Oct. 27, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 5

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    Lessons in life and language around the world

    "To change your language, you must change your life," the poet and playwright Derek Walcott has said, and proponents of the College's new International Traveling Research Fellowships seem to agree. The fellowships, which were awarded for the first time this year, support summer B.A.-paper research in non-English-speaking countries.

    "We want to encourage College students to become fluent in foreign languages," said John Boyer, Dean of the College. "Conducting research in a non-English-speaking country provides the perfect opportunity for students to begin to master another language."

    Fourth-year students Vanessa Guest and Andrea Voyer, the first students to be awarded the fellowships, traveled to China and Russia, respectively, for two-month stays last summer. During their trips, both women learned about language and much more.

    IN RUSSIA: Seeking environmental activism amid destruction

    "It's the Common Core that's done this to me," said Andrea Voyer of her academic wanderings from comparative literature to sociology to biology to her current interest and concentration in Russian literature and civilization. Voyer's latest focus led her to Russia last summer, where she intended to study grass-roots environmental activism with the support of an International Traveling Research Fellowship.

    Despite three years of Russian-language study and a previous trip to Moscow in 1989, "I was blown away when I got over there," Voyer said. "Basically, it's a mess," she said. "For a period of time in the 1980s, the Green Movement was a powerful force in Russia. Now that everything's decentralized, I was told that people can't worry about the environment. Grass-roots movements are a middle-class phenomenon. With glasnost, there was a middle class in Russia. Now it's just chaos. I was psyched up to see the Green Movement, but it just wasn't active at all."

    Voyer did see environmental destruction, though. "There hasn't been any concern for renewable, sustainable systems, and the people have been exposed to horrendous environmental conditions," she said. "I was going to buy tomatoes and I couldn't find any that weren't deformed. You'd blow your nose, and your tissue would be black."

    After a month in Moscow, Voyer traveled to Lake Baikal in Siberia, where environmental activism in Russia got its start. There she found what little environmental activism still exists.

    "Some groups there had projects going on," she said. "They had big plans. But there is very little support. People are more concerned with how they're going to survive."

    Survival in Russia was also an issue for Voyer, but the experience of living in a foreign country was ultimately the source of her greatest reward. "First, I started the summer with two weeks of language study and realized how little I really knew. There's a dramatic distinction between what is written and what is spoken.

    "While I was there, I felt challenged every minute," Voyer said. "I was constantly comparing the world I knew and the world I was in. But it's amazing when you find yourself integrating into another culture -- to be in a different world and find yourself functioning there. The highlight for me was taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Lake Baikal. At that point, I was really functioning on my own."

    Now Voyer's challenge is readjusting to life in the United States. "I really came to appreciate how stable the United States is," she said. "But it's difficult to come back and not be challenged every minute. I don't feel like I'm learning as much."

    Voyer is planning to return to Russia next summer. "I've applied for work, and I'm seeking out programs," she said. "I really want to get my Russian down. I'm not sure what I'll end up doing. The options are overwhelming."

    IN CHINA: Conducting research through personal conversations

    Fourth-year College student Vanessa Guest came to the University intending to study Chinese language and culture. "I became curious about China in an Asian-history class my senior year in high school," Guest said. "I wanted to live there, so I spent six months the next year studying Chinese in Beijing. That was one of the best experiences of my life, and it solidified my interest in China. I spent the remainder of the year studying Chinese in a program at Middlebury College in Vermont."

    While here, Guest decided to concentrate in anthropology so that her perspective on China would be broadened by a base of knowledge about her own and other cultures. "I chose anthropology because it provides a good foundation for a liberal-arts perspective on other cultures," Guest said. "It's a useful way to look at China."

    Guest sought her second opportunity to live in China last spring when she applied for and won the International Traveling Research Fellowship.

    Already enrolled for the summer in the Princeton Beijing Language Program at Beijing Normal University -- the only university in Beijing to allow its instructors to teach from uncensored textbooks -- Guest used the fellowship to support her language study and research on her B.A.-paper topic: family planning under China's one-child-per-family policy, a policy that has been in effect for 12 years.

    "It was difficult to get information from government institutions such as the Women's Organization or the Danwei, a work unit that monitors family activity in every neighborhood. It was all propaganda," Guest said. "But I have a close Chinese friend who offered to bring me the regulations couples in her neighborhood must follow for family planning. I also collected magazines, newspapers and books."

    Guest found her most significant data -- and ample opportunity to practice speaking Chinese -- through interviews she conducted with teachers, merchants, academics and taxi drivers. "The highlight of the summer was one particular interview in which a mother and daughter, both teachers, spoke with unusual candor," she said. "I got a good sense of the closeness of their relationship and of their relationships with their students. They weren't threatened by my presence as a Westerner and the possibility that I might disagree with their views. What was amazing was the fact that these two women were proud of their role as teachers in the old traditional sense of teacher as parent. Today in China, teachers don't have the status they once did."

    Now that Guest is back in Chicago, she will translate and transcribe her interviews and try to translate the 10 paperback books she brought home with her. "What's interesting to me now is comparing my two trips to China," she said. "The thrill of being in a country for the first time makes it easy to sentimentalize the experience and neglect the real life of the Chinese. My second trip brought me into contact with the Chinese and China on a level I hadn't reached before.

    "Now I'm dying to get back to China," Guest said. "I'd love to work in Taiwan or Hong Kong or Beijing. I'm researching programs in international relations for next year."

    -- Carmen Marti