Last night, a Taiwanese friend messaged me about the US presidential election. My succinct response: 「我也怕」 (“I too am afraid.”)
Maybe this goes without saying, but I didn’t sleep much.
I began the morning with a email from a distressed student, unable to attend class because of their emotional state after the results of the election. A few short sentences corresponding with the knotted up feelings in my head, shoulders, heart, and gut.
Paraphrasing but essentially: Don’t worry about class. My office door is open today if you need to talk. I too feel insecure and scared, and am falling back today on kindness and love.
I still didn’t know how I’d get through class myself, but the email galvanized me. Today, more so than any other day, I need to care. My job is manifestly about the future, about the generation flowering into awareness and all the existential terror that comes with it.
I wore a gray suit (pantsuit) to work today. It is somber, it is defiant, it is code, it is armor, it isn’t enough.
What am I teaching, really?
A few disorganized thoughts:
If I don’t populate history and foreign culture with real people, instead resorting to simplification and dichotomies, am I therefore part of the problem and not the solution?
How ridiculous is it that the section heading in the assigned textbook reading for today was “Total Humiliation?”
How do I teach today? How does anyone listen to history from across the world and a over century ago on a day when hurts are all too immediate and close?
I jotted notes to myself in the hours before class.
My heart beat fast and my hands were shaking as I took attendance.
Thanks to a friend on twitter, I’d read and reread “Teaching in Times of Crisis.” My lectures before the election had focused on issues I believe to be important in world and US history. If my early morning email hadn’t already convinced me that this was a day for teaching, that page would have sealed it.
Today could not go unmentioned.
One student quipped, as one particular name was called and was found absent, “Maybe they exploded after hearing the results.”
Scattered giggles around the room.
“I’ll be getting to that in a moment, hold on.”
A collective sigh.
I called the final Z name and put down my pen.
In front of a lecture hall of ~50 students, I did something I hadn’t done all semester: I pulled up a chair and sat down.
“I’m tired, guys. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and I’m sure many of you didn’t either. [cue nods around the room] Coming to class today wasn’t easy, and I’ve thought a lot about why it is we’re still here today. So we’re going to take it slow. We’ll review some of the details we read earlier in the week, and then we’ll talk about two of the assigned primary readings, that, through sheer accident, I think help us today. Things like power and coercion, violence and fear, these are major forces today as they were over a century ago. They are not new human experiences, even if their shapes are new today. When we study history, we have a chance to see how other people responded to them and to assess how those responses affected people around them. We have two readings, both responses to national crisis, and I think that our reading them today can offer us perspective. And once we’ve covered those things, I’ll let you go. We’re all tired today.”
Then I stood back up and reviewed the dire realities of international relations in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly as it pertained to China. I touched upon the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and pointed out to the many Chinese students in the room that Japan’s imperialist bent was not due to a flaw in Japanese-ness, but related to global dysfunctions in gunboat-based diplomacy and, nonetheless, opposed by other colonialist powers due to factors that didn’t just favor whomever had the better army, but also favored Western-only colonialism.
And then we came to those primary sources.
Sourcebook #68 provided quotes that almost made me cry again while reviewing them on the bus to work this morning.
“They have not considered that the English barbarians, born and raised in the noxious regions beyond the bounds of civilization, having the hearts of wolves, the visage of tigers, and the cunning of foxes, plan to take possession of our province…”
“In public assembly, we decided to await the day they enter the city, then exterminate their odious race and burn their houses. With united hearts, we will destroy them in order to display celestial vengeance and manifest public indignation.”
In the world-system of 19th century imperialism and “diplomacy,” equality and respect were not givens in cross-cultural moments.
Yet we can’t respond to crisis by othering and alienating, by taking our fears and turning them into racism and violence. It didn’t work for 1840s China, it didn’t work for 1870-80s US (in response to Chinese immigration), and it’s not something that helped the Qing dynasty. The end of the dynasty, which our course is squarely in the midst of, is a cataclysm of bad examples on EVERYONE’S part because no one could talk to each other.
And so instead, we come to Sourcebook #69, a piece by Yu Zhi (an author referenced by me for years now) about anti-infanticide measures in mid-19th century.
I introduced Yu as someone that I’ve spent years now studying, someone whose views I often do not align with personally, but whose approach I deeply adore and draw inspiration from.
In the midst of the late Qing, which our own textbook says is seriously lacking in admirable figures, I take comfort in Yu’s faith and hope, particularly in the value of education.
How does he do this?
The first quote I pulled is this: “Alas! Who is not a parent? Who is not a child? How can anyone be so cruel? Is it that people are evil by nature? No. It is that the custom has become so prevalent that people can no longer see the cruelty behind it.”
Notice this: The parents who Yu says kill their infants are not wolves, foxes, and tigers. We are all parents. We are all children. They are not evil. They are part of a society that doesn’t see the hurt because it is endemic. It is systemic. It needs to be pointed out.
The next quote: “(This matter may not have come to the attention of the city officials and the country gentry. It is necessary to inquire about the matter from poor women to obtain details.) This is why we have to cry aloud for these infants and seek help from the charitable gentlemen of the entire nation.”
Infants in 19th century China, in Yu’s formulation, were the most vulnerable members of society. We can’t have a civilization based upon the suffering and victimization of our most insecure members. This is a significant unit of measurement.
We have to listen. We have to ask people who are not like us about their experiences. We then have to use our positions, if we are privileged in having, to cry aloud for the vulnerable, the scared, the left behind, and seek help.
Finally, we have to meet people where they are, and think about how to include and communicate, not alienate and distance.
Yu wrote “However severe and earnest these laws and books may be, they cannot penetrate into every household and get to the people on the streets. In such cases, they only thing one can do is to compose catchy slogans and folk songs with themes of retribution and propagate them in villages and towns.”
There are at least two ways of looking at this. One assumes that communication happens on levels of sophistication and “dumbing down.” The other says to meet people where they are, and then communicate with them in ways that help us both to share the same values even if we don’t approach from the same places at the start. There can be common ground.
I ended class (not too early, but still with an invitation to students to follow up with the all-campus post-election debriefing spaces open through the rest of the afternoon, if needed) by sharing two of my favorite empowering things Yu Zhi wrote while reaching out to popular audiences:
“Those with power should expend their funds. Those without power should spend their words.” 有力者出錢。無力者出言。 Pan Gong baojuan, 1:3a
“Even though I am powerless,I will still do my best.” 我雖無力。尚能勉力。Xigu baojuan, 33a.
Yu Zhi, in the midst of the Taiping War, persevered because he hoped.
I teach because I hope. I can’t stop.