8 Questions for Frances Fremont-Smith, Lifelong Educator

When and why did you first come to China?

I’ve always had a love of languages. I studied French, Latin and Greek in primary and secondary school in Boston. In those days, in the 70s, there were very few schools that offered Chinese, so even though I knew I wanted to study Chinese I would have to wait until college. My mother, a champion tennis player, became a mountain trekkers and photojournalist traveling many times to Nepal. Her pictures of Asia really inspired me.

I also knew that after the Nixon trip it was likely that normalization would come so I thought Chinese would be an exciting language to learn and, of course, I really wanted to go to China. So I applied early to Connecticut College to study Chinese and Asian studies. In the mid-70s, your only study abroad options were in Taiwan, but there was also a program in Hong Kong for seniors. So in 1978 I did the Yale-China Program and studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Because I was a student in Hong Kong I was able to go into China and, while I was in a silk factory in Hangzhou, normalization was announced between the United States and China. When I got to Beijing and met old family friends who had been in China for 30 years—this is Joan Hinton and her husband Sid Engst—they asked me if I wanted to stay. I said I did and was hired to teach in Changchun, Jilin Province. I was the first American to teach in northeastern China once normalization was announced.

I went home to pack my bags and returned in the beginning of January 1979. It was a two-year commitment and two years turned into 34.

Why did you stay for so long?

I didn’t set out to become a teacher, but I found out I was able to engage my students. I think being here so early, being in such a rough location—we only had heat for a few hours of the day—was very exciting. I was 21 at the time. I felt useful, I felt excited to be a part of a country in transition.

But I did feel after two years in Changchun that I was missing the action, not being in Beijing. So I transferred from Changchun to Beijing and I was working for the Academy for Agricultural Mechanization Sciences doing translation work and teaching. But I was also working part time at one of the branch colleges of the Foreign Languages Institute (today the Beijing Language and Culture University) and I met my husband there.

He was a teacher, a Chinese national, and “Uncle Max” in the production of The Sound of Music, which I was directing at the school. He had been brought up to speak English, prepping for the diplomatic corps, but the Cultural Revolution came and his family didn’t have the right political background. In 1977 he was able to take the college examinations and studied English. He was teaching English at the school and we met and got married. It was one of the earliest Chinese-foreign marriages and was documented by National Geographic in one of their TV documentaries called Four Americans in China. Mine was the love story: the teacher who falls in love.

That’s an amazing journey. So what projects are you working on now?

I’m the senior advisor for program development at g-MEO, which is a service provider for university students wishing to study abroad in China. Whats different is that this program allows you to study your undergraduate degree in English and get credits toward your degree while studying in China. We have set up study abroad programs in Chengdu, Shanghai, Suzhou and Taipei.

My other job is head of external admissions for a school in Hong Kong—the Chinese International School—where I used to teach. They have set up a China center for their 9th grade students in Hangzhou. So in the fall of 2013, much of the 9th grade class from Hong Kong will spend a year at this boarding school run by the Chinese International School. I am head of external recruitment, which means that in addition to the Hong Kong students, there is the opportunity for 9th graders from schools around China and the world to spend a year immersed in China. I see this as an amazing opportunity for young people from around the world to have a foothold in China at a young age and not only become global citizens, but be leaders in diplomacy, education, business and more when they become adults.

Tell us a little more about g-MEO. How do you find places that will teach in English?

What’s unique about g-MEO is that it offers an affordable opportunity for students from universities that don’t have their own programs in China to come to China for study. It is not a language immersion program, but more of a cultural one. Students who take part can continue taking courses in English at Sichuan University. Partner universities from the U.S. send adjunct faculty to teach courses in English. In addition, more and more Chinese professors are able to offer courses in English.

Like Project Pengyou, this is a program to help support the 100,000 Strong Initiative to provide opportunities for students who have an interest in China to engage with China and learn first hand about the culture and business environment.

Right now we’re partnered with Shanghai Finance University and Tongji University in Shanghai; in Suzhou, with Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University; in Taipei with Yuan Ze University; and in Chengdu we’ve built an American Center at Sichuan University.

What projects have you worked on in the past in China?

I worked for six years for FutureGenerations, a nonprofit focused on community development, conservation and environmental protection around the world. I was their China director working on programs, which had primarily been in the Tibet Autonomous Region. FutureGenerations leaders had worked with the Chinese government to create the Mt. Everest nature preserve in the 80s and they did a lot with community development projects throughout Tibet.

When I came onboard I worked on those projects in Tibet and initiated something new that would be a nationwide environmental campaign called the Green Long March (GLM). The GLM began in 2007 and still continues today. It is a program to mobilize Chinese university students to march along 10 routes throughout the summer months, promoting environmental awareness and doing research on conservation successes in rural areas across China.

The 10 routes made it possible to cross just about every province in China. We found students through our partner universities and Beijing Forestry University helped organize all the students through their Youth Leagues. Each route would see about 100 students so basically we had about 5000 students from all over China participating in the Green Long March and mobilizing tens of thousands more along the way. And the research they did on conservation successes were made available online and in print so people could share best practices.

The GLM was awarded the Mother River Award by the State Forestry Administration in 2009 for best environmental project. I was awarded Outstanding Conservationist by the SFA as well.

Much of your work is about bringing foreign students to China. What do you think is the value in coming to China?

This is why I believe so strongly in the 100,000 Strong Initiative. We have an imbalance of understanding between the two countries and we’ve had that since the time I first came. Now it’s 34 years later and there’s still a huge lack of understanding of how China operates and who China is.

It is important to rectify the imbalance of understanding between the West and China. As China has opened up in recent years, more and more Chinese students and professionals are learning about the West—they’re spending time in North America and Europe, they’re going to school there, they’re living in communities—and many of them repatriate back to China and have a greater understanding of how we operate and who we are.

We need more of our young people to come to China. First of all, there are wonderful opportunities and people and culture in China. But more importantly, if we’re going to continue to live in a peaceful world we have to have mutual understanding. My worry is that due to a lack of information in the United States, and elsewhere, there’s a lot of fear about China because its economy is growing so quickly, making her a more powerful country. I think if more young people come here, there will be more hope for a peaceful and prosperous future.

What do you think is one of the biggest misunderstandings about China?

One of the biggest misunderstandings is just what the life of a Chinese person is really like. I think people are people and we all have the same hopes and desires for our families, for our children, for the future. Sometimes that can get lost in politics because it’s the People’s Republic of China and it’s not a democracy and that brings with it a fear to many people in the United States. The fear that was built up during the days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union seems to be now transferring over to China.

I think that those people who haven’t been here, and met people, and lived with young people, and lived alongside Chinese people in China, don’t have an understanding that, in fact, we all have the same hopes in life that transcend politics.

What has been the biggest change in your time here?

I remember on an early trip back to America, saying to my grandmother who was 80 years old, “You’re so lucky Grandma. You’ve been able to see so much change in your lifetime. From horse and buggy to automobiles, to airplanes, to the moon landing.” I never thought I’d be able to witness such dramatic change in the future.

So in that aspect, to be able to witness a country go from where the lights pretty much went off at 8pm every night and everybody was dressed the same way and mostly lived in hutongs, to cities with high rises and highways and solar- and wind-powered lights has been remarkable.

When I first came to China, people dreamed about having a telephone inside the house, maybe even a bathroom inside the house. It wasn’t even in the realm of imagination that they might own a car. But, twenty years later, it was within their financial power to actually own a car so many people bought a car simply because they had the money. China was renowned for having a sea of bicycles and now a bicycle is a rarity in a Chinese metropolis. In those days the Second Ring Road seemed wide and huge, but now it’s not big enough to contain the traffic.

However, there are a few things that don’t change: there’s always been construction around Guomao. It’s been a non-stop construction project since the 1980s.

The other thing is China’s heating policy north of the Yangtze River where they turn on the heat from November 15 to March 15. For all the modernization that China’s had over the past 50 years, it’s a policy that’s never changed.

Bonus question: can you tell us one of your favorite China experiences?

Seeing China through the eyes of the students that come.

I did my graduate work at Harvard Graduate School of Education and after I graduated I was hired to start the Chinese language program at one of the top prep schools in the Boston area, Milton Academy. It was then that I realized these young people needed to have the experience of living in China—that the only way they were really going to understand the language was to understand the people. So in the mid-80s I set up, with Milton Academy, some of the first Chinese homestay exchange programs for American high school students.

These kids, ranging 12 to 16 years old, would come and spend seven weeks in the summer living with Chinese families, taking intensive Chinese language classes and traveling, doing experiential learning trips around China.

To see their transition from being afraid of China to falling in love with the country and having a Chinese family they’ve kept in touch with their whole life was extremely memorable for me. That has continued because I’ve run similar exchange programs for School Year Abroad and the Chinese International School of Hong Kong, bringing U.S. and Hong Kong students to mainland China, helping them understand China in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. It is the power of immersion and human relationships between the world and the country I call my second home.

Transcription by Huizhong Wu.