The Far East is Nearer Than You Think

Images old and new help students learn
about asian politics

By George R. E. Wacker '03

A simple decision to go east instead of west changed Lisa Fischler’s life. It also is changing a great many things at Moravian College, where Lisa is an assistant professor of political science.

In 1986, Lisa was thinking about a doctorate in Western European politics. She already had a B.A. from the University of Puget Sound in Washington and an M.A. from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She had traveled and studied in France and Germany.

Then she was given the chance to participate in a teacher exchange in Yunnan province in Southwest China. The Monterey Institute had set up the exchange, and the schools were selected by the Chinese government through its Ministry of Non-Ferrous Metals and Mining.

What did this ministry have to do with education? The students to be taught by the American teachers were engineers—sent into this profession when the universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Now, 10 years later, with a surfeit of engineers, the government had decided that some should become teachers. Also, the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping, who wanted to open China to the outside world, called for learning foreign languages, including English.

“I thought it would be a different experience,” Lisa says. It was. She was 26, and most of her students were in their late 20s and 30s. She was, as well, foreign and female. “I had to work hard to earn their respect,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I was accepted into the culture as much as people accepted me for who I was within the culture.” She found that the best way to enter the culture was to be “someone who made the effort to learn the language.”

That year introduced her to a world with which she fell in love, and she returned to the United States with her mind made up to study Chinese politics at the University of Wisconsin.

Because of currency exchange restrictions, she was not allowed to bring most of her small earnings back from China. So the years she spent on her Ph.D. were punctuated by times off to work so she could pay for the next installment of her education. In addition, she revisited China annually.

When she was ready for fieldwork, she went to Hong Kong with one possible dissertation topic in mind: the relationship between pop culture and economic development in China.

By this time it was the early ’90s, and Hong Kong awaited the pullout of British colonial rule and return to Chinese control with awe and apprehension.

In Hong Kong, she learned Cantonese to complement the Mandarin Chinese she had learned in Yunnan. In field interviews with Hong Kong high school students, she noticed different kinds of answers to her questions, depending on whether they were addressed to boys or girls. “The way the young women were responding led me to believe there might be something more there,” she said.

With guidance from female professors and colleagues, she also learned of a controversy involving rural women in the New Territories, the part of Hong Kong that shares a border with China. These women were fighting for the right to inherit family land from husbands, fathers, and other male relatives.

 

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Photo: John Kish IV