Fulbright Scholar Stories | Dawn Virginia Odell
Dawn Virginia Odell
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA
Discipline: Art History
Lecturing: Comparative Approaches to the Study of European Art
Host Institution: Fudan University, Shanghai, China
February 2007 - July 2007
I went to China in 2007, funded by a new grant program that the Fulbright had initiated with the Luce Foundation. The grant was designed to send U.S. art historians to China to teach our methodologies and materials. Chinese scholars have been writing about art for thousands of years but until recently art history, as an academic discipline, did not exist at Chinese universities. In some ways, the field is being re-discovered in China today.
I was placed at Fudan University in Shanghai, one of the most venerable universities in China in one of the most exciting cities in the world. My husband and I took our two young sons with us – William, who was four years old at the time and Alex, who was one. Alex was born in Seoul, Korea and was adopted by our family when he was five months old. The kids were doted on wherever we went. Alex especially drew a lot of attention, perhaps in part because he is so cute (his mother’s opinion!) but also because international adoption is rare in China and many people were interested to know more about it.
We lived in “foreign expert housing” in a neighborhood right next to Fudan’s campus. I was delighted with our two bedroom apartment – fourth floor walk up and all – which was extremely spacious by Chinese standards. As much as we could, we tried to live as those around us did. I shopped for our food at an open-air market a block from our apartment, buying produce brought in from farms around Shanghai and local meat and seafood, including live shrimp, eel and crayfish, which I would bring back to the apartment and keep fresh in a bucket in the shower. Our apartment had only a very small refrigerator, a rice cooker, and two high temperature burners for quick stir-frying in a wok. The woman who helped to keep the apartment building clean would sometimes take a break from her job, shop with me at the market, and then show me how to make a new dish.
William attended a Chinese kindergarten two blocks from our home and despite the language barrier he did wonderfully in the school. My mother came to stay with me for two months while my husband was finishing his semester in the U.S. and helped look after Alex when I taught my courses. My students were truly wonderful and amazingly talented. In addition to our work together in the classroom, the students invited me home to have dinners with their parents, took me to the many beautiful parks in Shanghai, treated me to Kunqu opera, and in general enriched my life ways for which I am still so grateful.
We concluded our six months in China, joined by my dad, with a trip to the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang in Gansu province. We rode camels in the dessert at dawn, ate lots of mutton, and saw hundred of painted caves created over the past 1,000 years. Today, my sons attend a Chinese immersion program in Portland, half their day is spent speaking Mandarin and they are on their way to complete fluency. We all are eager to return to China. Our lives were completely changed by our time there.