Su Wei and Su Laoshi

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Photo by Alison Vivinetto.

In Su Wei’s cluttered office, Chinese calligraphy, framed photographs, and awards cover the wall. Papers and books are spread across every surface. The floor creaks as Su Wei walks across the room. From a shelf filled with thick Chinese encyclopedias, he picks up a baseball and turns it over in his hands. It is a gift from a former non-heritage student, a baseball player who impressed Su Wei with his unexpected use of a Chinese idiom one day and who now works in China.

Su Wei approaches another shelf and picks up a framed drawing. On the back, in Chinese characters, a student wrote, “Thank you for saving my life.” The young woman felt that Su Wei had helped her out of depression by teaching her how to “taste Chinese.” Learning how to appreciate the melody and metaphor of the language led her to rediscover meaning in her life and eventually to pursue a master’s degree in Chinese Studies.

Since 1998, Su Wei has been a senior lector of Chinese at Yale. The many gifts that occupy his bookshelves and hang on his walls are from Ma Yuanmao, Tang Kailin, Shi Liwen, and others — Yalies who usually go by their well-worn English names. But Su Wei refers to them only by their Chinese names, as if transforming them into characters from a story.

As Su Wei recounts anecdotes from generations of his former students, alternately beaming with pride or raising his eyebrows with concern, I find myself in an odd position, for I am his student too. I wonder how I will be represented someday. I wonder if I will be a big chipped trophy, or a baseball, or a framed drawing, or a letter written in childish Chinese.

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At Yale, you kind of expect your professors to change your life. After my first day in Su Wei’s class “Readings in Modern Text,” I wondered if he might change mine.

That Monday morning, he awed the class into silence with quotations from Chinese poets and intellectuals. Perhaps it was when he told us to write down and memorize a Confucius quotation that I realized this wasn’t just a standard Chinese language course. We would be talking about society, literature, and philosophy — he promised that we would try to achieve a depth of thinking in Chinese.

Su Wei came to America in the early eighties as one of the first Chinese students to pursue a western degree after the Cultural Revolution. He played a key role as a leading intellectual in the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, was blacklisted by the Chinese government soon after the bloody June 4 crackdown, and eventually fled his home country. Also an acclaimed essayist and novelist, he has published three novels and several books of short stories and personal essays in Chinese. He also seems to know all the major figures in Chinese literary and intellectual circles; when I mention some of my favorite writers, he is quick to call them “close personal friends.”

But at Yale, most of us don’t call our professor “Su Wei.” We call him “Su Laoshi,” Teacher Su, a title which carries respect and affection. He currently teaches classes in modern Chinese fiction and nonfiction.

Su Laoshi loves to talk about his past. Very little is deemed inappropriate for class discussion. In our non-fiction course, general themes in our reading often trigger long personal narratives. If our class discusses the differences between Chinese and American marriage customs, Su Laoshi talks about how he met his wife. If we discuss intellectualism in modern Chinese society, he mentions a human rights activist about whom he has written a poem. One story leads to the next, and he frequently reminds us, “actually, this is relevant,” though we have long abandoned the text. When we press him for more details, he sometimes says, “It’s a complicated story, I won’t get into it.” But still he goes on to tell us about, say, flouting school rules to date a pretty girl or throwing “the first co-ed dance party at Sun Yatsen University.”

After studying abroad at ucla, Su Wei returned to China in 1986 and, unlike most bachelors his age, owned his own studio apartment. This apartment soon became one of the most important salons for Beijing intellectuals. Political activists and writers held meetings there so regularly that he decided to distribute copies of his keys. “I pushed my bed into the far corner, and there were people coming in and out at all hours of the day,” he said. Magazines were put together; major events leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were discussed.

When Su Laoshi narrates his life, his face glows. He stares up at the ceiling, continuing on as if class will never end. But suddenly he remembers that there is vocabulary to cover, so he hastily clears his throat, turns his eyes back to the course book, flips a couple of pages, and asks a student to read something out loud, as if he had never digressed. If there is time left, we pick up our pens and look diligent for another few minutes. Some mornings, Su Laoshi doesn’t realize class is over until a crowd of students in the next class gathers outside of the room.

When Su Wei recounts his life, sometimes he will skip the details or scenes that you would expect to be most important. He spares no vivid descriptions but seems to value connections and ideas over plotlines. One day, he tells his life story without mentioning his role in the Tiananmen Square protests. Another day, he focuses entirely on why he became a writer.

But often Su Laoshi foregoes speaking about his own life to talk about his xuesheng, his students. He always finds a way to mention Wen Houting, “the best student that our Chinese department has ever seen.”

Wen Houting is Austin Woerner ’08. I met him when I was at Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere of “Ask the Sky and the Earth,” a cantata commemorating China’s “up to the villages, down to the countryside” movement of the sixties and seventies. During this period of Chinese history, urban teenagers from intellectual families were sent far away to be “re-educated” in the countryside through hard farm work. Su Wei was one such youth. He left home when he was 15 and didn’t return for ten years. In 2008, he completed a poem based on his experiences during that time, working with a friend who composed accompanying music. Soon after, Austin translated the lyrics into English, so that the Western world could understand.

About 1000 people attended this cantata’s premiere. At the end of the performance, Su Wei stood up in the balcony, beaming and waving both his arms in the air: a gesture of pride and thanks. Later, he asked me if I was touched by the music and lyrics. “Many audience members told me after the show that they cried,” he said. “You were sitting down there, weren’t you? Did you see people cry?”

But there were also audience members who complained that the piece was too upbeat, that it didn’t represent all the suffering that youth went through during the decade they spent in manual labor, far away from their homes. Su Wei understands these objections to the lyrics. After all, in Austin’s English translations, the lyrics express positive sentiments: “Oh, the mountain knows its noble truth, / The ocean knows its drunken ecstasy. / Do not ask me, do not ask me, / whether I regret my youth.” Even in its lowest dips, the poem is wistful and nostalgic, but there is never bitterness.

“This is because that was a time of hope, too,” said Su Wei. “In my life, I have never completely lost hope, because even in the darkness, there have always been good people, good memories, sources of light.”

Witching Vale, Su Wei’s novel that also draws from his experience during the Cultural Revolution, is currently being translated by Austin. In meeting Austin, I encountered for the first time one of the human beings behind Su Wei’s characters.

When he was at Yale, Austin was on the 2007 Chinese Debate team with three other non-heritage students hand-selected by Su Wei to represent Yale at an international Chinese debate tournament that was broadcast on Chinese Central Television. Su Wei was happy to share this episode of his life, boasting about his four students, now his “buddies” and “American sons,” who had mastered Chinese idioms and could recite lines of ancient Chinese poetry.

The team persisted through ten grueling days of researching, competing, and as Austin put it, “performing like monkeys” for the audience and cameras. In between debate rounds, television hosts pushed microphones in their faces and told them to recite poems, attempt tongue twisters, and talk about themselves and why they loved China. Austin and his friends were rushed from one activity to the next, spending all of their free time holed up in the hotel preparing evidence or at the TV station recording.

At many points, it became difficult for the team members to grasp why they were in the competition at all. At the start of one of the rounds, Austin remembers feeling relieved rather than anxious when he and his teammates thought that their opponents were going to beat them.

But Su Wei was very serious about representing Yale properly. Before each of the three rounds, he wrote up extensive pieces for the team — sophisticated, flowery stuff that the team just didn’t know how to use. So one day, they left, opting to prepare with the help of their Chinese friends at Tsinghua University instead. Su Wei was furious. The championship round against Oxford was the next day.

The Yalies returned home as champions, carrying a big glass trophy in the trunk of their taxi. But when the driver tried to unload the heavy prize, he dropped it, shattering part of it on the street. Su Wei was upset for a long time. Austin was just glad to be home.

There are points when Austin’s memories and Su Wei’s stories fail to overlap. For instance, Su Wei does not mention the joy with which he and his American sons pranced around the hotel room after they had won, tearing up all their evidence and throwing it in the air. Austin’s favorite moment: lying on the floor watching the paper shreds drift down, like snowflakes.

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Two hours into our conversation in his office, Su Laoshi pauses, and I say what’s been on my mind. “Su Laoshi,” I begin, “do you think you have so many stories because you’re a writer, or are you a writer because you have so many stories?”

He leans back in his chair and combs his fingers through his hair, seemingly the most content man in the world. “That is one of the best questions!” he says, eyes glittering, hands folded over his stomach. “It’s one of those chicken or egg questions.”

He responds with another story, mentioning Bei Dao, a famous Chinese poet he describes as a strictly “literary” friend. He recalls a major argument he had with the poet, who was once nominated for the Nobel Prize.

“He is very cool and remote in his writing. He said that the essay I had submitted to his anthology was too warm,” says Su Laoshi. “And I told him, ‘So what, I’m just warm. I write to give people warmth. Is there something wrong with that?’”

Su Laoshi’s warmth is reflected in the realtionships he has built, both past and present. He connects to people because they can come into his office at any time, because he pushed his bed into a corner and gave out keys, because he has always believed in himself and the people around him.

“To be a writer is not important. It is more important to be a person.”

He gestures towards me. “When I face a student of mine, including someone like yourself, I am not just facing a Chinese learner,” he says. “I am interacting with a whole person.”

This is his teaching philosophy. When writing about Su Wei, it is easy to miss this side of him, because people are interested in his past, which has become a type of history. But Su Wei truly values the influence he has on his students. He values his role as Su Laoshi.

Hours into our conversation, I am telling my teacher about my family. For one second — but I notice it — he looks up at the clock, and I get a bit nervous. I try to weave my story more tightly, afraid to take up any more of his time. But he seems to detect the change in my tone and tells me to continue, shifting a little in his seat.

“This is no longer an interview. We’re just friends talking.”

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