Last Friday we held the 28th opening ceremony of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center. Here are the remarks I offered our students.
In the summer of 2006, on leave from our busy lives in Beijing, my family and I took an epic road trip through the American West. One day we drove through Death Valley, California, one of the hottest places on earth. The temperature was 125 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 52 degrees Celsius. From there we drove over two high mountain passes and down into Owens Valley, with the highest peaks in the Continental United States towering over us, Mount Whitney topping them all at 14,505 feet (which is 4,421 meters). We ended our day at a motel in the small town of Bishop, California, at the northern end of Owens Valley.
After dinner we relaxed in the small hot tub at the motel. It was around 8:30. Our older daughter Mariette, just four years old at the time, asked how long we would stay in the hot tub. Colette and I had previously decided we’d stay until 9:00, and so I answered: about a half hour. She smiled and said, “That’s a long time.” I replied, “Yes, sweetie, it is. Or at least it seems that way now. But when 30 minutes is up it’s going to seem like it was really short. So be sure you enjoy these 30 minutes.”
Here we are, together, this 13th day of September, 2013. Spread out before us is the academic year, with all its rich potential and mystery. We can’t possibly know what is ahead of us. We do know that “it” will be a lot. We are in for an wild ride over the next nine months.
One thing we know about the Hopkins–Nanjing Center is that it is a place of intensive intercultural learning. Usually when we talk casually about intercultural learning we have an underlying assumption that our main job is to look outside of ourselves, to learn about “them.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact it’s crucial. It’s also only part of the picture.
To me the greatest challenge of intercultural learning is to look inside — with curiosity, openness and compassion. Curiosity, because without it no learning is possible. Openness, because we don’t know what we will find when we look, and we have to be ready to deal with it. And compassion, because we might not like what we see, but in order to grow, we need to accept ourselves with all our limitations.
I know you are all ready for this, because you chose to come here. And the environment you will live in for the next nine months guarantees you many opportunities for deep intercultural learning, no matter how much or how little conscious awareness you bring to your own introspection.
Imagine how much further we can go by bringing conscious awareness and commitment to looking inside of ourselves — week to week, day to day, moment to moment? By shifting the default question we ask when we feel the discomfort of intercultural difference from “What’s wrong with them?” to “What can I learn about myself?”
Why do our alumni love the HNC so deeply? Why do they come back whenever they can, and stay as connected as they can to their classmates?
Because the world looks different to them since their time here. Much of the world operates under a different set of assumptions than we do at the HNC, where we rest on a foundation of mutual respect, and where we don’t let ourselves off the hook by blaming our problems exclusively on our cultural differences. People who have been through this experience know this in a way few others can. They know how fleeting, and how precious, our time here is.
So, here we are, slipping into our “hot tub” time at the HNC. How long will this year be? Nine months. Is that a long time? I don’t know. But I can say with great confidence that when those nine months are up, it’s going to seem like it was really short.
How will you make the most of this ride?