“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?”
We met in Dr. Robertson’s spring semester, Seminar in Poetry class—Elizabeth Bishop and me. My love for her poetry manifested through one of the last assignments I had to complete at TCNJ in order to receive my Masters in English: an anthology essay. Write a letter to an editor proposing a new anthology for a poet’s work. How can one not fall in love with Elizabeth Bishop when she traveled with you since the beginning of the year? A collection of her poetry lived in my bag and all library books that discussed her life and work found a comfortable home in my car’s back trunk.
When I read about her travels—from France to Florida, Georgetown to Brazil—I knew I had to include “Questions of Travel” in my anthology essay. In my eyes, Elizabeth Bishop’s reticently intimate work was difficult to describe because she occupied the spaces in between: between love and loneliness, between life and death, between location and dislocation. Traveling was perhaps a cure, perhaps a symptom, of this fascinating tension that dominates her works.
Now, months after I completed this assignment, I find myself asking the same questions of travel.
During my graduate year at TCNJ, I applied for a teaching fellowship called Princeton in Asia. The program, which is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Princeton University, sends fellows to various service sites in Asia. On the bottom of the application was space for additional comments regarding where I wanted to travel. With eager fingers, I typed, “I’m flexible. I can go anywhere and I will thrive.” Perhaps Bishop’s traveling stories fed into my adventurous desires. Perhaps my lack of imagination was pushing me to imagined places.
Whatever force pulled me out of sitting quietly in my own room, Princeton in Asia accepted me as a 2013 fellow and I was sent to Dalian University of Technology in China, one of the top engineering schools in the country, to teach for one year. Thankfully, I am not teaching engineering. As a foreign language teacher, I teach four classes that integrate Public Speaking and World Literature together. It is a curriculum that not only allows students to practice their English skills through learning intriguing content, but it is an opportunity that grants me absolute control over what literature I teach. Choosing what short stories, poems and tales to share with my students during the semester has been both an exhilarating and daunting experience.
Should I teach more science fiction because most of my students are science majors?
Should I teach a novel, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or give them short stories?
Can I teach a graphic novel?
These were only a few questions I asked myself upon receiving my teaching schedule over the summer.
After teaching at DUT for three months, my daily routine involves forty minute walks to the West Campus building where I navigate around the use of space in my classroom (immobile desk rows are stubborn opponents to Socratic seminars and literature circles), negotiate around language barriers in discussions (“Make? Main? Oh, wait, maid.”) and teach lessons that hopefully engross my students into that week’s readings (“Let’s reenact the last scene of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”).
During my everyday journeys to my classroom, I wonder about Elizabeth Bishop’s essential question: Why do we travel?
Do I travel to learn? Despite expected stumbles over language and my students awkwardly contorted in their seats so they can talk in groups, their ideas regarding literature are always challenging my own. Whether it is my students arguing that a Teenage Mutant Ninja coloring book is literature or that equality in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” is defined by those in power so that those with less power can only follow that definition, I am often overwhelmed by the euphoric rush that comes with new understandings of literature. Currently, I am teaching a unit on fairy tales and women—a combination of my favorite topics. We have been working with different versions of “Cinderella,” from around the world and I was pleased that the (very few) young women in my classes heatedly dominated a discussion about gender in fairy tales.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is next on my student’s “reading” list. I am impatiently eager to hear my students’ thoughts on fairy tales and women are viewing this text.
Do I travel for stories? English foreign language teachers at DUT are required to give a forty-five minute lecture, followed by a 15 minute question and answer session, to students every semester. Topics can range from “Alternate Reality Games,” to “American Subcultures” to “Nonstandard English.” I decided to talk about growing up Asian in American, my struggles with diaspora and how the power of stories is helping me restore my cultural identity. My lecture consisted of fifty powerpoint slides, a three minute lesson on tagalog and a quote from Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels that I had read for Dr. Meixner’s LGBTQ Young Adult literature. I did not know what to expect when I walked into my lecture hall.
I did not expect close to fifty students attending my lecture. I did not expect how powerfully the stories of my family and the story of Vincent Chin would affect my audience. I did not expect staying another thirty minutes after my lecture because students had gathered around my podium to ask me more questions. “Is this why you love world literature?” “What do you do when faced with racism?” “Do you have another lecture? We love your stories.”
Some students even shared their stories with me.
“Your speech really touched me,” said one of my students who is Mongolian. “I was like your brother. He didn’t learn tagalog because he was bullied. I was bullied for speaking Mongolian. And I’m like you too. You don’t know if you’re Filipina or American. I don’t know if I’m Mongolian or Chinese. It’s a difficult question that I think is impossible to answer.”
“We’ll find our answers,” I told him. “We’ll find answers that work for us.”
Do I travel to communicate and connect? In my daily travels, I have attempted to connect my enriching experiences with our department’s English professors to my students at DUT. I have tried to communicate what I have learned at home with TCNJ to a home I am creating here. In the three months I have lived and taught here in Dalian, China, my understanding of literature and language has immensely expanded as I see stories reach across borders, barriers and boundaries everyday.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “Question of Travel,” still travels with me.
But as I told my students during our first Socratic Seminar, more questions is what we ultimately seek to find from literature.
“Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there … No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
- If you’re interested in following Nicole Magno during her fellowship in China, you can follow her travel blog at http://travelingsoulless.tumblr.com/. You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you want to check out the Princeton in Asia program, you can view their fellowships at http://piaweb.princeton.edu/.