Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Summer 2001 Vol.97 No.1
Feature Stories
When Worlds Meet
Visions of Oberlin
Safety Man
[cover story] Caught in the Act
Round Robin Takes Flight
Message from the President
Around Tappan Square

Something to Write Home About Is

Something to Read and Cherish

by Rich Orloff '73

FOR THOSE OF US NOT FORTUNATE ENOUGH to participate in the fellowship program offered by Shansi, the organization has now provided us with the next best thing. They've winnowed through 40 years of letters from Shansi fellows and created an anthology, Something to Write Home About.

The tradition of the "Shansi letter" from fellows became so popular that they were automatically distributed to dorm living rooms and eventually became part of the fellowship experience. Fellows were expected to write about how they lived and what they saw. Although the letters have ranged widely in tone, the best of them share the writers' wide-eyed humility as they experience a life that causes them to reflect upon not only what they see, but also their own values and assumptions.

Ninety-nine of the letters, spanning 1951 to 1988, have been anthologized. A second anthology is in the works. The letters offer a sometimes humorous, sometimes moving, sometimes provocative, and continuously involving look at 40 years of adventures in Asian cultures.

One of the remarkable aspects of the book is its portrayal of the evolution of Asian life during this time. In letters from Tokyo in 1987, Charlotte Briggs '85 writes about very small apartments in Tokyo (where the oven is in the hallway) and about befriending a woman whose job is creating English slogans to be imprinted on Japanese clothing (such as on a toddler's playsuit: "Taffy...please, suck me to the marrow"). Such homes and jobs are a world apart from rural India in 1951, when new Oberlin grad Joe Elder bicycled to his first day of teaching and found a bunch of boys stopping their schoolyard play to peruse him.

"Most of them stood about five feet away, where they could scrutinize the bicycle, my shirt, my trousers, my shoes, my hair, my pen, and my watch, but a few of the braver ones came up to where they could practically touch me in order to see what held the belt up or what function my socks performed."

In the 36 years between these two letters, Shansi fellows report on adjusting to the cultures in which they live and their attempts to educate their students about the cultures from which they've come. The latter category includes letters about local productions of Moliere's The Miser and the musical Fiddler on the Roof, adapted for a Javanese audience, with the Russian shtetl Anatevka becoming the Indonesian village of Rancabenda.

Although the quality of the writing varies, most of the letters involve the reader in experiences that can be amazingly unusual at one moment and touchingly universal the next. A recurring theme is the thoughtfulness and friendliness of the people and societies encountered, where taking time for conversation is more important than punctuality, where commitment to family transcends personal goals.

Not all of the letters are upbeat. Poverty is rampant, rules can be stifling, and not every community is Mayberry transported to Asia. In one of the most poignant, Beth Browning writes from China in 1986 about a bright, optimistic young woman named Lui Dong Qing, who progresses brilliantly in her English studies and who dreams of a fellowship to study in America, only to have her spirit destroyed by the envy of those around her:

"He (her department chair) had received complaints, he said, that she spent too much time studying English and not enough time on her job. She would have to work more hours in the spring. She would have to take on a heavier class load and do additional student consultation...Lui Dong Qing's leader would supply her with enough work and enough tension to make quite certain that her English studies would suffer, she would go sleepless, that no one could say that anyone had been allowed a free ride to America in his department."

I read this letter hoping for a happy ending, some uplifting twist to reassure me. I finished it, saddened in a way that only the best nonfiction can provoke, knowing the story was not only true but far from unique.

Other letters amused me and surprised me. Almost all engaged me. In these 99 slices of life, I witnessed the Indian ritual of buying a tube of toothpaste, Taiwanese watching popcorn pop for the first time, the rules of bathing in China, the complications of renewing a motorcycle license in Indonesia, the ordination of monks in Thailand, and 1973 graduate Catherine Shaffer's touch

ing description of a couple about to cross the street in 1974 Korea:

"An old man and his wife, obviously country folk by their traditional dress and their manner, were facing, perhaps for the first time, traffic. Having made it to the center line of the street they wanted to cross, they waited in bewilderment as endless strings of cars hemmed them in on both sides. Finally their chance came, and the old man tenderly reached for his wife's hand--perhaps one of the first times he'd done that in public--and in hand-in-hand togetherness they shuffled quickly across the street."

I read paragraphs like these with an increased appreciation of the eloquence of awe and with gratitude for the Shansi fellowship program and the remarkable people who have participated in it. Something to Write Home About is not only a good read. It's a compelling testimony of how Shansi has become Oberlin's finest example of learning and labor. *
Something to Write Home About is sold at the Oberlin Bookstore or can be ordered from the Shansi Memorial Association for $8. Call 440.775.8605.
Rich Orloff is a writer and playwright in New York.
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