In November 2009, President Obama announced the 100,000 Strong initiative, “a national effort designed to increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China,” under the Department of State. Recently a separate initiative, Project Pengyou, signed on to manage the vast alumni network of 100,000 Strong.
On December 10 in Beijing, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke led a celebration to mark the formal kickoff of this effort by Project Pengyou. I was invited to deliver some remarks at the event. Soon the video will become available. My remarks were somewhat off the cuff, but there is also a written version of the speech which differs somewhat from the actual speech I gave. I have posted the written version here and would love your comments.
What an honor it is to be here with you, with this group. Kindred souls, out to craft how the populations of two of the world’s most influential nations will work together from now on.
I’m Jason Patent, and I am American Co-Director of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center. The job title says it all: I am one of two. The Chinese Co-Director, Huang Chengfeng and I, are jointly responsible for carrying out the mission of the Center, which is in narrow terms to provide top-flight graduate education to Chinese and International, mostly American, students. In broader terms, though, our mission is none other than enacting and living Sino-U.S. relations.
Two visionary university presidents founded the Center: Nanjing University president Kuang Yaming and Johns Hopkins University president Steven Muller. They began talking almost immediately after normalization in 1979, and in 1986 the Center opened. Their founding vision? That there would come a day when the U.S. Secretary of State and the Chinese Foreign Minister would walk into the room, shake hands, and recognize each other as alumni of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center.
It’s a powerful vision that guides all that we do at the Center. At the Center, U.S.–China cooperation is a no-brainer. The common doubts we hear in news media, those are things we know exist, but which do not shape our day-in, day-out existence at the Center. We live and breathe Sino–U.S. cooperation in all that we do.
It often isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s rarely pretty. Sharing living quarters, classrooms, a dining hall, a lounge, and on and on, with people who, by default, are so different from each other, generates a lot of discomfort and strong emotions. What kind of response is appropriate for an American looking into the eyes of his roommate, who says with great sincerity and passion that the Chinese Communist Party has been good for Tibet? What is appropriate for a Chinese student whose American roommate insists that Taiwan isn’t a part of China?
These kinds of conversations happen dozens of times each day at the Center. And the nature of life at the Center removes the standard human option of running away. We have to stay and work through it.
This day-to-day, often moment-to-moment work, sustained over time, yields a subtle but profound transformation of the human heart: where once there was scarcity, there is now abundance; where once there was deficit, there is now surplus; where once there was fear, there is now hope. We have been forever enriched.
I have had the great fortune of being able to choose a life of cultural discovery. My grandparents weren’t so lucky. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were each forced by a series of dire events and circumstances to move from their childhood homes in Iraq and Siberia, to Shanghai, one of the few safe havens for Jews in the 1930s. There they met, fell in love, and were married. My father was born in 1939 — not in Shanghai, but in Hong Kong, so that he could reap the benefits of British citizenship.
Growing up in Shanghai in the 1940s, my father lived through the Japanese occupation (when suddenly it wasn’t such an advantage to be British) and the Communist revolution. From his balcony, he witnessed Mao’s troops leading away KMT troops at gunpoint.
By 1950, life for foreigners in China had gotten uncomfortable, and my father’s family emigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco.
In 1972, when I was four, my family settled in Missoula, Montana, where I was to spend the rest of my childhood. We often visited San Francisco, and on trips to Chinatown my country-boy eyes, ears and nose were piqued at the sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown. I resolved to begin studying Chinese when I got to college. I majored in East Asian Studies, graduated in 1990, and shipped off to the wilds of Heilongjiang (Qiqihar, to be precise) in 1991, with Princeton-in-Asia.
If you were ever to film a how-not-to video on U.S.–China relations, you would have gained a rich harvest following me around that year. Sure, I did plenty of things right, but also in many ways I was the quintessence of the arrogant, self-satisfied, complaining American. A stereotype, of course, but one, a little bit of which, I suspect, each of us occasionally manifests signs, even after we have spent years living in China.
After a year of teaching English in Guangzhou, in 1993 I arrived at Stanford, where I met my wife-to-be, Colette Plum. We entered separate graduate programs, she in Chinese history at Stanford, me in linguistics at UC Berkeley. We spent a year in China here and there. In the summers of 1998, 1999 and 2000, we, along with our dear friend Matt Bartels, led twelve American high school students on back-roads experiential education travel through remote parts of China, with a U.S.-based company called Where There Be Dragons. This was the most intensive learning any of us had been through, and the most intensive work.
Which is the point. This takes work, and our work is never done. The human body is conditioned to fear those who are different from us. Our higher mental functions must do constant battle with our baser instincts — instincts which served us and serve us well in warning of threats to our safety, but which are of limited use here in the 21st Century, as our increasingly interconnected planet has us working and living with more and more people who are, in the simplest of terms, “other.”
One way to look at China and the U.S. is as two fundamentally incommensurable societies, so radically different that we could never hope to see eye to eye. But if we pivot just slightly on that idea, another picture emerges: it is a picture of two societies whose differences provide an untold abundance of resources for solving the problems we humans face. When we view China and the U.S. from this perspective, we can view the “other” not as a competitor or as a threat, but as a source of knowledge and wisdom, as a counselor, an advisor, a guide, a teacher, a coach — a partner. Somebody we are with, somebody who has our back, and whose back we have.
Recently a colleague and I were having lunch here in Beijing with a Chinese alumnus of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center. He works for a leading U.S. mining safety company. After telling us about his business, he mentioned that his company works closely with a Chinese company. The person in the position opposite his is an American alumnus of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center. Not surprisingly, they work exceedingly well together. Things happen fast, and as a result China’s mines are getting safer faster.
Why all this talk of learning, and of alumni? Alumni of 100,000 Strong are the context of our being together tonight. When it comes to alumni I like to think of magic and mystery. The magic happens at the moment a participant becomes an alumna: she enters into lifelong fellowship with others who, together, constantly make and remake what it meant and what it means to have participated. Alumni represent the limitlessness of learning.
The mystery is inherent in our never knowing how or when we will be transformed by our experiences. Transformation happens again and again. Some students leave a program as practically new people, they’ve changed so much. Others may not realize until months or even years later just how profoundly their experiences have remade them. When leading the trips with Where There Be Dragons, whenever one of us trip leaders was feeling impatient with one of the students, we would remind each other that we never knew when or how that student would grow.
I have more skin in this game than I’ve let on to this point. I’ll now pick up my personal story in 2002, when Colette and I were living in Chengdu, where she was doing archival research and I was writing my dissertation. Days before we had left San Francisco for Chengdu, we had turned in a giant pile of documents to an adoption agency that we had been working with for months. In doing so we joined the ranks of families waiting to adopt a child from China.
In June of 2002 our dream came true. Some dear friends drove us down to Chongqing, where we met Mariette Xiaofei Plum Patent, and became her mom and dad. Two and a half years later, in Nanjing, we met Francesca Xiaorui Plum Patent, and became her mom and dad. Mariette and Francesca are now the fourth generation in my family to bind the U.S. and China together even more tightly.
Each of us forms just such a bond. And through those we know and whose lives we touch, we weave bond after bond after bond. Each thread — a hundred thousand strong, a million strong, a billion strong — each thread makes our present and our future that much brighter, brings us that much closer to a world of peace.