by Jacqueline Ott
Dr. Orr and I sit in his office in BC on a strangely beautiful Friday afternoon, having a typical conversation for an English student and her professor: aka, why Don DeLillo is the greatest writer of modern times, the looming horror that is life after school (“That’s why I never left!” says Dr. Orr), and, more specific to this January day, the minute and grand details of the chance to teach American Literature in China.
This past Fall semester, Dr. Orr was granted by Fulbright the opportunity to teach two graduate classes in Changchun, China. “Both classes were for second year master students, looking specifically at the late 18th century and early 19th century American Literature. I also got the chance to guest lecture at five different universities in cities all across China. But besides that time teaching, I spent time working with a tutor on improving my Chinese, learning calligraphy, and taking walks. Until the temperature was below -5° that is.”
As any student who has had Dr. Orr in the past could tell you, there is no doubt that his students in China came out of his class with a greater understanding of, but more importantly a greater appreciation for, American Literature. The learning experience went both ways, with Dr. Orr leaving China understanding new things about both Chinese and American culture: “Teaching American Literature to non-Americans forced me to become aware of the kinds of things that I take for granted, and made me see both American culture and literature from the outside” This learning experience extended to even small details in texts, with Dr. Orr pointing out that so much of American texts feature details that one would be unable to place without a firm background in American history and culture.
Although this was Dr. Orr’s first opportunity to teach in China, this trip was certainly not his first experience with the country and its people. The first time Orr visited China was with his wife in 2005, after he “talked his way into a trip there with E-Scholars”. Before this trip, Orr knew very little about China and its people, but upon his arrival became increasingly interested: “China seems to me like a new planet to study. I got there and was instantly so interested in it. When I get interested in something, it’s all I want to learn about.” China became a way for Orr to learn about a world that was “not [his] culture in so many ways, but in some ways so similar”. Orr says he wants to get as close he can to understanding the Chinese culture completely, and with his study of the language, and his experiencing of the country through his travels, he is certainly on his way.
On this particular Friday afternoon, Orr loosely quoted his favorite travel writer, Paul Theroux: “I was a stranger before I was a traveler.” If you talk to Dr. Orr, about this trip or his many others, you can see this is exceedingly true.