my feet. It seemed to last about 20 to 30 seconds. Our class evacuated. Some of the SISU classroom structures cracked or lost tiles. Fortunately, no one was injured. Aftershocks continued for the next several weeks. In the end, the most damage was too our psyche. Then, for months after, I witnessed an historic event. The Chinese media broadcast news of people’s suffering to promote “live” compassion. This fostered unity and brought a level of needed healing to the entire nation. This technological transparency contrasted with the 1989 pre-Tiananmen Square media clamp-down I witnessed in person in Hunan province, as well as the blunt, omnipresent reality of the Chinese government over the past 2007 academic year whereby I encountered blocked websites, or selected CNN International news stories that dealt with Tibet or an overall negative image of China broadcast by the foreign press. Censorship exists.

Uniquely, my position as an historian led me to develop a working relationship with the Party leadership at the Hongyan Historic Sites in Chongqing. They promote Chinese historical understanding during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945). In the future there is every possibility that I will be part of a joint scholarly venture that will have the Chinese historians come to the National Archives in College Park in order to research the role of the Sino-American Cooperation Organization (SACO) under General Milton E. Miles. During the early 1940s, their Chinese-American training camp was located on the mountain behind the present SISU campus.

A Test of Personal Faith

Throughout the year my religious faith matured. It is true that upon receiving my year-long visa, I was respectfully asked not to proselytize in China, as are all foreign visitors. Concretely for me, this meant I could not and did not celebrate a public Catholic mass or lead prayer services. I knew and accepted this reality prior to going to China. At the same time, I was able to associate with and celebrate Catholic liturgies with other AITECE teachers in Chongqing. Regularly, the other teachers and I also went to Sunday Chinese Catholic mass in the nearby Shapingba district or the historic St. Joseph’s Church in downtown Jiefangbei, Chongqing, where the Passionists had worked in the 1940s.

For decades now, foreigners have been able to attend Catholic mass celebrated in public parish churches and receive communion. During my six visits to China between 1989 and 2007, I have seen increased Catholic membership and religious stability throughout China. This new life faith experience far outweighs any existing imposed government controls which, simply put, arise most often as a result of layered national and local regulations surrounding church registration or questionable foreign relationships. Over the years, I have had many positive and inspirational meetings with Catholic Church leaders and the Chinese people. I believe it is important to speak of these positive features and support and pray with the Chinese Catholics as their efforts continue. Certainly, setbacks are real, but so is hope for the future. For my part, I try to balance these historic realities by researching about the history of the Passionists and other Catholic and Protestant missionaries to China in the 20th century. Understanding these Christian stories of faith about hope, suffering and compassion remains vital for a peaceful world of today where religious violence so often sets people apart. It is with this vision that I was a Passionist teacher in Chongqing, China.

Looking back, four features anchored my spiritual journey during my year in China. First, I had to accept routine. Daily life consisted of teaching, shopping and oftentimes cooking for myself, living in my apartment, waking up at 6 A.M. to watch the “Situation Room” broadcast on CNN International, looking up in the sky to find the absent sun hidden by pollution, and just living with constant noise. Second, it became absolutely essential for me to name and remember my purpose for being in China. It was twofold: motivation to serve, and to learn. My mantra became a clear, intellectual vision to teach students imagination and critical thinking and to apply it in my own life in all ways. They and I had to do a little bit better everyday. Acceptance was the third and most challenging dimension. I had to let go in order to receive the graces that came my way. This required answering and asking endless questions, facing boredom, feeling helpless and vulnerable, and counteracting the fear of the earthquake. I had to accept that I was always considered an expert and, most important, always seen as the foreign guest. Finally, my own presence had become my true companion and friend. My Catholic religion mattered to me as a person and Passionist priest. I desired my long-standing study and love of Chinese history and culture to serve as a leaven of mutual understanding in diverse situations. In the end I hoped my peaceful presence would be a daily invitation to enter into and inspire peaceful relationships and the quest for the faith in others.


Living and teaching in China was a dream come true for me. Sichuan International Studies University and Chongqing were a literal “hot pot” of intellectual and emotional events that tested me as I had hoped. While I am hesitant to write such personal reflections in a history newsletter, I have always been convinced that everyone leaves a historical imprint worth recording. History does teach. What do we wish to learn?

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