The story of China and I: Canadian Sinologist

By Erin Williams ( ) Updated: 2016-07-11 10:26:05

Erin Williams is the project supervisor of Canada Asian-Pacific Fund. Her research areas include international relations and the Sino-Canadian bilateral relationship. She shared her China story with us as she takes part in the 2016 Visiting Program for Young Sinologists in Beijing.

The story of China and I: Canadian Sinologist

Erin Williams attends the opening ceremony of the 2016 Visiting Program for Young Sinologists at the National Library of China on July 6, 2016. [Photo/]

My very first encounter with China was a lucky accident: I was 17 years old and completing a year-long cultural exchange program in the small Latin American country of Honduras.

My host family there had planned an evening out at the movies. But rather than buying tickets for the film we had intended to see, we mistakenly purchased tickets to see "The Last Emperor" about the life of Puyi and the tremendous change and challenges that China experienced in the early 20th century.

It now feels like a fateful moment. When I returned to the United States the following year, I selected my university specifically because it offered Mandarin language courses.

Two years later, in 1991, I had the opportunity to visit China as a student at East China Normal University. Among the many things I learned was how common it was for well-intentioned people to misunderstand each other.

At that time, there was comparatively little people-to-people contact between China and the US (the country where I grew up). Whatever information people had was mostly filtered through their respective media or governments.

As a result, people in Western countries especially had an incomplete understanding of China and the complexity of people's lives, histories, and experiences.

Surprisingly, many Western countries have lagged woefully behind in re-orienting their education systems to account for the fact that Asia – and China in particular – is playing an ever greater role in shaping the world in which we all live.

In countries like Canada and the US, students learn far more about the countries that mattered to their pasts, than they do about countries that will matter to their futures.

Moreover, many Westerners still have the mistaken assumption that China is trying to "catch up" to the rest of us. Instead, they need to understand that China and its Asian neighbors are increasingly defining the future, and that China has become a truly global power in its stature, and in its connections with all parts of the globe.

Since that first experience in 1991, I have returned to China five times – as a teacher of university students in Shanghai, as an author trying to tell the life stories of people in a northern Chinese village and as a graduate student conducting research on how China deals with issues of bilingualism and ethnic difference.

The next chapter of my China story starts with making a difference closer to home, starting in my adopted city of Vancouver, which is rightfully referred to as the most Asian city outside of Asia.

In my current role as a manager of education initiatives at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, I have the opportunity to address the gaping hole in young Canadians' education about China.

I am leading a project to train pre-university teachers to be informed about contemporary Asia and Asian history so that they can introduce their students to this very important region of the world.

My own "China story" began with a fortunate accident, but we cannot leave the future of China-Canada relations to serendipity.

Related: The fourth Visiting Program for Young Sinologists kicks off


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