Professor Grace Ioppolo writes:
I have just returned from a conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, held by the International Association of University Professors of English (IAUPE), which was ‘formed shortly after the Second World War with the idea of getting senior representatives of English as an academic subject together, irrespective of the ravages of war’. IAUPE currently has nearly 500 members, spread over six continents.
This was the first time I had attended an IAUPE conference, which includes sessions on literatures in English from medieval to very modern. It was also my first trip to China, and although I was expecting Beijing to be similar to Hong Kong or Singapore (which I had visited 7 years ago), I found my expectations about scholars of literature in English and the country hosting us to have been delightfully shattered.
Although a number of American, Canadian, Australian and British scholars presented fascinating papers at the conference, it was not with the native speakers of English with whom I was most impressed. Beginning with welcome speeches from vice-chancellors from Tsinghua University and Beijing Foreign Studies University, I began to understand how the language and literature of English produces such passion and scholarship in non-native speakers. This was something I had clearly taken for granted (or perhaps never realized) as a scholar of English drama and literature.
Some years ago during a tutorial at Reading, a German Erasmus student took exception to my correction of his grammar in his Shakespeare essay, telling me, ‘What do you know about English? You are an American, so it’s not your native language!’ I kept thinking about this comment when I was in Beijing (for the record, although my immigrant parents spoke Italian growing up in the US, English is my first and native language). Why is it that non-native speakers develop such a love and intense joy in the English language while native speakers barely consider how they use and react to this language?
Although I was able to reconnect at the conference with old friends whom I hadn’t seen in many years, I was happiest during dinner conversations with new friends, including an eminent and incredibly enthusiastic Polish scholar whose entire career has been devoted to the works in English of Joseph Conrad, and a South Korean scholar who lives for the poetry of TS Eliot and Geoffrey Hill (and who was overjoyed to speak to my husband, Peter Beal, who had been taught by Hill at the University of Leeds).
I did all the typical things that Beijing tourists do: I visited the Great Wall at Badaling, the magnificent Summer Palace, the gorgeous Forbidden City and—my favourite – the Temple of Heaven, which I thought was simply breathtaking. But I kept thinking about how the conference at Tsinhgua University taught me more about why I love my native language and its literature than all the Shakespeare conferences I’d ever attended in the US and the UK.