They were the first Chinese to grow up in the post-Mao world. Most had been infants in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping initiated the free-market changes that eventually became known as Reform and Opening. Nearly all my students came from the countryside, and when they were small, the nation's population was still 80 percent rural. Many of their parents were illiterate; some of their grandmothers had bound feet. A number of my students were the first people from their villages to attend college.
They majored in English—a new subject for a nation hoping to overcome a history of troubled foreign relations. Ever since the Opium War the Chinese had wavered between perceiving the outside world as a threat or as an opportunity, until Mao's xenophobia resulted in over two decades of isolation. But Deng took the opposite approach, encouraging foreign trade, and in the 1990s all middle schools and high schools began to institute mandatory English courses. The nation faced a severe shortage of instructors, and most of my students would go on to teach in small-town schools.
Sometimes the old xenophobia flashed across their essays. Once, I assigned the topic "What Do You Hate?" and never had those brittle pages contained so much anger. They hated the Japanese for invading their country in the 1930s; they hated the Nationalist government for ruling Taiwan. "I hate all the countries in the world that abstruct our country developing," wrote Sean. History was personal, and so were international affairs; a student named Richard hated a man he had never met, the president of Taiwan. "Lee Teng-hui don't follow the mandate of the heaven and comply with the popular wishes of the people," Richard wrote. "He want Taiwan continue to be an independent kingdom which is under his control."
But already it was becoming more common for Chinese to see the outside world as an opportunity, and usually my students showed intense curiosity. They asked endless questions about American customs, laws, products. Don, who had grown up in one of the poorest homes of all my students, composed a letter to Robert J. Eaton, then the CEO of the Chrysler Corporation. "My hometown is Fengdu, I hope you have heard its name," Don wrote. "But my hometown's economy hasn't been developed. So I want to establish a factory for making cars and trucks." They were dreamers, and I could tell that some of them were bound to wander far from home. In every class certain students stood out, like a young woman named Vanessa. She was beautiful, and her English was among the best in the class, but mostly her ideas were different. "Someday, I will visit U.S. to see the wide, eternal Midwest Prairie," she wrote. "And I want to know what the Indians look like, and what kind of life they lead. 'Dance with Buffalo' is my dream."