to Write Home About Is
Read and Cherish
Rich Orloff '73
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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:
(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."
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.
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
description of a couple about to cross the street in 1974
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."
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. *
to Write Home About is sold at the Oberlin Bookstore or can
be ordered from the Shansi Memorial Association for $8. Call
Orloff is a writer and playwright in New York.