School of History and Culture
Northeastern Normal University
Changchun, Jilin Province, PRC
16 November 2011
Dear Colleagues, Students, and Alums:
Changchun had its first significant snowfall today, and two events happened that would forever etch this rather mundane fact in my memory.
About 7:45 a.m. I got a text message while polishing my lecture on "Charles Grandson Finney and Liberal Protestantism" for my 8:30 a.m. US intellectual and cultural history class. Minmin, my female TA working on a masters on female Irish immigrants to the United States, wrote, "Professor its [sic] slippery outside do you want help getting to class." Twenty-five minutes later, weighed down by my 15-year-old shearling and anchored in REI snow boots, I met her at the gate to my building. Two of my other graduate students, one male and the other female, joined us as Minmin clutched my right forearm. I slid once -- I heard the voice of my grandmother, who had never set foot on any campus until my Brown graduation, exclaim "Child, it's slippery as glass!" -- we made the 10-minute journey to the History Building without incident.
The class ended at 11:30. Three other students silently decided to assure that I safely returned to my apartment, which is on the third-floor of the 12-story School of Overseas Education building. Not only is it the tallest building on campus, but also it is the only one with a Western toilet and a hot water tank for showering in each apartment. Only foreign students and "expert professors" -- mainly Koreans, Russians, Europeans, and Americans -- live in the building. Single-sex dormitories for Chinese students have squat toilets and cold-water face bowls. NENU's 20,000-plus students shower at an on-campus bathing house.
On the street perpendicular to the History Building and as far as the eye could see, a small army of students, each with a shovel, scraped ice and pushed snow to the side of the road. I stood amazed at the spectacle. Wu Bin, my male TA, who had joined Minmin and Sharon, whose MA thesis is on American black culture, explained that the students were members of an undergraduate club that cleaned major campus streets after every snow.
Wu Bin took pictures with my camera. According to him, snow-removal volunteerism was no big thing, confirming what a chain-smoking university vice president, noting my arched brow, told me at a dinner in September. Wu Bin himself, who will do research in the United States in 2012-13 as a Chinese Fulbright Ph.D. Student, had shoveled snow as an undergraduate. "Do students at your school do this?" Minmin asked. "We love our university." Thinking about her morning text message and what I witnessed: you know my unvarnished answer.
Rather than going directly home, I took the trio to lunch in the third-floor dining room at the huge campus canteen. Our exchange of questions about the United States and China, Carleton and NENU, extended the luncheon to a three-hour conversation.
Harry McKinley Williams, Jr.
Laird Bell Professor of History