There are lots of smart people hanging around Oxford, in case you didn’t know. The place is lousy with them–the confidently smart, the unassumingly smart, the old and smart, the young and smart. My friend Helen is one of these smart people. She has just written a book, “Keeping the Nation’s House: Domestic Management and the Making of Modern China,” on the role of women and home economics in forming modern-day China. She’s a tenured Chinese history professor at Virginia Tech University and she’s a research associate for one of the leading academics on Chinese history. This is how I come to attend a lecture on western journalists covering China. It interests me too, given my journalism background. The panel is made up of two journalists and two academics who discuss the challenges of covering China accurately and trying to avoid spreading stereotypes about the nation and its people. Covering any topic honestly and accurately is the goal of any journalist, but covering a place as complex and with a history as vast as China’s appears to be particulary difficult, and few do it well, according to this panel. We are in a room full of equally smart undergraduate and graduate students from China who ask all the questions we want to ask and crowd the panelists as if they are rock stars once the lecture is over.
After the lecture, Helen and I join her equally accomplished friends and colleagues for Sichuan Chinese food in an building that looks like a lecture hall called The Old School. Her friends Amy, Jen, and Lily share her interest in China and they order from the menu in fluent Chinese. It is impressive and an impressive array of food arrives at our table. It is all spicy and delicious and we cool our mouths with Tsingtao beers.
It’s the end of a day full of marveling at the history smart people at Oxford. Earlier, I went to the Ashmolean, the oldest public museum in the UK, chock full of artifacts from early European, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. I was stopped by Powhatan’s Mantle. Powhatan was the chief of the Powhatans when John Smith arrived at Jamestown. There is debate as to whether or not Powhatan’s mantle was a cloak or a wall hanging, but it reminded me of Aboriginal art, circles of beads surrounded beaded images of two animals, maybe deer, on either side of a man. The museum did a great job of linking the intersection of cultures, art and religion through trade and wars that brought these diverse peoples in contact. It’s why Spanish tiles look like Morrocan tiles, which also look like Turkish tiles. I couldn’t make it though the entire four floors of the collection. I found myself practically running though the exhibit rooms before I had to meet Helen for lunch in the museum’s cafe.
The smarty pants tour continued through a few more of Oxford’s colleges and sites. We wove our way through trongs of tourists and prospective Oxford students along the way, making our way to the courtyard of the Bodleian Library, one of the world’s oldest public libraries. At New College, we marvelled at its beautiful gardens. Due to a shout out from my former colleague Beth, we stopped at St. Edmund’s Hall, the last of the medieval halls, which actually looked quite modern and quaint at the same time. It reminded us most of our alma mater, Swarthmore, somehow. I think Magdalen College was one of my favorites of the bunch, its chapel boasted a replica of DaVinci’s Last Supper. The cloisters were bursting with white hydrangeas against a vibrantly green lawn. One of England’s famed red phone booths was a pleasant surprise along with a deer park, where the deer put on a little show for us. Legend has it that the deer here inspired C.S. Lewis to include the fawn character in his Narnia chronicles. We stopped for scones and a pot of tea at the country’s oldest coffeehouse, maybe the world’s first, Queen’s Lane, where apparently Tolkien, Lewis and other liked to have literary chats. And, we ended our tour at Queen’s College, site of the lecture, which had a very Baroque feel. It’s chapel featured a guilded eagle, chandeliers and a ceiling painting ala the Sistine Chapel. Having seen smartness through the ages and walked along the path of past smarties, I am now feeling rather smart myself.