Washington Post journalist, author of first-year book John Pomfret to speak at Centre this week
September 6, 2010 By Gretchen Hines-Ward
convocation on Thursday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. in Newlin Hall.
Each year, first-year Centre College students are asked to read a common book before they arrive in the fall. The Class of 2014 explored John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. Pomfret, Humana Visiting Scholar, will speak at a convocation on Thursday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. in Newlin Hall. The event is free and open to the public.
Pomfret spent a year of his Stanford University undergraduate career as an exchange student at Nanjing University in China in 1980. He then went on to a career in journalism, spending the bulk of his time in China. Twenty years later, he decided to reacquaint himself with some of his classmates. Chinese Lessons is their story and his own.
Says Pomfret of his arrival in China as a student in 1980: “I considered myself lucky to be in China. I’d started to study modern Chinese history and the Chinese language at a time when China was terra incognita. As a twenty-one-year-old American exchange student, I had won a front-row seat at what I thought was going to be the greatest show on Earth: the reemergence of China on the world scene after four decades of self-imposed isolation. Being a student offered opportunities not available to Western diplomats, businessmen, or journalists for the simple reason that the Chinese government didn’t much care about us foreign college kids. We could move around more freely, have closer contact with the locals, and, as a result, get a better idea of what it was like to be Chinese.”
China’s recent economic transformation has had a human cost, and Pomfret is personally acquainted with some of the people who paid it. One classmate’s father was killed for being an intellectual; another did years of manual labor to avoid a Party-arranged marriage. Pomfret shares his friends’ journeys to adulthood during such turbulent times.
William Grimes of The New York Times writes, "[Pomfret] loves China, and he excels at describing the minutiae that make up Chinese life: the slang, the food, the bathrooms and the explosion of nouveau-riche bad taste in the boom towns and shopping districts. He makes an engaging, expert guide to the changes that have transformed China in the last quarter-century.”