- Grove City, Pennsylvania

Local News

October 10, 2012

Where in the world is Yanbian?

GCC prof finds out, learns as he teaches

GROVE CITY — A Grove City College professor who has visited roughly 30 countries has returned from teaching in China -- an experience which taught him a few things.

"The people everywhere were just delightful," said Mark Graham, who is in his 10th year at GCC, where he teaches ancient and medieval Mediterranean-European history.

Graham, 41, taught western civilization for six weeks this summer at Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, about 30 miles from North Korea.

It was founded 20 years ago by a South Korean Christian named James Kim, who had been a successful businessman in Florida selling wigs imported from his homeland.

"I met him while I was there," Graham said. "(Yanbian) is the first international university in China and it's a real humanitarian effort on his part, about sharing love with others and humanitarian aid."

The school is not officially Christian but has a chapel on campus for faculty, many of whom are Christians. The school also draws Christian students, and Graham --like his colleagues --had a number of opportunities to hold Bible studies outside of the classroom.

"There are opportunities for sharing the faith there ... It's a very interesting place, but fully recognized and fully sanctioned by the government," Graham said. "There's a Communist Party office on campus."

Graham taught 36 students thrice weekly who "were very interested in learning western civilization," he said.

His syllabus included the Early Greeks to the Early Modern period in Europe and the Mediterranean; from Homer to the Renaissance and Reformation --about 2,300 years of history.

The students were "very respectful," Graham stated. "They only called me "Professor,' and sort of bowed as they said it. It wasn't a deep bow but a light, head bow. It was very different."

In class, the students "would never be talking or sleeping," he said, chuckling, although "I don't want to imply my Grove City College students would do that."

Yanbian has a strong English department --and all of Graham's students were English majors, which is a popular study in China --but he learned that a couple of his students "didn't know English very well," he said. "I didn't gather that by the attention they gave. ... They were very attentive, even when they didn't know what I was saying."

It was a curious thing having students who wouldn't say that they didn't understand Graham --nor ask him questions. "I think they see that as somewhat disrespectful, that the teacher isn't doing a good job," he said.

Graham loves interacting with his pupils as a teacher, and encouraged the students to talk --and they began to warm up more in class over the six weeks, he noted.

Yanbian has over 2,000 students each semester. "They have three semesters per year and have something like 1 1/2 months in between each," Graham said. Vacation is in the winter, which is "incredibly brutal," he noted, reaching 30 to 40 degrees below zero.

The summer was like "a cool, wet summer here, but exceptionally humid," Graham added. "It's in a fairly high elevation so you think it would be more dry. Even at 70 degrees, I'd be sweating all the time."

Although it was part of China, many of the locals were ethnically Korean.

"Being a border region, it had a fascinating mixture of cultures, with Korean food and language spoken everywhere," Graham said.

"I took a quick trip up to the border. I was on a train with some other faculty, but when we got there, I wandered the area along the border," he added, which was divided by the small, swift Tumen River -- named after the nearby city.

A narrow bridge crosses the river into North Korea -- which can't been seen from the Chinese side -- with "a car that goes over every once in a while," Graham noted.

"The Chinese side is very heavily guarded. Just to get to the check point, there are high gates with barbed wired and when you look inside, you see several attack dogs and dozens of soldiers."

However, the soldiers were not on guard with gawking tourists, he added. The city of Tumen draws a number of them curious to see the border area.

Being only 30 miles from North Korea, "I never felt threatened or in any danger, even walking around at night in the city," Graham said.

"There are very few English speakers or Americans in the area. Westerners always stood out," he added. "When I got to know people, they called us "big-nose westerners.'"

Yanbian has paid faculty housing and meals for visiting teachers, but the rest of their trip has to be self funded. GCC partnered with Graham to investigate Yanbian as a possible exchange program for GCC students.

The college has programs in France and Chile, Graham said, and the administration has been "curious to see what Asia had to offer."

He looked into Yanbian's courses and health care on and off campus. "I think the university itself has permanent, on-call physicians fluent in English, so they have it covered," he said.

China has both "western style" and traditional Chinese medicine hospitals, Graham added. "Sometimes it's in the same building. They are beautiful, pristine facilities that didn't look as clinical (as those in the U.S.)."

Graham learned about Yanbian from a visiting professor from Korea, who did research at GCC and Pitt last year. The Korean had formerly taught at Yanbian.

"He invited me to lunch every Friday and what I didn't realize is he was trying to convince me to go," Graham said. "There's a real need for professors from a variety of countries, with eager students who want to learn."

Graham met professors from Australian, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Germany, England, Japan, China "and a lot from South Korea," he said. He loved interacting with the international group.

He and his Korean professor friend are now considered permanent adjunct professors at Yanbian, and can teach there any time they would like.

Graham comes from a Navy family and has been traveling much of his life.

He was born in Hawaii, then lived in Washington state, Florida, California, then back to Washington and Florida again, respectively.

He received his bachelor's in history at Bob Jones University, where he met his wife, Becky, a Rhode Island native who was studying elementary education.

Graham then got his master's in late antiquity history at the University of South Carolina and his doctorate in Roman history from Michigan State University. For two years, he taught at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., before transferring to GCC. He and his wife are parents to Estelle, Sarah, Phoebe and Ira.

Graham has taken other school trips to Italy, Tunisia, Turkey, Greece, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, where he often studies archeological sites with his students.

Overall, "I think I've been to 30 countries. Becky has been to every single country I have except England and Ecuador," he added. "Before we had kids, I did archeology and she was the artist for the excavation."

Such artists have a specific ways to capture the schematics of pottery. "When archeologists publish the results of their archeology, they can't do everything with pictures," Graham noted. "A pottery expert worked with her in Tunisia, which is one of the most famous ancient sites of Cartage."

He'd love to teach at Yanbian again once his children get older. Graham's summer trips are generally three weeks, so the six week stay in China was a bit long to be away from his family, he added.

One thread that connects all of his teaching is "the excitement of talking about where you've been," Graham said. "That's a basic human connection for teaching in China like it is here."

A number of professors have done studies abroad, but few in places like Yanbian.

The school founder asked Graham to teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Kim made national headlines for starting it two years ago as the first private university in the capitol of North Korea, 12 years after being falsely imprisoned as a spy under former dictator Kim Jong Il. 

The school -- which has a small amount of students that are all-male -- is primarily staffed by Christian international teachers from South Korea, many of whom are volunteers, but Graham felt a little leery about going to North Korea.

During his stay in China, he also visited Beijing.

"I teach a world history class and do basic Chinese history. Beijing is pretty important, so I went to go to the main historical sites. I was also looking for opportunities for (GCC)," Graham said.

His interest in history began with his mother, who bought him a book in second grade called "Mysteries of the Pharaohs."

"I loved ancient history at that point and I never stopped," Graham said. "In my office, it still sits in front of me on my book shelf ... So parents, watch out what you give your kids."

Published Sept. 26, 2012. Pick up a copy at 201A Erie St., Grove City.


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