Early in July, I arrived at Cedarville University, a Baptist liberal arts college near Xenia, Ohio, in the middle of the night. The large brick campus, built sprawlingly as if it had infinite space to grow, was empty except for a few bleared fellow administrators pacing near the doors of a dormitory. A handful were unstrapping mountain bikes from the top rack of an all-wheel-drive sedan with SEI: WAnet Summer English Institute, in patriotic decals on the driver’s and passenger’s side doors. The bikes struck me as a good idea: there was a quarter mile between most buildings on campus, and when dealing with Chinese students, it is good to be the first in line to meals. Line-cutting is an east Asian mainstay: in a country of crowded billions, queuing means you never get to eat.
The Summer English Institute is an intensive American language and culture program operated by WAnet, an arm of Wheaton Academy in Illinois that provides administrative support for private Christian schools in the U.S. wishing to accept exchange students from overseas. Prepared and recruited for year-round, SEI is WAnet’s big show: students arrive by hundreds at Chicago O’Hare only to be ferried by short bus to Cedarville, where they will spend four weeks in an English immersion program, which I am helping to administer. During this time, a meaningful percentage will become so thrilled with the comparatively casual, student-oriented Western classroom experience, and with the friends they have made here, that they will sign up for an interview, endure a multi-stage vetting process, and finally be enrolled in WAnet schools across the country for the coming fall, less than six weeks from now. Many of these students are younger than fifteen, most were planning to be away from home only four weeks, and 98% are Chinese. I did not learn about these processes by talking to them: I don’t speak a syllable of Mandarin.
Cedarville, Ohio (population 4,019), is a sleepy, dry town that exists to serve ice cream and coffee to the approximately 3,000 students in residence fall through spring at the university. It is a place steeped in a distillation of mid-American Baptist culture so pure it has stained the furniture mauve. A series of banner advertisements near the student center vaunt the appeals that bring thousands of dads to their doors with open checkbooks each fall: “Required Biblical Studies Minor at the heart of our undergraduate programs,” “Doctrinal statement affirmed by all faculty and staff,” and most strikingly: “Literal six-day creationism taught in all programs.” Whether these policies stifle authentic theological discourse has been the subject of a recent administrative controversy at Cedarville that made it to the Huffington Post, but isn’t the subject of this essay. The Huff Post article, interestingly, is full of language exactly as windy and doctrinal as the policies it maligns; the parallel could be a fruitful subject for a religious studies MA somewhere.
For me, the source of interest here is the staggering contrast between the 200-odd Chinese SEI attendees and the American Protestant summer campers with whom we are sharing the campus. Several days ago, the first of these camps rolled in: a conference called Lift (according to their website, “a high-energy, heart changing, life experience where true friendships are made and students are inspired to know, love and follow Jesus”) whose staff instantly proceeded to spraypaint a boulder near the lake with Bible verses, and to set up a dunking booth in a dormitory parking lot. My first long conversation with Chinese students was an attempt to explain the dunking booth to them as we passed by. They were holding large notebooks. Having just finished eight solid hours of classes in a second language, they were on their way to two more hours of “clubs,” all of which are also conducted in English. Several more of our kids had wandered into the line, mistaking this crowd for a contingent of SEI’s American staff, holding two yellow tennis balls and whispering to one another rapidly in Chinese.
“It’s a dunking booth,” I said.
“We don’t know English well enough to understand what you mean,” one of the boys I stood with told me fluently.
“You see that red target?” I said.
“The one beside the man in the chair?”
“Exactly. When someone hits that with a ball, that guy gets wet—“
Almost as soon as I’d said it, someone nailed the target and sent a soggy teenager back into the water.
“You do this for fun?”
“Yes, at carnivals—big parties.”
Our two stray students exhibited a flash of understanding, and started to laugh. They were next in line. I offered the two I was speaking with a ride back to the dorm and tried with no success to explain a county fair to them. We parted very friendly and very bewildered.
What understanding I have about Chinese culture comes from three sources: an undergraduate course called Living and Working in Multicultural Contexts, which I took because I was in love with a missions major; my two youngest sisters, who are adopted from China but pure South Carolinian by disposition; and the poetry of Li Bai. Bai (AD 701-762, sometimes called Li Po) is a golden-age Classical Chinese poet known for his revolutionary treatment of traditional themes and for public drunkenness. The legend is that, drunk in a rowboat, he drowned trying to embrace the moon. A fact I remember from Living and Working in Multicultural Contexts about the East Asian disposition is their long cultural memory, which reaches well beyond individual lifetimes. When an American discusses economic power, she is confident, because she knows “we are the behemoth.” A Chinese person will enter the same conversation with an equal but distinct sense of superiority: “We will be the behemoth in twenty years.”
This sense of participation in eras other than their own extends backward as well as forward, meaning that my reading in Li Bai provides insight into SEI students that still remains relevant. One of my favorites is his philosophical triptych, “Bathed and Washed:”
“Bathed in fragrance,
do not brush your hat;
Washed in perfume,
do not shake your coat:
“Knowing the world
fears what is too pure,
The wisest man
prizes and stores light!”
an old angler sat:
You and I together,
Let us go home.
The poem begins with a quotation—a truism the poet himself is hearing from his fishing companion. The traditional theme Bai is transforming is (I generalize) that of passivity or transparency: the notion that the ideal poetic and spiritual state is one of submissive availability. If you have achieved transparency, you are empty; you wait to be filled by experience. If a walk near the river bathes you in fragrance, “do not brush your hat.” If it washes your clothing in perfume, do not shake it out. Stay passive and receptive. The wise man prizes that which fills his mind, and “stores” that “light.” Certain of the truth of this, the poet accepts the invitation to go home with the wise old fisherman. How different from the Lift conferees, who sit behind me while I type this having a small group discussion about the imperative to “spiritually transform themselves” this week. The value of transparency illustrates the precise difference between the American youth groups and our own dark-haired gaggle: the Chinese are willing to be transformed by their experience, while the Lift students’ only posture is that of a transforming agent. If SEI is a well gathering water, Lift is a wrecking ball.
Fewer than 20% of SEI students are Christians—the organization has no explicitly evangelical purpose. Yet several make more or less unsolicited professions of faith each year, and many more do so down the road at the schools where they are placed. There is a pure pleasure in the belief of those I have talked to. It is thoughtful, without gimmicks, strikingly sincere, transparent. Last night a Christian SEI student, whom I know to be fluent in English, was standing in a long line (they learn quickly!) in front of some Lift conference members, who complained about the crowds using an Asian racial slur. The girl smiled, turned around, and introduced herself.