Hooray for Hessler!

Wow.  Peter Hessler, one of my all time favorite authors, has won a McArthur genius award.  Every year I get really excited when these awards are announced.  I love the idea that a person could be doing his or her work, perhaps getting lots of recognition, perhaps not, and out of the blue someone calls and says, “We love what you’re doing.  Here’s some money to keep doing it.”  And each year, I hear about some amazing musician or poet or scientist whose work I don’t know.  But I do know about Peter Hessler.

Many of you know that in recent years I’ve been learning and working in China.  That started after I received tenure several years ago.  I’ve since learned that a “post-tenure slump” is common in academia and that it represents a real threat to productivity.  Some people seem to fight their way through it and all the interesting things that are supposed to come with tenure proceed – work going in new directions, great teaching, etc.  However, for some the result is stagnation – not knowing where to go when the pressure cooker of being an assistant professor without tenure disappears.  But, when I received tenure, I did not realize that this was a “normal” phenomenon.  Although I kept working hard, on some level my heart was not in it and that was not a feeling I could see living with for very long.  So I made a decision to start walking through whatever doors happened to open to me that year.  And one of doors that opened was China.  But I walked through it with great trepidation.  We were supposed to be teaching students in the course of a summer abroad experience.  How could I possibly presume to teach about some place that I truly knew nothing about?  I racked my brain to think what I learned in high school world history or the foreign policy class I took in college – nothing had been retained!  So I started from scratch four months before we left and thankfully came upon Peter Hessler.  River Town, Oracle Bones, and most recently, Country Driving.  I was reading then, and have since read, many books about China – many of which I’ve really liked and from which I’ve learned much.  But only Peter Hessler’s work taught me how to teach American students in China.  Because his writing is about a place and about himself and how in learning about a place and it’s people, he learns about his own “place” and his own personhood.

When he wrote his first book, River Town, the Three Gorges Dam was not yet constructed.  All over the world, there was controversy about the dam – its environmental impact, the consequences for those who would have to move because their homes would be flooded, and Hessler clearly loves the natural world.  His concerns mirrored everyone else’s.  Yet, while living on the Yangtze his view of the issue enlarged.  Here’s an excerpt:

...There were days I stood on my balcony and felt a touch of sadness as I looked at the Yangtze because I knew its days as a rushing river were numbered.   But there were many other days when the smog was so thick that I couldn’t see the river at all.

I also gained a new perspective on this issue during the winter, when there were periodic power cuts to conserve electricity.  My apartment had only electric heating, and sometimes these blackouts lasted for hours–long, cold hours, the dark apartment growing steadily more uncomfortable until my breath was white in the candlelight.  I found that during these periods I didn’t think too much about whether Fuling’s new dike would hold, or if the immigrants would be well taken care of, or whether the White Crane Ridge would be adequately protected.  What I thought about was getting warm.  Cold was like hunger; it had a way of simplifying everything. [pg. 115]

Notice that I said that his view enlarged – not changed.  He did not give up his concern for historic preservation, the environment, or the well-being of residents.  He added to his concerns.  Many people in China at that time did not have access to something we in the U.S. do: as much electricity as we are willing to pay for whenever we want it.  What Hessler taught so beautifully through his own journey was, that if there were to be alternatives to the Three Gorges Dam, they would have to address all of these concerns not just one group or another’s particular issue.  And the transferability of that lesson to so many of the problems that our social work students must address is obvious.  Just yesterday, I was using another amazing book in my class on social work in health care.  The book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, is an exploration of a clash between the culture of Western Medicine and a Hmong community that results in misunderstanding and unnecessary suffering. In this situation, as in so many, choosing one side’s view of a situation without incorporating the view of the  other creates only winners and losers – not solutions.

So, if you haven’t read Peter Hessler, read him.  He writes about China but, at the core, he writes about compassion for ourselves and others as we navigate waters we have yet to chart.  And congratulations to him.  I’m so glad he can keep doing what he does so well.


Engaged Scholarship

A Third Thing

It’s been two weeks since we did our latest version of our Puentes teacher training.   Together with a doctoral student, an art historian, school personnel and community partners, I’ve been attempting to adapt a training to help teachers think about mental health for new immigrant youth.  The original training, authored by a colleague and her team in New York, was for teachers working with teensy (3 to 6 year old) refugees.  Our target group is teachers working with middle schoolers who often come from mixed citizenship status families in a small town in North Carolina.  These students, grappling with all the daily slings and arrows of middle school, also find themselves political hot buttons for reasons that must seem unfathomable to them.  And they are not alone.  Their teachers walk a difficult path littered with the larger society’s ambivalent attitudes while attempting to sustain their individual commitment to their work.  You can see we had our work cut out for us.

We tried a simple adaptation last fall and it fell flat.  Not for lack of organization or effort or good will.  Not for lack of terrific content.  But something was missing.  To make a difference this training could not be about information alone – it had to speak to teachers in a different way.  Somewhere not cognitive but not just emotional either.  I needed what Parker Palmer calls, “A Third Thing.”   Coincidentally, or maybe not, I’d begun unknowingly working with “third things” in my classes by working with art.  You may be thinking “Social Work? Art? Don’t get it.”  But think about what happens when you look at a painting or photograph.  Without the caption or the audio guide, it’s just you and the object.  That means that what or who you see is on some level what or who you are.  As you talk about what you see with other people, your lens changes as they lend their vision to you and you to them.  And through this process, you may learn something about how you tend to see the world, or at least this painting, what you tend to miss, and what you need to know or ask to see it in its fullness.  When you get the caption or the audio guide, or the commentary of someone who actually knows something about art your vision is really enlarged.  You learn about the context in which the image was created, the artist’s interest in the particular subject, etc.  Now, as you look at that object, you have a lot to work with.    You’ve learned a lot about the object and you’ve learned a lot about yourself as well.

So what happened with the training?  We took a big risk.  We brought 40 middle school teachers to the Ackland Art Museum on campus.  Our wonderful colleagues there hung eight photographs from an amazing photojournalist named Janet Jarman. [Check out her work at]  The teachers looked and talked and reflected.  Through these photographs we were able to talk about migration journeys and the baggage the young people carry with them about which teachers are rarely aware.  We were able to think together about how these experiences impact learning and how school can either contribute to or alleviate suffering. The list goes on.  Did it work? We’ll have more definitive data in a few months.  But, yes, when people open up in a group of 40 about dark moments in their past, their struggles as both teachers and parents, where there is laughter and camaraderie, I think I feel confident saying this type of approach has legs.  There is always more work to do and I’m excited about our next steps.  But even more, I’m intrigued with “third things,” poems, stories, pictures, that take us into a space where our heads and our hearts work together to learn and to understand.


First Day of Class

So it’s that time of year again. I’m in on a Saturday morning finalizing my syllabus and organizing materials for my first class on Tuesday. As I work, I am wondering about the students I will meet and what our next 15 weeks together will be like. Since last spring, I’ve been reading a lot by an author named Parker Palmer. He writes about teaching, high intensity professions, and living whole, non-compartmentalized lives. Coming from a Quaker religious tradition, he is reflective and values both solitude and community. One thing he writes is “we teach who we are” and contends that if we don’t do this, we really don’t teach anything. Perhaps that’s why I’m looking forward to Tuesday. This class focuses on social work practice in health care settings and those settings are where I cut my teeth as a young social worker. I know that work in ways that I don’t know other parts of what I do. Those early professional experiences of life and death, unspeakable suffering, medical miracles (usually born of arduous science and hard work), and slow but sure recoveries shaped me and became me. So that when I talk about this kind of work with students it is authentic. When coupled with cutting edge information on interventions proven to help people make changes that benefit their health status or specific tools for uncovering the individual health beliefs that sometimes become a barrier between doctor and patient, the teaching/learning experience is rich and satisfying. And it is a teaching/learning experience because in this class my students teach me. Every year, I learn from them about everything from new types of cancer treatments that their clients are receiving, how child maltreatment is being handled, what parents are saying about immunization and how medical providers are responding, and gazillion other interesting updates. But most important are their own insights gained by bearing witness to life, death, suffering, miracles, and coping that are the daily stuff of medical settings and the reason why that work remains so compelling. I will miss the summer – leaving the office early to join my boys at the pool, being able to focus on projects and papers without the distraction of meetings and more meetings. But, autumn brings its pleasures too and being a part of these students’ journeys will be one of them.


“Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress.” – Maimonides

Having been back from China for several weeks now, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience and am moving forward with the next steps in our project: creating consent forms, applying for human subjects’ approval, publicizing what we’re doing, etc., etc.  But what I’ve really been thinking about is: what can I offer and what can I learn?  It seems in international work, speaking as one who has never done it, there are both benefits and dangers in bringing in outside ideas and solutions.   This is probably not news to anyone reading this blog.  However, I found during my most recent trip that keeping my thoughts to myself about how various issues in Tongi village should be addressed was challenging.  Now those of you that know me know that I have no shortage of opinions so perhaps this is simply a problem of personality.  Yet, an NPR story the other day featured someone working in Africa who posited that the way to make problems worse than before you arrived was to “NGO” the situation.  By this he meant, taking outside solutions and imposing them in ways that either were not sustainable with the resources available within the target community or that inadvertently undermined some central value that outsiders were unaware of or insensitive to.  So when I was asked earlier this week what the long-term goals were for the project, I took a deep breath and said something we’re not supposed to say in academics, “I don’t know.”  There is so much to learn about China and about our collaboration with our colleagues at East China University of Science and Technology.  We had good news last week that we now have a bit of additional funding that will allow us to work on bringing the collaboration back into our respective classrooms and will bring in a partner from another Shanghai university.  But the truth is I have no idea exactly where all of this will lead.   As I listened in Shanghai, and held my tongue, I learned.  I learned that the families living in Tongi village are missing their elders.  Elders play a critical role in Chinese families and have for generations.  When families migrate to the city without them the normal ways of meeting daily needs and expectations in family life are upended.  Guess what?  This is true for the immigrant families we work with in North Carolina.  Most of them have also left their elders behind meaning that families are attempting to operate in ways that are completely different than what they might have done in their home countries and what they have seen modeled since childhood.  I have been working with new immigrants in various ways for the last eleven years but have never thought about this issue.   So by being quiet, listening, and not knowing, I learned something important that may bring new dimensions into my work here in North Carolina.


Language Lessons – Last Day in Shanghai

Being stranded in the Shanghai airport for five hours, knowing that I will miss my connecting flight in Chicago, thus delaying my return home, and my husband’s return to work, is not really a laughing matter.  But I am laughing because I just saw a sign that was translated to say, “DONATE TO THE SHANGHAI WORKERS’ FUND TO ASSIST THE DIFFICULT.”  And because I am laughing, I am not becoming difficult though I would really like to.

Historically, there was a lot of resistance to teaching outsiders Mandarin in China.  It was thought that westerners could not learn it or should not be allowed to learn it.   As I make my own attempts at learning the language I certainly wonder whether it’s a losing proposition.  Each trip I’ve made to China I’ve learned a few words and phrases.  Being highly motivated in the coffee area, I can successfully order a cup of coffee with milk and sugar.  Generally, I’m probably about like an 18 month old with a bit of a speech delay.  I’m getting to where I can ask a few questions but I have no idea what people are saying when they answer!  As I listen to conversations, I catch a word here and there but certainly not the overall drift of the conversation. 

And then there is reading.  I find Chinese characters so beautiful and intriguing.  But from what I’ve read, you must know 1000 of them to be considered literate at the most basic level.  I can reliably recognize about 4. 

Thankfully, my Chinese colleagues have been studying English since they were young.  Now all Chinese youngsters begin studying English in school when they are 3 and they continue to study it all the way through school.   Many take additional classes outside of school to strengthen their skills.  My friends began studying later but are quite good in their speaking and reading ability.  Being with them as we try to bridge a language divide always makes me a little ashamed that they should have to work so hard in their country as I sit there confident that someone will speak to me in my native tongue.  

But I suppose there has always been a lingua franca and now it is English. Because of that, I was able to make new friends from all over the world as I attended my first international conference.  On the first night of the conference (and every subsequent evening), I found myself at a dinner table with social work professors from China, Germany, Australia, the UK, Ethiopia, and even Bangladesh.  The conference was a on the small side and our Chinese hosts had scheduled things so that we did almost everything as a group.  It would’ve been impossible to wander through paper sessions, go off on your own for lunch or dinner, and never meet anyone new. The days were long and there were moments when I didn’t think I could be social for another second.  But on the whole, it was engaging and thought-provoking.  As I talked with people I learned that social workers in Germany led the way in harm reduction techniques for IV drug abusers advocating for needle exchanges when no other profession was on board.  I learned about the crisis of higher education in Africa.  A colleague from Australia was joining our group after two weeks of humanitarian work in Lebanon.  And in the midst of these serious conversations there was a lot of good will and laughter.   This morning as I left, my new friend from Bangladesh gave me a book of his poetry.  Each poem is written in English and Arabic – another language I will never master.   But perhaps it doesn’t matter.  Maybe what matters is that we find things to laugh about even in the midst of difficult situations and go from there.



Shanghai Journal – Day 5

June 8, 2011

More information! So I’ve learned some new things about the situation of the floating population and about conditions at Tongi village. Yesterday, I spent the morning teaching an undergraduate social work class. Professor Zheng, who teaches the class, has done research on migrant children in Shanghai so we had a lot to talk about – as best we could. After my visit to the village, I was kind of fixated on public health concerns. So, I asked a lot of questions. And while there was not a solid answer – yes, children in Tongi village are immunized, no children aren’t – it sounds as though there is some level of immunization and that many organizations like the U.N. are collaborating with the central government around immunization in particular. The complication around this issue and other public health issues in the village is the Hukou system that is still in place, although changing. In essence, migrants are the responsibility of their sending village regardless of how long they have lived or worked in Shanghai. Likewise, their children, no matter where they are born, are residents of the sending village – not Shanghai. Local governments have responsibility of provision of health care and the types of things provided depend on the wealth of the local government. So, a poor community may provide a basic complement of immunizations while richer communities provide a fuller range. The question to which I still don’t have a clear answer, is how a child gets even the basics, if they are born in Shanghai and/or brought here before they’ve completed an immunization schedule.

You may wonder why, as a social worker, this immunization business is bothering me so much. In some ways it is symbolic of the ways in which I think we sometimes miss the boat in the helping professions. There are some very basic needs that all individuals have – something to eat, a safe place to live, freedom from the diseases that we know how to prevent, a bit of heat in the winter, and a way to cool off in summer. Coming to a place like Tongi village forces me to think about the basics – in social work parlance – starting where the client is, making sure that I and the larger society have paid attention to those concerns at least as much as the issues that require clients to make lifestyle changes or confront difficult issues. And just to be clear, while I am reflecting on this in the light of Tongi village, the same tension is present in any social welfare endeavor in any state or country.

So you might ask, where does this leave the library? Were the resources used to put it in place misdirected – absolutely not. The spirit must be fed too.


Shanghai Journal – Day 3

June 6, 2011

It is the beginning of my 3rd full day in China and, as usual, my head is full of new information, new questions, and ideas.  I last wrote to you before I was heading to the celebration of the new library in Tongji Village.  This village used to be home to many Shanghaineese.  Most have moved out to modern residences or have retrofitted their living space in the village.  The remaining dwellings are rented by members of the floating population.  These families come from ten to 15 different provinces across China.  They are almost exclusively Han Chinese.  From what I’ve read, the ethnic minority groups are less likely to be inclined to migrate.  The families are literate at the middle school level.

People rent a room in this village meaning that a family of up to five can live in one room with no heat, air conditioning or individual plumbing.  Most parents in the village work 12 hours days.  From what the social workers and students working there tell me, there are significant numbers of mothers who stay at home watching children. There is a lot of concern about these mothers’ parenting practices and their ability to help their children with their school work.  I have to wonder what kind of mother I would be in such circumstances.  Where would one sit to help children with homework?  How would I get them to concentrate in the winter when it was cold and there was no heat?  How would I encourage them to play when there is very little green space that does not appear to be used as a space for garbage? In truth, kids will figure out ways to play in most any situation but still…

As I reflect on what I saw in the village, I find myself alternating between trying to focus on strengths – such as the fact that the children I saw looked generally properly clothed and well fed and the amazing variety of small shops and fresh vegetable stands that were present – and the threat of public health disasters that seemed endemic to the place.  From what I’ve been reading, the rural health system in China is under greater and greater strain and the municipal government in Shanghai is not, under the current system, responsible for the health of the floating population.  Therefore, children living in Tongji village and the 10 other villages like it in Shanghai can get care like immunizations if their parents choose to take them to a local hospital and pay for such services.  The extent to which that actually happens appears to be unknown. I have no idea what happens with sewage, who would know about or take care of a tuberculosis outbreak, the list goes on…Of course, there are likely answers to these questions so I will keep my ears open and try to learn more.

All of this leaves me wondering what I’m doing here and what I have to offer.  My Chinese colleagues are involved in the village, getting to know families, helping to problem-solve, and provide other services.  So, I take a deep breath and do what we said we were going to do – engage in a participatory research project that will give members of this community a chance to tell their story through the use of photographs. Whether that is enough to offer, I don’t know.  But at the moment it is all I have.


Shanghai Journal – Day 1

June 4, 2011

It’s 6:55 a.m. in Shanghai and the strains of “Tiny Dancer” are drifting through my open window. The music is loud and stops almost as soon as it begins. A few moments later, another easy listening favorite who’s name I can’t summon wafts in the window and ends quite quickly. As I wait for the next musical wake up call, I’m reminded of one of the many reasons I love coming to China. I never know exactly what will be waiting but I know it will be interesting, unpredictable, and in the course of the journey I’ll learn a lot although much will remain inscrutable.

This is my first time coming on my own and predictably there are a lot of things I forgot because I was taking care of myself and not in the company of other faculty who have the common goal of shepherding a group of smart, resourceful, students on a summer abroad experience. So, I forgot my letter of invitation and wondered if this would be a problem as I went through immigration and customs – it wasn’t. I forgot my flash drive which had my presentation on it. It’s on my computer – no big deal. I forgot my rain jacket, although I do have an umbrella which it appears I will need today.

Today is going to be really exciting, if not really wet, because I’m going with my Chinese hosts to the opening of a small library in a migrant village in Shanghai. This is the topic I’m here to work on: comparing in country migration in Shanghai to undocumented migration in the U.S. More specifically, my partners and I will be comparing the well-being of migrant youth in China to migrant youth in North Carolina. I have data from North Carolina and we will begin to plan a project to gather similar data here.

In China, the migrant population is called the “Floating Population.” The village where we will be going is inside Shanghai and contains 4000 people – 1000 of which are children under sixteen. My colleague, Professor Zhu Meihua, has started an agency that works with the residents of this village. They have a formal office in the PuDong area of Shanghai and have a small office located in the actual village. The library is the fruit of Meihua and her small group of new social workers’ efforts. They painted it themselves and solicited donations allowing them to open the library with 1000 books! There will be an opening ceremony today. It is fitting to me that a library is one of the first resources to be put in place for this population. Reading is power. It is power to see a larger world, to escape the difficulties of day to day life, to obtain knowledge that allows for new possibilities, to understand your world. It is no wonder there is so much conversation about reading scores. It is the basis for every other miracle of education. We talk about it but often ignore it or take it for granted. “I’m too busy to read fiction or anything else.” “Who has time for the newspaper anymore?” “I only read journal articles so I can keep up with the research in my field.” But it is so interesting that in a community that has very little, like this village of floating people, one of the first impetuses is to provide a library filled with reference books, and stories and poetry. Somehow we know how transformative the written word can be and providing that to others is almost as important as providing basic necessities.

Tiny Dancer has played and stopped again…and off I go to start the adventures of the day.