Moving On, Part 2

Along the Neckar River

Carol’s story

Part one of the memoir deals with the years 1949 to 1960, while this part leads up to my first job in Asia in 1984.

In 1960 my dad took another leave of absence in order to teach for a year at the University of Tübingen in the southern part of West Germany. We went over on the MS Berlin, an old ship from the line Norddeutscher Lloyd line, dwarfed on the dock between the USS United States and the HMS Queen Mary—both passed us twice, once in each direction, on the eleven days it took the Berlin to get to Bremerhaven. For me the crossing was wonderful. I’d just left high school behind and spent the summer taking university classes and hanging out with older, sophisticated music students. The Berlin was full of Fulbright scholars, all college graduates. My cabin mate was a Fulbright student from Puerto Rico. We met a couple of boys and spent every evening in the bar, sipping fancy drinks like Jamaican Punch, which was only 15 cents on the high seas. On the last night the bar was full, so we bought a magnum of champagne to drink on the deck. I was in love with the romance. Offhandedly. on the train the next day my dad told me to be careful in the coming year, that Germans didn’t make very good husbands.

Alte Aule or Old Hall

Nothing really quite compared with being eighteen and arriving in a university town right out of The Student Prince. Some of my classes were held in buildings which had been remodeled in 1488, for example in the Alte Aula, the old hall where Hegel had once taught. Before they were admitted as regular students, Americans had to have their first two years of basic college courses. So I was admitted as a special student, and my dad arranged for my professors to give me oral exams at the end of the semester so I could get credit for them when I returned. This was essentially individual study, and that appealed to me. I took good notes during lectures and spent a lot of time looking things up in libraries. In Germany higher education was almost free. My tuition for one semester was $25.

German universities took good care of foreign students, probably because some of them, like African students, would go home to become important people. So university foreign students’ office arranged tours for us, set up language classes, assisted people with housing—whatever. In February 1961, six months before the Berlin Wall went up, we took a trip to West Berlin. We had an overnight stay in Bamberg, where to my shame I saw how much rowdier the clubs were in the American zone than they were in Tübingen, which was in the French zone. In Berlin we got taken around a lot, for example to streets where one side was in the East and the other side was in the West. We were told that if the bus were to overtake another vehicle on the road we might get shot at. We visited a center for East German refuges. The pro-West rhetoric was poured on pretty thick, but I knew not all of it was bullshit. In Hamburg my tough, much-admired Latin and science teacher had explained matter-of-factly that she wouldn’t be going swimming on our class trip. We found out hadn’t been swimming since she’d escaped East Berlin by crossing the Spree with gunfire overhead.

The highlight of the trip was meant to be a meeting with Mayor Willi Brandt and his people, who served us very good wine. Brandt presented his views on negotiating with the East, which seemed reasonable to me.  The real highpoint of the trip, though, came in the evenings when I went to through Checkpoint Charlie with a good-looking German student who’d come along as an assistant to the tour leaders. His name was Ernst Zorrer, he was the president of the university socialist student organization, and we were becoming quite friendly. In East Berlin we went to bars where we drank beer with the locals, asked questions and heard the opposite of whatever we’d been told on the other side. The East Germans seemed to have a fair amount of freedom to speak their minds. Students in our group bought books in East Berlin which not unavailable in the East, as we’d been told, they were only illegal in the West. Their books were later confiscated at the post office near our hotel. I bought only a Hungarian cookbook which made it back all right.

Ernst and I saw each other a lot, although his socialist friends were very critical of his dating an American. At that time most of the young Germans I knew rejected the behavior of their parents’ generation and called themselves “European,” not “German.” I rejected nationalism altogether. It was tedious going through the where-are-you-from routine. “Well, the southern part of the US.” “South America?” “Arkansas.” “Arkansas?” “Where Little Rock is.” “Oh, where the racists closed the schools rather than admit black people.” It seemed there was always something, whether it was poking fun at the US warning labels on cigarette packs or speculating about what the new President Kennedy was going to do. At least that McCarthyite Richard Nixon hadn’t won. Or the talk about my nationality could go the other way, with middle-aged women telling me how thrilled they’d been at the end of the war to be liberated by blond, blue-eyed Americans “who looked just like us.”

On New Year’s Eve, 1960, my father had discovered that his 18-year-old daughter could not dance. What followed was three weeks of nightly ballroom dancing instruction which lead to my being able to follow anything—dipping this way and that, spinning 180-degree turns, fast German waltzes, anything. At that time in my life he couldn’t possibly have given me a better gift. Every weekend the university sponsored dances in the student union, and I danced with guys who were so good everyone else cleared off the floor to watch—just like in the movies. Ernst took me out to dinner in restaurants and at the French officer’s club and brought me fruit baskets of roses from his mother’s house. I was enchanted.

The problem was he pressured me too much. Grudgingly, I said, okay, “I love you too.” Then he wanted us to get married and go off to Switzerland to work as translators. I was not that enchanted. I was doing well in the German-to-English translation class where the instructor and I were the only native English speakers, but I was very aware of my limitations. I was also too young to get married. I was uneasy about the resentment he had against children who played with their food. How would our children understand that he’d almost starved after the war? I suspected my dad might be right about German patriarchal attitudes–although of course I didn’t have that language in 1961. And I freaked at that crazy glint Ernst had in his eye—once, briefly—when he spoke of his own political destiny. When my dad offered to put me through another year at Tübingen, I said no. I was afraid of caving into Ernst’s pressure to get married. My dad promised that if my grades were good enough to get me into the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society, he’d send me to Europe for my first year of graduate school.

Wedding photo

Back in the States, life was a lot easier for me than it had been in high school. I knew people who were doing interesting things, like organizing sit-ins in order to integrate the main college beer joint. I had a new boyfriend who knew the bar owner and trusted him not to bring in someone who was underage—which I was. So I found my life not too bad. After an argument with my dad about curfew (actually about the boyfriend), we agreed that I’d move into a dorm on campus, where my room became the center of late-night discussions on all manner of things—politics, literature, sex, the meaning of life. My grades were far from Phi Beta Kappa. The boyfriend left for Texas. After a melodramatic three weeks of wearing black and writing in my room,  I started dating a graduate student in the English Department, a man of French and Norwegian extraction whose last name was pronounced with an accent grave on it, Dussère, which I thought was far more unusual and cosmopolitan than Thomas. He was good-looking, sexy, sometimes witty, my parents liked him better than the two previous boyfriends, and I didn’t know what else to do with my life, so at twenty-one I married him. I also loved him, but it took me years to figure out my head was still stuck in the movies.

We spent the two summers before the wedding working in Yellowstone National Park, where David made good money as a bellhop and I worked first as a cabin maid and then as a soda jerk/waitress. Our friends included year-round employees who traveled the tourist trade circuit, people very unlike myself and the bookish liberals I usually hung out with. David considered my adjustment worthy of a name change, and so did I. I began calling myself “Carol” instead of “Carolyn,” which sounded far too much like the bookish, girly (incompetent) person I actually was but didn’t want to be.

After David’s M.A. graduation and the wedding, we moved north, where he had a job teaching English at the University of Wisconsin—Superior. I graduated from there with a major in English, a minor in German and enough Education credits to qualify for a license to teach in public high schools. His idea was that I would put him through school. My idea was that we would live a sort of liberated, Parisian Left Bank lifestyle. It wasn’t until well into the engagement that I discovered he actually expected me to do housework. We rented a huge, high-ceilinged apartment that had been a suite of offices, and we led a somewhat bohemian existence with a lot of parties. As a friend of mine put it, I was “a lot more independent than most wives.”

After two years we’d saved $5,000. It was ear-marked for his graduate school, but I talked him into going back to Tübingen for a year. After all, it had been five years. It was time. So we went. As far as the marriage was concerned, it was probably a mistake. I didn’t understand his inability to pick up the language.  I’d always seemed to breathe it in with the air. I resented being shackled to him as a translator, even when we were in Italy, where I first used my high school French and then what Italian I could pick up.

One day in 1965 I ran into Ernst as he stood on the street handing out flyers about a demonstration against America’s war in Vietnam—opposition to the war started earlier in Europe than it did in the States. He’d been to Africa with the German Peace Corps, the German Development Service, and his political commitment had grown. He looked very good. We talked for a couple of hours. That was the last I saw him. Years later, in 1972, he appeared in a San Francisco Chronicle article about six German students who’d been arrested in Greece for their opposition to the Junta. They were accused of belonging to an organization which was suspected of trying to hijack a plane that JFK’s son was said to have been on, so a lot of speculation. That’s Ernst, I thought, fighting for democracy in Greece.

For my academic future, the trip to Europe was good. Even though secondary education in Germany was far superior to education in the US, by graduate school the we’d caught up enough that I was adequately prepared for seminars. When I started applying for high school jobs in the US, I discovered I couldn’t get one without a personal interview, but I could get a teaching assistantship while working on an MA in German literature. We went back to Arkansas. I got the MA and then a full-time job teaching German and English at Arkansas State.

Jonesboro was a revelation—287 miles and a hundred years from the town where I’d grown up. Fayetteville was a town in the liberal, northwest corner which had seceded from the Confederacy. On the five-hour drive across the state, you could track the change as the Volkswagens with Eugene McCarthy bumper stickers were gradually replaced by pick-ups with George Wallace stickers and no taillights. As we drove into down, past rows of shanties and then the wealthy neighborhood, I predicted that before the year was out we’d be invited to join the country club. And we were, although of course it was a new country club.

Politically, the university was undergoing rapid change. Win Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, had just been elected governor, making the university president’s connection with Gov. Faubus pretty useless. But politics was everywhere. Major decisions were said to be made at the weekly luncheons at the bank which I refused to attend. The dean bragged that a black student in his classes would have to do an A’s work to get a C in the class. I got on well with most of my students and some of the faculty, but I didn’t fit in. One of my students was convinced I was a foreigner who was lying about her nationality.

David finished up most of his graduate work, and we moved back to the Wisconsin State University system. He taught English. I took studio art classes, taught German for a semester and tried to establish my own ceramics studio. The crack in the marriage turned into an abyss. Ms. Magazine appeared on the market, and I became even less of what he’d wanted, namely an easy-going woman like his mother who admired her husband’s French charm and ignored his foolishness. During arguments I was no longer cowed by his turning red in the face and roaring like a lion. So then the question was what’s next? My art teachers expressed no enthusiasm for my going on to art school. I considered classes in welding at Western Wisconsin Technical Institute until someone told me I’d have the same trouble selling wrought-iron railings as I had selling studio pottery. If I took a factory job I’d have to raise my hand every time I wanted to go to the restroom. But graduate school—I could get a teaching assistantship in a couple of weeks. I left.

My graduate work at both Arkansas and Kentucky was good. Both German departments were far better than the name of the school might suggest. I worked hard. At Kentucky I also got caught up in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, writing articles for the school paper, appearing on television and the radio, doing teach-ins, helping to organize demonstrations for women’s rights or civil rights or Kentucky coal minors or gay rights or against racism or US military involvement in Latin America. At one point the head of the German department said he’d seen me on television and invited me into his office. I was sure I was in for a scolding about inappropriate behavior, but he only wanted to tell me how good I’d looked on the news. (I’d looked very academic.) I was ambivalent about really playing a leadership role because I suspected personal political ambition might steer me away from the anonymous grassroots activism I believed in. Still, it was fun. I carried the banner for Kentucky National Organization for Women down Constitution Avenue in the largest feminist parade in American history. I have never felt more patriotic than when demonstrating against the government.

1978 ERA demonstration in Washington
The NOW banner

But back in the real world, Ph.D. in hand, I discovered the teaching jobs in higher education were drying up. I took a job at Louisiana Tech—another bad fit—for one year, went back to Kentucky and took a job at the University of Arkansas for two years before I went on unemployment. In three years I’d published my doctoral dissertation as a monograph with a German academic publishing firm. I’d co-authored a book with my father. I’d gotten three substantial articles and maybe ten reviews in academic journals. I just didn’t see how I could work any harder. I applied everywhere and figured that there were probably 10 to 15 job openings annually, nationwide, in my field and maybe 400-500 people applying for them. At interviews people would tell me they were amazed at the kind of candidates they could get, people like me. Still, the odds were not good. I applied for all the German teaching jobs I could find and wrote 220 application letters to university presses in the US and Canada. I applied for jobs in Japan teaching English. I got nothing.

So now what? A friend gave me a copy of What Color is My Parachute? I couldn’t read it. I didn’t want a new career. But I figured out I did want to live abroad, which my early experience had prepared me to do. I wanted to keep writing, although it didn’t have to be academic writing, and I wanted to keep teaching. That realization led me to the one thing I’d sworn I’d never do. I went back to graduate school.

Even though I applied three or four months after the deadline, my credentials were good enough to get me teaching assistantships in both schools I applied to. I decided on the University of Pittsburgh because it was urban and east coast—well, kind of, or at least not as much America’s heartland as Illinois. I fell in love with Pittsburgh. Nowadays, when people ask me where I’m from I say that’s my home of choice.

In the 1980s an MA in linguistics with certification in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) was more than sufficient for what I now proposed to do, travel the with two suitcases and a typewriter. As it turned out, the new career started when I got a letter from a company I’d written to about a German teaching job in Nigeria. They were now in the TESL business, and they were offering me a job at Xiamen University in China. I asked advice from everybody in the department. They said take the job. I took it. And I found out that Xiamen was exactly where I was meant to be.

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