Mugur Zlotea

Fulbright Visiting Scholar, 2017-2018
I had never been to the US, since my field of research is China and it made more sense to fly the opposite way, but all my friends and colleagues who had had a Fulbright scholarship kept telling me that a research visit to an American university would make a huge difference. Then, I met the American Fulbright scholars in Bucharest and I had the chance to attend the first course on Chinese politics at my university, taught by Amy Liu from the University of Texas at Austin. And so, we became friends.

Friends, curiosity, the idea that I could conduct research in a manner I had never been able to do before made me consider applying for a Fulbright grant. To be fair, I did not have very high hopes of getting a scholarship with a research project on Chinese political discourse, which seemed so removed from other projects that I knew of, as they focused on various aspects of American life and culture. I was wrong.

As the plane was landing in Austin, Texas, I was gazing out of the window and, used to the population density in Asia, I was wondering at the large uninhabited space below us. And there I was, in Texas, a place like none other I had ever visited before.

I will not talk at length about the University of Texas at Austin, I personally do not know anyone who has had a bad experience as a Fulbright scholar in an American university. Everything I had imagined about academic life in the US proved to be true. A huge library – actually, about 12 of them, and the Harry Ransom Center with its collection of manuscripts and the earliest photograph in existence today – with millions of volumes and access to databases both from the Mainland and Taiwan. It is very easy to lose yourself in reading for days on end, until you realize that you must put a stop to it and actually start writing. Fortunately, you can save many things for later use. One thing that I absolutely loved was ordering books from other libraries in the US when they were not available at the UT and having them on my desk three or four days later. I was like a child in a toy store! Interesting colleagues and professors – people who had done a lot of research, many in fields other than yours, but who can ask the right questions to get you thinking about aspects of your research that you had never thought of; the gatherings for a glass of wine, or beer at a game (go Longhorns!) where you get to know the professors and researchers even better. The events – I was affiliated with the History Department and I often visited the Center for East Asian Studies; there were events, lectures by invited speakers, debates, book launches almost every day. To sum up my academic life at the UT Austin: as intense as I wished it to be.

And there was Austin, absolutely unexpected, ever surprising and, what I enjoyed most, weird. When I told my American friends that I would be living in Texas for a while, some of them raised their eyebrows, but started laughing when I mentioned Austin – that is not Texas, they said. I did not know what they meant, (and I am still not very sure, since I did not experience the “real” Texas), but I’m telling y’all I had a lot of fun down there. The university is right in the heart of the city, within walking distance from all the good places – museums, BBQs or bars. One of the fastest developing cities in the US, with good food (huge helpings!), hundreds of varieties of beer, music festivals and live music in bars, affordable prices, multicultural and most of all, friendly. No tall sky-scrapers, no traffic jams, free public transport with the UT id card, a city full of squirrels, which some students considered pests because they would steal your food if you did not pay attention, with good weather and much greenery. I bet that people going to fancier places did not have a rooster to wake them up every morning, or take a stroll through a rather posh part of town and see goats in somebody’s yard. And then, there were the people. It takes all sorts to make a world and I think Austin is living proof - in a good sense. I saw students going to classes in Halloween costumes – I wonder how I would react if I saw a bunny sitting in one of my classes here in Bucharest, strangers in bars cheering passionately for opposite teams and ending up having drinks together after the game, discussing it as passionately as before, although some of them obviously were not very happy with the result. By the time I left the shop with my groceries, new T-shirts, or books, I already knew a lot of stuff about the cashier, his or her family and eating habits, and they would have enquired about the way I cooked, my country and, one time, my liking or disliking for raccoons.

Before leaving for the US, in our orientation meeting at the Fulbright office here in Bucharest, one of the speakers told us not to bury ourselves in books and libraries while there, but to get out and meet people. I was skeptical back then, thinking that reading and writing were actually the main reasons for my going to Austin. But she was right, the UT Austin was great, as I expected, but the real discovery there was the city and its delightfully weird people.

My fulbright experience

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Students at the advising center

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