Friday, February 20, 2009

A Sign from the Heavens (How I got here)

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University
Many ask how I ended up in Xiamen and I reply, "A sign from the heavens!" And this is literally true, as I wrote in the intro to the book "Xiamen University--Strength of the South". Also read "China--our Matchmaker" to learn about my blond, blue-eyed made-in-Taiwan wife and our "match made in heaven" (but assembled in China).

How I Got Here
(A Sign from the Heavens!)
Adapted from "Xiamen University, Strength of the South"

Many Chinese expect some deep, philosophical response when they ask me why I chose XMU in 1988, but my answer is rather prosaic: XMU was the only Chinese university at that time that let foreign students bring families. A far more interesting question is "Why did I come to China at all?" The answer is-I received a sign from the heavens!

After 20 years in China it is hard for me to believe that I never met a Chinese or ate Chinese food until I was twenty years old. I remember being told that one in four people on earth were Chinese and I said, "That's not true. Our family has 4 people and none of us are Chinese!" But I got oriented quickly when the U.S. Air Force sent me to Taiwan for two years in 1976, and that was the beginning of a decade-long chain of events that led me right to XMU.
Sign From the Heavens As a young Air Force missile systems expert, my only interest in the mainland was as a military target. With hindsight, I'm very thankful that by the 1970s Taiwan and the apocalyptic Yellow Peril were exchanging not weapons but words.

On a bright, spring morning, a batch of mainland propaganda leaflets fell from the heavens like colored snow right onto our Air Force base. I could not read the Chinese so they did not interest me in the slightest-until the Taiwanese police told us, "You'll go to jail if you even touch them!" Forbidden fruit is always sweeter, and I stuffed my pockets with contraband propaganda, raced home, closed my curtains, and studied them secretly. I didn't believe the mainland was as rosy as the photos depicted (Red maybe, but not rosy), but they piqued my curiosity, and I began reading about Chinese history and culture.

I had already fallen for Taiwan and her people, and when I learned that 3/4 of Taiwanese were from South Fujian, I decided that someday I'd visit the mainland. I never dreamed that a decade later I'd not only visit but become Fujian Province's first permanent resident foreigner.

Heard of Xiamen? In April, 1988, right after the birth of our second son, Matthew, a total stranger phoned from Thailand and said, "I hear you're interested in studying Chinese in China. Have you ever heard of Xiamen? Their university has dorms for families..."

"No, never have," I said, "and my wife just had a baby so we can't go anywhere for a couple years. But thanks anyway."

Exactly one week later, a man from Orange, California, phoned and said, "I've heard you want to study in China. Have you ever heard of Xiamen?"
"Yes, I have," I said. "Last week!" I met with him, and 5 months later my wife, two infant sons, and I were in Xiamen University.

Only English Teachers! When I showed up at Xiamen University in 1988 with a PhD in management, half a dozen "China Hands" said China wanted nothing but English teachers, and they suggested I return to the U.S. to get a degree in TESL. So imagine my surprise and delight when I heard that XMU was starting one of China's first MBA programs, and that they did have one foreign teacher. And as "luck" would have it (for me, if not for him), the American teacher left China mid-year because of family issues back home. The Dean asked me if I'd take his place, and I said, "Let me think about it." And after thinking about it for a good 30 or 40 seconds, I said yes, and we've been here ever since.

It was the right place, and the right time, and I felt so proud to be part of the team that a couple years later awarded China's first MBA degrees (beating Nankai University by 6 days). But in 1988, neither Xiamen University nor Xiamen City was remotely like the idyllic city and campus we take delight in today.

A Poor SEZ XMU may well have been China's only key university in a Special Economic Zone, but China was still a poor country, recovering from decades of difficulties, and XMU's living conditions left much to be desired.

The electricity and water were shut off several days a week (we were once without water for 4 days and I lugged it up the hillside in buckets). When we did have water, it gurgled from the faucet brown, like tea. The air was dirty as well, full of coal soot, and I coughed like a veteran smoker.

Roads were poor, we had only 3 main bus rouses, and buses were dilapidated. Black exhaust often billowed through the busses' wooden plank floors and sometimes I looked like a minstrel1 by the time I staggered off.

Rains transformed our campus' dirt roads into quagmires, with vehicles mired in the mud at the university gates. Though we're an island the drainage was poor and XMU often flooded. After one typhoon, Foreign Affairs (now ICE) spread their documents on the lawn to dry them in the sun. (I was curious to read what they had on me, but I didn't have the nerve to sneak a peek).

If foreign teachers' living conditions were bad, those of famous Chinese professors and leaders were even worse. I often encountered Liu Peng, our MBA Center's Dean, walking home in a robe from the public bathroom a block away. Ji Yuhua, now the nationally famous Uncle Beard, lived in one room, and like other teachers he had built a kitchen of cardboard in the common hallway (replete with padlock on the cardboard door!).

Changed From Within We would have never imagined in 1988 that only a decade later we'd have the idyllic campus we take for granted today, and that Xiamen City would be a garden city recognized internationally for balancing record economic growth with sound environmental preservation.

In 2002, I spent eight months researching Xiamen to help represent her in an international competition for livable cities in Stuttgart2. I was awed at what I discovered. While anyone with eyes in their head can see that the "Garden City" is indeed one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, the casual observer does not see the tremendous quality of leadership and planning that made such comprehensive changes possible.

`XMU, like Xiamen City, has undergone not a mere cosmetic makeover but an evolution of purpose and spirit-though I did not have an inkling of the sheer scale of change until I researched this book. I also had no idea of XMU's contributions not just to China but to the rest of the world over the past 85 years. This book only scratches the surface, but I hope it will help you understand, in some small measure, why XMU is not only the Strength of the South but the Strength of the Nation as well.

Below is a list of some of Xiamen University's Many "Firsts!"
Some of XMU's Many Firsts

China's only key university founded by an Overseas Chinese
China's only key university in a Special Economic Zone
China's most beautiful campus (only Wuhan University comes close).
China's largest university auditorium (overlooking the sea)
A "Cradle of modern aviation"
A "Cradle of modern Chinese oceanography" (1st PhD in Oceanography)
China's 1st to award the MBA degree
China's 1st EMBA to enroll students (4th most popular E-MBA today)
China's largest number of enrolled EMBA students
China's leading chemistry department
China's 1st Institute of and degrees in Higher Education Research
China's first modern college for foreigners (OEC)
China's pioneer in correspondence education (since 1950s!)
China's leading mathematicians, including talents like Chen Jingrun.
China's closest university ties with Taiwan.
China's 1st Taiwan Research Center
China's 1st Taiwan research quarterly)
China's 1st institute of S.E. Asian and Overseas Chinese Studies

China's 1st Anthropology Museum
One of China's 1st universities to teach International Law
One of China's Leaders in Political Affairs Research
China's only Public Economics Dept. designated as a "National Key Branch of Learning"
Click Here to read more of XMU's firsts

And Click Here to read "China, our Matchmaker"

1 comment:

marine2651 said...

Very interesting read! I'm actually planning on coming to Xiamen in the middle of month and am interested in the MBA program. I will be working there and didn't know if my inability to speak Chinese would eliminate the possibility of earning my MBA there.