Rob Efird: It was 'love at first sight' for China

Updated: 2014-10-24 06:43

By YU DENG in Seattle(China Daily USA)

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Rob Efird: It was 'love at first sight' for China

Professor Rob Efird and his two children pose with the children of migrant workers in Kunming, for whom Efird designed a series of environmental learning opportunities, during his year as a Fulbright research scholar in 2012. Provided to China Daily

Rob Efird: It was 'love at first sight' for China
In 1992, Rob Efird made his first trip to China, and the month-long visit became a turning point for the rest of his life.

"It was love at first sight," said Efird, now Chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work at Seattle University. "I was captivated not only by the cultural richness and diversity I saw in China, but also by the rapid changes transforming Chinese society. I was also impressed by the openness and warmth of the Chinese people I met."

Efird is one of 20 young China scholars who have been selected for the National Committee on United States-China Relations' Public Intellectuals Program (PIP).

The National Committee - a nonprofit educational organization that encourages understanding of China and the United States between citizens of both countries - launched PIP in 2005 to nurture the next generation of China specialists. It is funded by the US State and Education departments, foundations and private citizens.

Efird said he is optimistic about the future of US-China relations and feels one promising development is the increasing grassroots interactions between Chinese and US citizens.

"For example, more and more Chinese are coming over to the United States to study or work, and many are staying. Each relationship they form in the US has the potential to knit the two countries more closely together, and that helps give me hope for the future of bilateral relations," Efird said.

As an applied social-science researcher with a special interest in environmental issues and collaborative research with community partners, Efird's current research is focused on primary school children's environmental learning in Kunming, China.

He has spent more than 10 years studying and conducting fieldwork in Japan and China and uses his ability to speak Chinese and Japanese in his research on Sino-Japanese relations and environmental issues in contemporary China.

Before his first trip to China in 1992, Efird said he had no connections to China and never thought his career would come to focus on the world's most populous country.

Born and raised in Seattle, Efird was accepted to Yale University at the age of 16 but decided to defer matriculation for one year in order to broaden his vision and to get some experience abroad. His original plan was to go to France as an exchange student, but the Rotary Club exchange program he applied to sent him to Japan instead.

After spending a year as a high school student in rural Japan, Efird entered Yale and chose anthropology as his major due to his cross-cultural experiences in Japan.

Efird's curiosity about China began when he went to Harvard University for a master's degree in East Asian studies and ended up studying with graduate students who specialized in China.

"Some of the students who were focused on China would joke that everything Japanese originally came from China. While I knew that was an exaggeration, I was still curious and wanted to see for myself what the relationship was," he explained.

As part of his master's program studies Efird spent two years abroad at Kyoto University on a Japanese government fellowship, during which he finally had the opportunity to spend a month backpacking around China in 1992. He landed in Kunming and traveled around Yunnan province, Tibet, Chengdu in Southwest China and finally returned to Japan by boat from Shanghai.

The trip was a turning point: after his experiences there Efird said it convinced him to begin the intensive study of Chinese upon his return to Harvard. After graduating, Efird won a Blakemore Foundation Fellowship to continue his studies of Chinese in Beijing.

However, soon after arriving in Beijing he was approached by three young Chinese musicians who were looking for a drummer. Efird joined them and ended up practicing and performing all over Beijing for two years, including one show as the opening band for Cui Jian, who is known as "The Father of Chinese Rock".

"That's actually how I learned my Chinese," says Efird, whose Mandarin bears the unmistakable mark of the Beijing dialect. "The band was far better than a Chinese class because it made learning the language fun. I always tell my college students that if you want to go to a foreign country and learn the language, choose a hobby, a sport, or an interest that doesn't require language proficiency to enjoy," he said. "Then find people in that country who share that same interest. With the mutual interest you have a bridge to improve your language skills while having fun."

Efird is still close friends with the band's lead singer and hangs out with him every time he returns to Beijing.

Compared to the increasing number of Chinese students coming to the United States to study, Efird is disappointed at the relative lack of interest in studying abroad in China among US undergraduates.

"Of course it is strategically important for our students to learn about China, and yes, learning Chinese is probably a good career move. But what I want to emphasize to them is that studying abroad in China is fun: it's thrilling, challenging and endlessly fascinating," he said.

Although he regards himself as extremely fortunate to have benefited from many great teachers, Efird singles out William Kelly, a professor of anthropology with a focus on Japan at Yale, and Stevan Harrell, an anthropologist of China at the University of Washington, as particularly important mentors during the development of his career.

With 10 years of study in China and Japan, Efird said he sees the US relationship with China becoming stronger, but feels that this is also dependent on China's relationship with other nations in Asia such as Japan.

"I think that the tensions between China and Japan may often be exaggerated. But we should still do what we can to foster the development of transnational networks and grassroots, non-state collaborations between the two nations," he said. "My hope is that someday Japan and China can achieve the type of reconciliation and solidarity that we see in postwar Europe. There are certainly plenty of issues that are in the mutual interest of both countries, such as the environment."

Efird received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Washington and joined the faculty at Seattle University in 2004.

Since 2006, his research has focused on environmental issues in contemporary China, and particularly environmental education. Each summer since then he has returned to Yunnan Province with his family to conduct research with local partners, including schools, NGOs and local governments. He and his wife have a 13-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, and all of them speak Chinese.

As part of his Yunnan research, Efird hopes to help Chinese schoolchildren "learn to live sustainably and become good stewards of their ecosystems." During the 2011-12 academic year, Efird spent 10 months in China as a Fulbright Research Scholar helping to assess and better implement environmental education in China's public schools.

"In 2003 China's Ministry of Education adopted a very progressive policy that mandates environmental education in all of China's public schools," Efird said, "but there are a number of obstacles to its successful implementation," he said.

The main obstacles are the fact that China's examination-oriented education system does not emphasize environmental education in the all-important entrance examinations, and schools, teachers and families are excessively concerned about the safety of schoolchildren, which makes it difficult to take students out of the classroom for hands-on learning experiences in the local environment.

"One of the main goals of my research is to devise or discover ways to help schools and teachers overcome those obstacles; for example, by trying to create opportunities like school gardens, which offer hands-on environmental learning within the school grounds," he said.

He is also exploring ways to use technology in environmental education: this year Kunming's city government is implementing a "green video competition" that Efird developed for elementary and middle school students.

"Groups of students will create short videos on an environmental theme, and the most interesting and creative videos will be selected and uploaded to the website of the city's Environmental Protection Bureau so that teachers can download them for use in their classes," he said.

Next summer Efird will return to Kunming to evaluate the success of this competition and also assess the impact of a Sino-Japanese environmental education training and network-building initiative carried out by the Japan-China Civil Society Network, a Japan-based NGO.