Dr. Li Ren-Kaplan describes her journey from the People's Republic of China to the United States. Learn how she and others at Santa Fe College have helped students learn more about Asia through the internationalization of the curriculum and study abroad.
Vilma: Welcome to Santa Fe College. My name is Vilma Fuentes and this is our podcast on developing global citizens. Today I want to welcome Dr. Li Ren Kaplan, a professor of communication and public speech at Santa Fe College, and she's been really instrumental in helping us internationalize our curriculum during the past decade or so, specifically by helping our students gain more awareness and understanding of Asia and Asia Pacific. So, Li, thank you for joining us today.
Li Ren: Thank you, Vilma, for having me.
Vilma: So first for our listeners, I'm hoping they'll gain a better understanding of who you are. And so where were you born?
Li Ren: I was born in mainland China, also known as the People's Republic of China. And so I grew up there and I went to college and eventually I decided I want to pursue a master's degree, so I applied for some universities in the United States, and I came here. I actually went to Athens, Ohio for Ohio University, that's where I got my master's degree. And then eventually I also want to pursue a PhD, which I also did at Ohio University. Then I moved to Florida.
Vilma: Okay. So let's see if we could break this up. So tell us more about growing up in China, where did you grow up? Was it a city? Was it a rural area? And what was it like when you were a little kid growing up in the People's Republic of China?
Li Ren: It was a small town, but small towns in China are all relative, so my hometown actually now has about 8 hundred thousand people.
Vilma: So big city in USA?
Li Ren: Yeah. So when I was little, this was back in the mid 70s, and I remember it was very, very different from what it is now. I remember my family purchased a nine inch black and white television, and that was the only television in our entire neighborhood. So we never actually watched television inside of the house, the TV always face outwards. And so all my neighbors and friends will come over, they will sit in the yard and then we'll watch television together which was quite a event. So that was before what was called reform and opening on time of China, which happened in the late 70s and early 80s. This is when China actually adopted the market economy and also just opening up to international communities. And that really brought about tremendous changes in China.
So when I compared China in my childhood back in the 70s to China nowadays, it's absolutely totally different, the materialistic changes, the cultural advancements, the connections with the outside world. I was just talking to my students the other day, how you go to China and you go to the store and they're playing Taylor Swift's latest song, and you go to the movie theater, they were playing Avatar the second movie. So basically, it's a very different world right now.
Vilma: So going back to you and your youth in the 70s, when you and your little neighborhood friends would sit in the courtyard and watch black and white television, what were you watching? Were you watching movies from the United States?
Li Ren: No. At the beginning there were only one channel from the central television station of China, so it was news or might be some old Chinese movies they will put on, and sometimes we watch movies from other communist countries at that time, from Eastern Europe, North Korean and... Very different. Then I remember when I was in elementary school, this was late 70s, particularly early 80s and mid 80s, we started to see... Oh, I watched a lot of really, really old black and white American movies, Turner classics, because I think they were cheap to import at that time. So the CCTV will put them on and they were all dubbed, so it was quite a interesting scene to see all those old movies like the Shirley Temple movies. I think I watched all of them when I was maybe about 12, 13 years old. It was different.
Vilma: When did you learn English?
Li Ren: English has been a required subject starting... When I was in school, it started in middle school. But nowadays in China, pretty much it started in elementary school, so every school child has to learn a foreign language and generally it's English. It was interesting because when I started to learn English, there was a transition, this was in the 80s, there was a transition from Russian to English. So my first English teacher in middle school, actually she was a Russian major so her English had a Russian accent which was very quite interesting. I didn't pick that up. But I actually went to college and major in English and language and literature.
Vilma: At Peking University, right?
Li Ren: At Peking University, yes. And that was really fun because we had professors from different countries. So I remember I had one professor from America and one professor from UK and one from New Zealand, so there were a lot of different accents to pick up, but most of our professors were Chinese professors who went to get training, got their graduate degrees from the United Kingdom, actually a lot of British literature type, but we also had some professors came to the United States, got their degrees here, so it was a very interesting, diverse environment to learn.
Vilma: So your generation was truly a really transformational generation or a generation where a major social and cultural transformation was starting. Because if I'm not mistaken, before that, certainly when Mao Zedong led China, there was a point there where all western things were banned, even a violin or western music. Like, "No. No. No." It was all Chinese. So I can imagine what a... I'm curious, what did your parents think when you said, "Oh, I'm going to go to college." So that in and of itself was rather innovative coming out of the mouth in ages where people were encouraged to go to the countryside. But when you said on top of that, I'm going to major in English, how did your parents react?
Li Ren: Well, I will qualify as a first generation college student from my family. Although my dad actually did go to college, while I was in college he got his degree as an adult. But I'm a little bit later than the generation that actually when started to go to college again after the cultural revolution. So if you don't know, that cultural revolution basically ran from the 66 to 76, and then a lot of young people in the urban areas were sent to the countryside and work along with the farmers in the fields. And so basically, a lot of them were either high school graduates or high school students. So after cultural revolution, in 1978, we restarted the colleges and so a lot of those urban youth in the countryside started to apply for colleges and come back.
So my professors, actually, there was a group of professors who were in that situation. So they came back to colleges in 78, and then eventually got their graduate degrees and become professors. And it was a very interesting generation, because you could have freshman class, some of them would be in their forties and some of them would be typical 18. But when I went to college, that was back in 88, it was more like normal, all my classmates were just typical, went through high school. And then the path at that time is to go to college, you have to pass this very, very, very hard national college entrance exam, which was a three-day, six subject exams. You have to score really, really well. At that point, it was about maybe 10% of high school graduates could go to college. So it was quite a privilege, and my family were just super happy. And learning English at that time was a skill by itself, so basically if you could speak English very well, you could find very good jobs.
Vilma: It's a good choice.
Li Ren: So it was a good choice at that time.
Vilma: A good career choice.
Li Ren: Yeah. But nowadays, again, China has transformed so much and kids really started to learn English at a very young age. So English is more like a tool rather than a career choice anymore, so English majors are not that hot.
Vilma: So I imagine that your parents probably thought, "Oh, she's going to go to the US and she's going to get her master's or whatever, how prestigious. And she's going to come back." But you didn't. Why did you stay?
Li Ren: Well, I stayed basically for personal reasons. I met my husband in graduate school and...
Vilma: Is he Chinese?
Li Ren: No, he's not Chinese. He's American, that's why my last name has Kaplan in there. So I got married here and I settled down here. So I'm a very typical Chinese immigrant story, which for the newer generation... So if you look at Chinese immigrant families in the United States who came in the 80s and 90s or 2000s, typically we came here for graduate school, pursue a degree, and then we settled down either because we find a job here or because we settle with family here. So that's what happened to me.
Vilma: So you have very much of a multicultural household, do you speak to your children in Chinese?
Li Ren: Oh, I wish I do more. Not that much. It's a long story, but what happened is my husband doesn't speak Chinese so we were trying to keep the household under one language, partly because our daughter was adopted and she was a little bit behind so we were trying to be consistent and try to get her to catch up. So for the environment, for the entire household that way. But she actually is taking Chinese right now in college as a college freshman, so I'm very proud of her. And we practice Chinese every day over text messages.
Vilma: Oh, how exciting.
Li Ren: Yeah.
Vilma: Now, a few years ago, maybe a decade ago, I don't want to date us that much but I think about a decade ago, you helped co-direct a Title VI project from the US Department of Education titled Opening Doors to Asia. Tell us about that. What were you trying to do, and what did you in fact accomplish?
Li Ren: So the project was a wonderful opportunity for Santa Fe to further internationalize the curriculum. So what we did was to mostly focus on developing new courses that focuses on Asian, and with a specific focus on China, but also enhance our existing courses by supporting faculty members to do more research on Asian elements for their courses. So we developed courses such as Asian religions, we developed courses as Asian History, we also developed upper level Chinese language courses, and the courses we enhanced and included courses in all different fields such as geography, economics, even math. So it was a very exciting project for me to be involved with.
Vilma: So can you give me an example of some of the new courses that were created that maybe are still offered at Santa Fe?
Li Ren: Yeah, we are offering upper level Chinese language classes.
Vilma: So Chinese 1, 2, 3?
Li Ren: 3. I guess we haven't offered four for a while, but we've been offering 3. And I know we've been offering Asian Religions and Asian History as well.
Vilma: And I think there was an Asian Humanities class as well also that...
Li Ren: Yeah. Asian Humanities was the course we enhanced because we did have that before Title VI, and then we did support a lot of research done for the course. So yeah, we are offering that this semester, actually.
Vilma: Oh, how exciting. And my recollection is you introduced and taught a course a few times called Asian Society and Culture?
Li Ren: Yeah.
Vilma: Yeah. Tell us about that. And maybe more importantly, why would anybody want to take that class? What would that class cover?
Li Ren: So Asian Societies was developed under Title VI and it was offered as a companion course for the study abroad program to China. So it was really fun to teach.
Vilma: And that study abroad, I think was also started under the Title VI grant, wasn't it?
Li Ren: No, actually it started before Title VI.
Vilma: I apologize. Right.
Li Ren: We started in 2009, actually. So Asian Society is just a really exciting course to teach because there's just so much to cover, and we're generally focusing on across board different issues. I let students to choose topics they are interested to explore, so they can focus on political system, they can focus on media system, they can talk about environmental issues and all different things they can focus on the projects on. But because we offer that as a part of the study abroad program, so they can actually... When we were there in China, we had a partner in Beijing, it's Beijing Union University so we were embedded in campus there. They could go talk to the professors, they could talk to students about different things they're interested, so it was very exciting.
Vilma: Interestingly, today when you turn on the news or you hear people in the media, what you hear a lot is like "China, bad. China, the enemy." But it occurs to me, well first of all, there's way more to Asia than China or the People's Republic of China. We have the Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan, who's a strong US ally. I know that there's a lot of major things in the world that we rely... We need the People's Republic of China, mainland China for whether it be global trade, to make progress on combating terrorism, and even things like global warming. But generally speaking, even if we forget about China, there's more to Asia, there's the Philippines and Indonesia and Japan and Korea, et cetera. Do you find it difficult right now to talk to students about Asia in general, or China in particular?
Li Ren: Well, I traveled a long way from where I was born to where I am right now. I'm just a very strong believer of people need to communicate and really promote that understanding of each other. It's a world we cannot avoid. You cannot just say, "I'm just going to shut down and not to worry about what's going on outside of the United States." It's not going to happen that way. If you think North Korean is a big threat to the national security of the United States, imagine a country much larger, much more powerful like China become an enemy. That's not what we want. Nobody wants that. And also another thing, when I took students to China, I think what fascinating is how fast they can find similarities between themselves and the Chinese students we interact with, they become fast friends. And you will find people in general are very good, or good people will want to be nice to each other and we don't want to become enemies.
And I think the only way to avoid that is by interacting with each other more instead of shutting down. So just being able to continue with all the international courses we have here, the activities to offer study abroad programs. We have been participating in those programs, they are so beneficial. Not only looking good on your resume, but it really makes your life so much richer and full of potentials, and you can see the world offer so many opportunities. It's just amazing. I remember I always have student going to... On the study of our trip, actually have never been outside of the country, never had a passport, which I don't understand why Americans don't have passports. It's just amazing.
But I have one student, never been on any kind of airplane, he had to take Ambien because the first flight he was on was 14 hours, he was totally scared, but then the next year he went on another study abroad trip because it was just so amazing. I've had students who accidentally landed in my Chinese class because his French class was canceled, and then he went to China with me, and then he went to Taiwan to study Chinese, and then he got a master degree to teach English in Taiwan. I had another student who also went on to FSU and got a master degree in international studies with a focus on Asia.
Vilma: So we're going to have to bring them back and have them be part of the podcast.
Li Ren: I know. I know. The life changing opportunities you can have by being open and just embrace differences. It's amazing. And that's one... Whenever I talk to my students, I would just say, "You guys don't even understand at your age the opportunities you have and the different directions you can go, how big, how vast the world is for you."
Vilma: And I'll just supplement what you're saying. I know that the US federal government has all sorts of financial assistance for people who are willing to study Asian studies, willing to study Chinese. It's a critical shortage language. And so you could just imagine that if you are, I don't know, president of the United States or Secretary of State, and you're meeting with Chinese counterparts, if they've all been studying English since they were little, you better have some really good translators on your end. And wouldn't it be great if people had some basic competency? So it's really critical for good diplomatic relations and economic relations, et cetera. And Li, you're teaching another class. Aren't you teaching intercultural communications?
Li Ren: No, actually I'm teaching interpersonal communication but we have a very strong focus on intercultural. Actually, I was just talking to my students this week about they need to start working on their intercultural communication project, which they have to interview a person from a different culture and then understand how the culture influence their communication behavior. So it's a fascinating... This is the second semester I'm teaching it, so I'm really excited. I love that class.
Vilma: That's wonderful. I also know that you have a public lecture coming up soon on Sanmao, I think it's titled like Sanmao and the Liberation of Female Imagination in mainland China. Who is Sanmao?
Li Ren: This is a fascinating topic. It was actually proposed to me by a group of retirees at the [inaudible] community. So Sanmao, she was a writer and a mostly travel writing from Taiwan, but she become a huge hit in mainland China in the 80s. And again, the lecture I'm going to give, it's going to focus on this very, very crucial historical moment back in the 80s where the country, the mainland China was just opening up to the outside world. This was after decades of people who were very restricted in their movement. So basically, not only Chinese citizens. When I was little, nobody had passport. I don't even remember I knew the word passport, because it was like, "What is a passport?" There's no way for any regular person to step outside of the border of the country.
There was no tour, being a tourist. There was nothing like that. Not only Chinese citizens back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, couldn't get out of the country, they couldn't even move freely inside of the country. So there was not so much so as tourism, it's people moved out of necessity, you go to your job or you went to school and things like that but you cannot move just out of free will, just say, "Hey, I want to go to a different city, get a different job." There was no such thing. And so there was such limitation about mobility just in general.
And when Sanmao came in the 80s and she wrote about all those countries she traveled, all the different people, different cultures she encountered, and she lived in Spain, and she lived in the West Sahara for a while, and she lived in Europe, Germany, I think she went to school in Germany, United States as well. So just being able to see somebody like me had that kind of opportunity, it's just amazing. It's like now you see there is an entire world out there. That's one. That's the reason I titled the lecture as the Liberation of Female Imagination. Because particularly for Chinese women, traditionally we were bound by physical movement, literally your feet cannot carry you or you are limited in the household, you could not work outside of the household.
To during the Mao era, the communist era, where women were treated as equal partners in the labor force, so almost every woman I know had a job, so basically you had to work. But then on the other hand, you still don't have that freedom to move and freedom to really... If you don't have the freedom to move and you don't have access to the information about what the outside world was like, then you cannot even imagine what the world it's going to be. So that's why I think Sanmao become a very important cultural icon in the 80s in China.
Vilma: So another way of interpreting what you just said is Sanmao liberated the female imagination just through a book, just Chinese students read a book and said, "Wow, Spain. Wow, the Western Sahara. Wow, there's a world out there." And much the same way that our students here in Gainesville, Florida can just read a book and say, "Wow, China. Wow, Indonesia." Or whatever the case might be.
Well, thank you, Li, for sharing your personal story with us and for everything you've done to internationalize the curriculum and expose our students to the world.
Li Ren: Well, thank you, Vilma, for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.