What is your first impression of a Chinese background educator? Someone who wears glasses with thick lenses, sitting at the desk burning the midnight oil? You might not know about Guosheng Chen, but her name is widely known in the Chinese community especially in Australia. Quite unlike the image you have of a Chinese woman, she showed up to the interview with a kind and brisk look. Now an Honorary University Fellow who headed Language Studies at RMIT for over 23 years till end of 2015, Guosheng Chen was also the first lecturer with Mainland Chinese background employed by University of Melbourne in 1986. In 2015, Chen was awarded Ralph McIntosh medal by RMIT, the highest honour for her long-lasting achievement. In 1984 when Chen was back in China, she was selected as an international teaching fellow to work in the Ministry of Education in Victoria, Australia. That was her first encounter with this country. After being requested to stay for one year longer, Chen returned back to China. Within half a year, University of Melbourne invited Chen to Australia back again. The then Head of the East Asia Department told her that she was very special for a Chinese teacher. But Chen insisted that she was just “one in a million” for so many Chinese people are like her. “I gave all my heart to my work,” she said. “And I suppose the way I taught Chinese language courses was pretty effective that the head of the department would like a Chinese teacher who can really inspire and bring the students to their academic satisfaction.” Young as she was, it was easy for her to understand students’ needs and deliver diverse ways of teaching, create teaching resources and to bring students to their potentials.
She mentioned that the selflessness and dedication brought by traditional Chinese education have led her to believe in “always putting work above yourself”. Chinese education has its own beauties and virtues. Over the years, the deep-rooted notion has empowered her with diligence, flexibility and braveness. “It feels natural to always work hard and try new things.” Due to her excellent education background, she was able to study and think freely, being taught to create her own life and apply collective work to team and organisation building. Until now, most of the fifty members of Chen’s secondary school class are still very close to each other after 50 years.
One interesting thing she talked about was the global vision. “China has always been an out-looking and in-looking country with different nature at different historic periods. It has always looked at ‘the world’ as part of its global responsibilities. In the years when Chen was at school and early university, the ‘world’ China stood with was the Third World countries, the developed countries were either enemies or on other ‘camps’. However, our generation was able to pick up the essence of global vision, apply it to new global political situation when the two worlds of opposition started opening doors to each other. Our vision stretched across the Pacific Ocean and other parts of the world, and therefore ideologically opened up to the outside, in particular the western world which we knew very little about back then”. Meanwhile, the global vision enabled people of Chen’s generation to bring along new faces of China wherever they went. “Part of the reason why I was told to be special, I think, was also at that time very few Chinese people had the opportunity to come out of the country so that the outside world didn’t know much about China. But I was lucky to have the chance to convince people with my open mind and hard work.”
When first arrived in Melbourne most of her peers were already professionals in their own fields. They received scholarships either from Australian government or Chinese government for financial support. “The global responsibility was something that was built up in me and people of my generation’s minds and has given us enormous courage and endless energy to learn, change ourselves and the world alongside self-improvement,” she said.
In retrospect, Chen had been taught to be loyal to the country since childhood. For a small kid who barely had the concept of loyalty, Chen started to establish a belief that was calibrated to China’s global role. “I learned to pick up positive sides of things and to develop critical views. Thanks to the very open education during first four years of secondary education. “We learnt to be responsible to the society. After entering the outside world, you have a space to revisit your own country, to understand how much strength your nation has, and its problems. Then you start to find out what exactly the problems are and why. So you look back and make comparisons in this global arena, you realise what the whole generation other than oneself can and should do for your country.
“Then we agreed that one word would never exist in our life, which is difficulties.”
When the Cultural Revolution first started, she was 16, and she almost lost her family. That was a time when the whole country was in turmoil, plentiful people including her parents were under political persecution. There were times people would point at Chen’s nose shouting at her: “You have no future!” “It was horrible. You didn’t have a life. Many times rebels broke into my house midnight, threw my parents into a truck and drove away. Life in city, to many families who were under watch had no sense of safety.” Three years later, with life reaching to the limit of her tolerance, Chen and her peers decided to move to the poor countryside, hundreds of kilometers always from home and started a new life. “The farm work was never easy. Imagine working for 16 hours in the field during the busy seasons. In winter it could be minus five degrees cold and you had to plough the rock-hard soil to get prepared for the spring. But the farmers were very warm and kind to us and they never complained. We had to work hard to learn all farm work to catch up with them and earn our living. During the first two years, there was no electricity, let alone running water. Although natural water in ditchers and ponds was reasonably clean. Many villagers lived a poor life. The poorest family in the village I went to had only one padded coat shared by five in chilly winter. They had to crawl in bed to keep from the cold. They took turns to wear the coat when going to the toilet (just a pit on the ground). I must be thankful for the more than four years I lived there and the hardship we experienced in the countryside. We were like iron being tempered by flame and become steel.” When Chen first came to Australia, she had a strong political division between China and Australia. The consciousness of protecting national interest kept her always alert to any influence from this “capitalist society”. Another interesting thing she said is that she had little experience of stereotypes from people in Australia. “People here, and colleagues at work were friendly. I think maybe my personality also helped a lot”, she laughed. “I was very open, very willing to give myself to work. I always think ahead about what I can do rather than waiting to be told. Perhaps that’s something they see me differently from other international teachers.” But how can someone possibly sail so smoothly in a total different country? “Well, I never take hardships as hardships, it’s just about mentality. And it was developed by hard life I’ve gone through. After the Cultural Revolution, a whole bunch of young people went back to city to continue study or work. When we met again and looked back, we all agreed that one word would never exist in our life, which is difficulties.”
Living as a global citizen
Chen’s experience in Australia was incredible. The more time she spent in here, the more she found herself attracted to this land. After taking the position offered by the University of Melbourne, Chen started to fully enjoy it. “There are two main reasons why I accepted the offer by University and came back here again, one is that I quite liked the freedom in this country. The other is I clearly realised that we needed more teachers with Chinese background to inform Australia and China of what the two countries are and the education should be about. This consciousness became stronger each year until I could finally clearly claim myself as a global citizen.” The realisation of “global citizen” helped Chen see herself not just work or belong to one country, but more likely to put herself into a position where she could serve the global village and share this idea with her friends, colleagues and students. “I’m very glad to see the new generation growing up, crossing the Pacific Ocean to go to different countries, and working on various projects and different professional fields.” As for Australian students studying in China, “I thank China for offering my students precious global experiences. Some of my students even built a family in China, working in business, education, etc. They perform like global citizens making contributions to both Australia and China, too. Then you know you’re never working as one person, you can never be successful without the global team.”
Chen always sees her students as her children. “It is like when you have nurtured the younger generation, you worked very hard to create opportunities to broaden their visions and experiences, bring them to a better platform to challenge themselves, open their minds and test them. With this, they can develop capacities and become very professional in their own working industries.”
A determined team player
Throughout the interview, there was a word being repeatedly mentioned by Chen: Team. “It is best to work as a team.” In 1990, Chen took up a position as Director of ELICOS (English Language) Center at Pahran College, that later became part of Swinburne University of Technology. She was given a role to lead her teaching team, working with the team and she managed to develop a culture brought together by eastern and western cultures. From the beginning of 1993 till late, she led an academic team to have developed a broad academic profile and community connections at local and international levels. It was also Chen’s team that submitted a 40-page report to recommend her as an honorary recipient of Ralph McIntosh Medal. “The whole process was conducted secretly as University requested. If I’d known about it I would have stopped them. I don’t want my personal acknowledgement, if there were any achievements, I must thank my team,” she said. “On the other hand, the award has put me on a new milestone of contribution to the university and global education.” Chen is well aware of the differences existed in her team, she made it clear to herself and colleagues to never let cultural differences affect them working together. On the contrary, the rich cultural and linguistic knowledge has formed a strong engine taking the whole team forward. Thanks to that, her team members manage to put trust in each other and contribute to making the team a successful one.
Apart from RMIT, Chen also actively engaged in broad community work, which made direct contributions to the mission of higher education. She is now a Vice President of National Council of Women Victoria (NCWV), a branch under National Council of Women Australia. The council signifies irreplaceable contributions to advancement of Australian society. It also advocates women leadership, equity, women’s (voting) rights, raises awareness of women and girls for their endeavours and responsibilities as citizens, and encourages the participation of women in all aspects of life. “You can learn a lot from this organisation,” she said. “You meet excellent women, and the selflessness is very touching. The group keeps strong sense of social responsibilities, the sweet taste of traditional elegance of women and the genuine miscibility of a professional organisation. But of course, we always welcome fresh blood to come join us together.”
It is not difficult to discover what kind of person Chen is. Most of the time, she kept a smile on her face with her eyes sparkling a glow of light. When talking about her personality, Chen said that she never asks why people think she is inspirational for she tend to look forward. “I like to be around positive people because they always think ahead. People are likely to perform better when they don’t spend time on grievance. Your time is limited, so as your energy. The right thing to do is focus on today and future,” Chen smiled. “I haven’t really hit a low point in my life. Even when I was young, I only had limited time with my parents. But I thank them for teaching me to be positive. Until now, I always think no matter what kind of hardship is, tomorrow will be another day.” There seem to have no need to define what exactly Chen is like, she could simply attract you with her approachable manner and make you feel comfortable naturally.
“I’m glad to have this particular Asian humbleness in me. You see I’m happy. Unlike those who are arrogant, humble people are always happy.” She added that it is unavoidable for people to have problems in their life, but the way they cope with problems is essential. “I remember not long ago, my heart problem got worse, so seriously that my specialist advised me not to go on overseas trips. Just before an international bilingual speech competition I needed to chair in the US, my doctor told me not to go otherwise I might have serious consequences. But I’ve decided to go and asked him politely saying I had already made up my mind. He repeatedly reminded me of what to do on the plane and during my trip. I promised him that I’d return myself alive to him. Fortunately, all the symptoms he worried that might happen to me didn’t happen. So I can go to see him and say, ‘See, I promised you to come back alive and I’ve done it!’ ” With such risk-taking characteristic, Chen has never regretted anything in her life. “Oh I regret not having completed my PhD. But who knows, I may continue to finish it in the future.”
Life and work
It is essential for Chen to develop consciousness in life and work. “Because when it becomes a habitual way of thinking, it will guide your life.” Being a workaholic is not always fun, the time Chen spent on family life is far less than that of on her work. However, Chen said she is lucky to have a supportive husband and an independent daughter.
When asked about her daughter’s job, she paused to recall for a few seconds: “Hmm it’s something about renewable energy,” and joked, “See how bad I am as a mother.” Chen’s daughter grew up in an independent family environment, “Mostly because I didn’t have much time for her so she’d learned from childhood of how to cope with many things herself,” Chen mused. “She grew up as a conscious person with clear integrity, and developed professionalism in her work as well. I think I’m pretty lucky to have her.” Meanwhile, Chen said she must also give credit to Australian education system. “It allows my daughter to have enough freedom to be creative.”
As a pioneer Chinese immigrant, Chen said it is a delightful thing to see more and more Chinese people immigrating into Australia. It is beneficial for Chinese people to enjoy a quality life, providing a better education for the next generation. At the same time, with Chinese people coming in, Australia is more likely to boost its economy by developing various industry and real estate investment projects. “But there is a lot more to be done,” she said. “ The Chinese immigrants need to learn how to blend in with the local environment.” Chen emphasised that her current Australian nationality not only encourages her to contribute more to the country, but to see and care China and Chinese people from a different perspective. “That’s why I now look at myself as a global citizen.”
Written by Amber Yang