“Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress.” – Maimonides

Having been back from China for several weeks now, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience and am moving forward with the next steps in our project: creating consent forms, applying for human subjects’ approval, publicizing what we’re doing, etc., etc.  But what I’ve really been thinking about is: what can I offer and what can I learn?  It seems in international work, speaking as one who has never done it, there are both benefits and dangers in bringing in outside ideas and solutions.   This is probably not news to anyone reading this blog.  However, I found during my most recent trip that keeping my thoughts to myself about how various issues in Tongi village should be addressed was challenging.  Now those of you that know me know that I have no shortage of opinions so perhaps this is simply a problem of personality.  Yet, an NPR story the other day featured someone working in Africa who posited that the way to make problems worse than before you arrived was to “NGO” the situation.  By this he meant, taking outside solutions and imposing them in ways that either were not sustainable with the resources available within the target community or that inadvertently undermined some central value that outsiders were unaware of or insensitive to.  So when I was asked earlier this week what the long-term goals were for the project, I took a deep breath and said something we’re not supposed to say in academics, “I don’t know.”  There is so much to learn about China and about our collaboration with our colleagues at East China University of Science and Technology.  We had good news last week that we now have a bit of additional funding that will allow us to work on bringing the collaboration back into our respective classrooms and will bring in a partner from another Shanghai university.  But the truth is I have no idea exactly where all of this will lead.   As I listened in Shanghai, and held my tongue, I learned.  I learned that the families living in Tongi village are missing their elders.  Elders play a critical role in Chinese families and have for generations.  When families migrate to the city without them the normal ways of meeting daily needs and expectations in family life are upended.  Guess what?  This is true for the immigrant families we work with in North Carolina.  Most of them have also left their elders behind meaning that families are attempting to operate in ways that are completely different than what they might have done in their home countries and what they have seen modeled since childhood.  I have been working with new immigrants in various ways for the last eleven years but have never thought about this issue.   So by being quiet, listening, and not knowing, I learned something important that may bring new dimensions into my work here in North Carolina.


  1. This may be true in situations where you spoke before realizing you didn’t have a clue to begin with. But in everyday life when “you know” but are persistent in saying “I dont
    Know”, then it’s called lying. Nothing more, nothing less.

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