History and Opportunity

This is the third in a series of postings from Asia, as I and my colleagues visit alumni, parents, and friends in the region. This posting is by Mike Schoenfeld ’73.

Beijing

The traffic on Jinbao Street was heavy on a relatively pollution free day on our way to Tiananmen Square. The vast number of bicycles I remembered from my visit 15 years ago has been mostly replaced by new model taxis, buses and cars. Shoppers in fashionable western clothes walked by the luxury stores, peering into store front windows at Gucci hand bags and the Cartier jewelry.

We made our way with thousands of others to watch the ceremonial lowering of the Chinese flag strategically placed at the head of the Square. As we waited for dusk to arrive, we were dazzled by images of stunning landscapes, cultural treasures, and modern architectural wonders on two gigantic video screens that framed the view to Mao’s mausoleum. All attention focused as the flag slowly dropped, with the daily ritual captured by hundreds of cell phone cameras. Soldiers crisply gathered the flag for the march across the street and under the large portrait of Mao guarding the entrance to the Forbidden City. The large crowd orderly dispersed under Chairman Mao’s watchful eyes.

Our brief time as tourists provided us with a small glimpse of the confluence of history and opportunity that defines the new Beijing. As our meetings with alumni and parents progressed to a well-attended gathering the following evening, we began to see how this framework is shaping the lives and careers of our graduates. Kim Woodard, the moderator of the evening panel who attended the first year of Middlebury’s Chinese School in 1966, reminded us that it was only 40 years ago that we were fighting a proxy war with China in Vietnam. Woodard was one of the first Americans to enter China during Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy effort in the early ’70s and has been here ever since. In those early days, Kim felt he knew just about every American doing business in China. Now they number in the hundreds of thousands.

Among the new business people in Beijing are an increasing number of Middlebury grads. Well equipped with language skills passed on by John Berninghausen, Gregory Chiang, and other Middlebury and Monterey professors, they are working in banking, finance, education, publishing, technology, and green energy. Many seem surprised at how long they have been here, finding a sense of place in a country that is struggling to seek a balance between promoting economic development and maintaining societal constraints.

One young alum, Tao Zhou ’98, reflected on his journey back to China after his time at Middlebury. A math and computer science major with a minor in physics, he credits his liberal arts background for his success in business and his view on life. Although it was the two master’s degrees he received at Dartmouth that gave him skills and credentials, it was his passion for  “living a life of uncertainty” that led to his realization that he was born to be an entrepreneur. His startup company in China now employs 30 people and continues to grow. Where will it lead? Tao believes someday he may go back to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and become a teacher. No one in the audience that evening would be surprised.

—Mike Schoenfeld ’73, senior vice president and senior philanthropic adviser

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