The week that the conflict between our Chinese and Hong Kong students emerged was one of the most challenging and insightful weeks at UWC. However, the conflict and the steps that we took to address it capture what is unique about our commitment to Constructive Engagement of Conflict, and demonstrate the work that we should be doing as a school committed to a mission seeking peace and sustainability across cultures.
The conflict arose when a student put up a Lennon Wall in support of the protesters on the streets of her hometown. It included a description of the Lennon Wall, information about the protests, and gave students a space to write notes of solidarity. When inflammatory language targeting some students and mocking the protests emerged on the wall in Mandarin characters, it sparked conflict between students from Hong Kong (and Tibet and Taiwan) and many Chinese students. As is frequently the case at UWC, a pressing global issue manifested in personal terms within our community.
Community members organized a Friday night Global Issues panel to discuss Chinese relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet. I worked with students preparing potential questions, identifying student speakers for a panel, and discussing format and logistics. During that process, I shared conversations with students from these regions, attempting to navigate the challenges involved in distilling the nuances of these complex relationships into a productive discussion space that would allow for our community to better understand why the Lennon Wall provoked such tension. I learned much from my conversations with students during this week about the intersection of national and personal identity, how language can be utilized for effective communication as well as weaponized for social exclusion, and how global issues exert an impact on individuals in subtle ways that reveal the long arc of complex histories. Appreciating that complexity was key in paving the way for the dialogue on Friday evening.
The Friday night discussion saw students, administrators, board members, and faculty members seated in concentric circles, and within that space, we saw how CEC can serve as a vehicle through which alternative pedagogies may emerge. Victoria, our school president, reflected on the means of responsibly wielding power as she navigated this conflict herself. A student from Nigeria shared the shortcomings of tribal identities and tensions back home and how they related to this conflict on campus. The student who put up the Lennon Wall expressed the way the conflict had impacted her and why she still held her conviction in putting it up. A student from Tibet commented on his experience of dealing with conflict as a member of the community. He mentioned how he had learned that he needed to address conflict internally before he could begin to engage constructively about contentious issues with others on campus. Emerging from the conversation, it was clear that that internal work is key to Constructive Engagement of Conflict.
However, the internal reflective work is only one part of the process; the second piece is an active attempt to enter the realities of others and try to understand the sources of their perspectives. Absent from those concentric circles were all of the Mainland Chinese students, and I admit I was disappointed and surprised at their absence. During my conversations that week, some of the Chinese students expressed a simple point to me, often on the verge of tears: that they were not opposed to discussing the issue of China-Hong Kong relations, but that the situation that the coronavirus was creating back in China made the timing of the conversation especially difficult. While I tried to be sensitive to the impact of coronavirus in China back in January, it remained for me an abstract and faraway threat, one that affected me only insofar as I saw the pain it caused some of my students. I would soon learn that this was a failure to actively inhabit the world of my students in search of the deep empathy that this type of work demands. I write this reflection in quarantine as a result of the coronavirus, and look back more empathically on the Chinese students’ request that the conversation be moved to a time after the virus has passed. Though we cannot allow adverse circumstances to prevent hard conversations, it is important to work internally and with others to create the proper space within which the dynamic process of authentic, constructive engagement of conflict may occur.
UWC has taught me that peace is not a passive process, and to think of it as such renders any attempt to cultivate it void from the onset. Rather, peace is an active and living process; it is a state of being that is simultaneously reflective and active, asking that we look critically at our own assumptions and world views even as we attempt to inhabit the world of others. By doing so, we create a standard by which more authentic intercultural dialogue can take place, thus modeling a world that is yet to be, but one that we hope to one day see.