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Getting to know you

Updated: 2012-11-05 08:59
By Mike Peters ( China Daily)

Getting to know you

Holly Chang shows off the signatures of some of the first "friends" who became part of Project Pengyou at its kick-off event in Beijing. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Holly Chang heads an independent foundation that helps American students study in China. She tells Mike Peters the importance for China and the US to talk more.

Like many Chinese-Americans who grew up in the United States, Holly Chang spent most of her youth focused on the American half of her identity. Born in Malaysia, she lived in Houston from age 4 until she was 13, speaking her parents' second language at home.

"Chinese parents, American kid," says the CEO of Golden Bridges Foundation, which encourages US students to study in China. "That was my normal."

She lived in Singapore until she graduated from high school, then headed to college in Malaysia, then to the US University of Kentucky, and in the next half-dozen years worked her way up into a lucrative engineering job, staying in touch with her parents by long-distance.

Then one day, she learned her father was facing open-heart surgery. She spent three months back with the family and found herself reconnecting with Mandarin.

"I'd studied China for my MBA," she says, "from the traditional to the present. I thought I understood China, that I had the background to understand it."

She thought again and, newly motivated, came to Beijing in 2006. She calls that her "coming of age" moment, acknowledging that it's hard for most Americans to "get China" - even Americans like herself who had a big head-start.

And while there are plenty of mainland Chinese now eager to tell the country's story, Chang was convinced that understanding would be lacking if there weren't enough Americans who knew enough to tell the story.

That sense fits with the mission of the Ford Foundation, which for decades has been sending Chinese economists to Harvard and other top US universities, for example, making a long-term investment in people-to-people exchanges.

And then came a bold goal from US President Barack Obama, who returned from his 2009 trip from China struck by a huge imbalance: There were about 150,000 Chinese students coming to the United States for educational programs versus about 14,000 Americans who study in China.

The president thought that gap posed a barrier to understanding between the two countries, and he announced his 100,000 Strong Initiative in November 2009, aimed at getting the number of US students in China up to six figures by 2014.

The Ford Foundation was on board with the idea immediately, and among other things provided seed money for Project Pengyou, a campaign to build a network of "China alumni" who would take the message back home, especially to their home universities.

Originally germinated within the State Department, Project Pengyou was developed by the non-governmental, non-profit Golden Bridges network and directed in China by Holly Chang. Recently, the US government let go of the effort, which Chang now runs from an independent foundation with new funding from Ford and other supporters.

"It wasn't long ago that encounters between the two countries were pretty much stage-managed," according to Kaiser Kuo, a New York-born rock musician and director of Baidu International Communications, who sits on the board of Project Pengyou. "Sister cities were established and trade delegations traveled back and forth," he told China Daily last year.

Today, he says, the need for real people-to-people relations has become critical as China's rising power has become a topic of debate in US elections.

The US State Department says 600 times more Chinese study the English language than Americans study Mandarin, and US Ambassador to China Gary Locke has said such an imbalance in knowledge can undermine strategic trust between the two countries.

Holly Chang is on a mission to fix that. The new makeup of Project Pengyou is about more than who controls the purse strings and even more than the 100,000 Strong Initiative.

"We want to be the scaffolding of a community," she says. The newly relaunched website, www.projectpengyou.org, offers a catalog of profiles of both new and old "China hands", including Peter Geithner, a 28-year veteran of the Ford Foundation and its first representative in China, who is currently an advisor to the Harvard University Asia Center and consults for the China Medical Board.

"We all keep talking," Chang says, "and we can't help but get to know each other."

Contact the writer at michaelpeters@chinadaily.com.cn.

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