Book Review: Echoes from Wuhan
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
An immersive memoir of friendship & learning to tread carefully in Wuhan in 1979
Gretchen Dykstra’s memoir Echoes from Wuhan: The Past as Prologue recounts her experience of cultural exchange four decades ago. It’s a painstaking recollection of friendships between budding teachers at university in a fraught political environment—retold almost as if it were yesterday.
Dykstra is an American who taught at Wuhan Teachers’ College (Wu Shi) from 1979 to 1981, several years after the death of Chairman Mao. China was struggling with poverty and recovering from “decades of foreign aggression, national weakness, and internal brutality.”
Some students were there by choice because they had taken entrance exams after the Cultural Revolution. Others had come from a “worker-peasant-soldier” background during the Cultural Revolution, and the college was training them to be English teachers. Dykstra taught advanced English to both groups.
She was one of 100 American teachers employed by the Bureau of Foreign Experts, part of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I had a flash of serious impostor’s syndrome—I had only taught for four years and kids at that,” she recalls.
We share her excitement as she narrates first arriving on campus via a “narrow, paved road lined with saplings that ended at a cracked, whitewashed arch, topped with red Chinese characters.” As a single woman, she was given a large, heated apartment all to herself. It had “three sitting rooms and a large bedroom, all with glazed rosewood furniture and brightly painted stucco walls,” plus “a large bed circled by a finely woven mosquito net and covered with a brilliant silk quilt.” The hot water tank for her bathtub was “filled by hand every morning with hot water from the coal-burning furnace outside.”
With light skin and light hair, and at 5’8” much taller than most Chinese women, Dykstra stood out. “People stared,” she recalled. “Most had probably never seen a white person.” The Russians had left campus in 1964 when the Soviet Union parted ways with China.
Their ways were new to her, too. She remembers a delicious feast for New Year’s: “Two chickens, two ducks, three whole fish with their eyes pointed at me…Turtle soup, pork dishes, tofu in various shapes, cabbage, rice, Maotai, beer, and orange soda…a Mongolian hot pot…” Decades later, the memory of the two dozen dishes on the table is still fresh.
She really was different, culturally. She wasn’t (she admits) good at picking up new languages, didn’t speak this one, struggled with the four tones of Mandarin, and hadn’t even taken a class on Chinese history. She came to China because of her sense of adventure.
Thus, all interaction, inside and outside the classroom, was English-only, of necessity. She requested classes to learn Chinese—just a little spoken conversation, to be “polite and helpful”—but the Secretary turned her down, on the grounds that she might expose students to her “cultural pollution” if she were able to connect with them more intimately. Regardless, she was able to personally connect with her students in English.
She reports her own missteps in not understanding discretion in Chinese culture. For example, after she casually told others that a particular student asked her about menstrual hygiene, the leaders heard about it and reprimanded the student for asking American-style questions. Then, there is her interest in Huang Hua, a young man who had begun learning English by fixing the knobs on his parents’ “red lantern radio” and secretly tuning into the Voice of America station. Her feelings are romantic, and it shows, which makes him uncomfortable. Huang Hua proposes, “in a characteristically minimalist way,” that a chaperone accompany them if they go somewhere outside class. He thought of that; she didn’t.
The potential consequences of missteps like these are grave, and we feel it. The glimpses that we get into the culture of this time and place provide some of the book’s best content.
She discovers her students have had to learn to be careful in ways that she has not. And so we can also begin to understand why, as she reports, her students “were not comfortable with self-expression” in English class. On the other hand, they studied diligently without complaint, and “were never late for class, never skipped a class, or begged exemption from an assignment.”
Although the memoir is set firmly in the past, it poses an ever-important question of intercultural relationships. Americans who are thinking of studying or teaching abroad will be drawn into this story. Dykstra is frank about how the choices she made led her to personal highs and lows. She provides a unique window into what it means to be a responsible, caring, open person—as a teacher and a friend.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir
Print Length: 414 pages
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