Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1999
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The View from Shanghai:
Center Alumni Tell of
New Directions

Text and Photo by Joanne Cavanaugh

In Flat 13 A of a Shanghai high-rise, the view outside the bay window sparkles. It's a glorious panorama of new Shanghai that spreads to the famous riverfront Bund. Construction is so stitched into the fabric of this city that locals say three-fourths of the world's cranes have pierced the skyline during the past few years. Population: more than 14 million.

Sitting around a glass coffee table that holds a copy of George magazine and a box of Old Maid playing cards, six alumni from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center gather in the home of James Leibold and Kate Axup to talk about the working world in Shanghai. A mixture of men and women from the United States, China, and Australia, they finished their studies during China's 1990 boom years--a catch-up decade for a nation locked in development limbo during the socialism-drenched decades post-1949.

As they sip Coke poured from a liter bottle emblazoned with Chinese characters, they answer what are essentially the two questions of the evening: How does the Hopkins-Nanjing Center fit into the economics of modern China, and how have students changed at the center over the past few years?

The general consensus: The Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies offers a rare chance to study Chinese or English, to learn cultural do's and don'ts, to study the economics and politics of the two nations, and make contacts with students and faculty that later lead to jobs and friendships. The economics courses, though not as intense as those they would get at business schools, are helpful in their fields. Actually, they're conflicted over the growing focus on finance.

Gao "Gordon" Xiaoyun didn't expect to get into business. Before he came to the center, he was working on his master's thesis on beat poet Allen Ginsburg. Gao says poetry was his true love. A few weeks after he finished, in May 1997, he attended the annual Hopkins-run, corporate-sponsored career development seminar in Shanghai. General Electric (GE) Jiabao Lighting soon called and offered him a position, which he accepted. Why the corporate job? "Just because of money. My family had a financial crisis," Gao says, explaining that he has a big family to support--a wife, young son, mother, and younger brother.

Kevin Crowe (Nanjing Center '94) underwent a similar transformation. He came rushing late into this May alumni gathering, briefcase swinging. He had just finished a meeting at the not-yet-opened G's Club Shanghai, a private membership business club. Crowe is the marketing manager there. "It's the sort of place to hobnob for the rich and famous wannabees in Shanghai," he says.

Crowe earned his undergraduate degree at Arizona State University, majoring in East Asian languages. "I just wanted to continue my Chinese studies and learn more about culture and history and do something with language. I didn't know what." Then, he says, "I decided to go into business when I saw all the opportunities here. I had fallen in love with China."

Kate Axup, an attorney from Melbourne, is now doing commerce and finance law at Allens Arthur Robinson's offices in Shanghai. Though the center doesn't tout itself as a language school, she says, "a lot of people go there to improve their Chinese, written and spoken, so they can then use it in business."

Axup also fell in love at the center--with her husband. (they say five marriages came out of their '96-97 class). But Leibold, an American PhD candidate, says he's "part of the fringe minority at the center not seeking a business career." He worries about students' preference for finance studies over scholarly pursuits. "Nanjing has the No. 2 archives in the country, all of the records on the [Chinese] Republican period from 1911 to 1949," says Leibold, who worked on his research instead of finishing up his certificate. "I had another agenda in going to Nanjing, and that was to work on my dissertation. There is a huge market for academics like me."

Increasingly, it seems, the center has drawn fewer pure scholars, especially among Chinese students. Says Lydia Li, who earned her certificate in 1992, "When I went to the center, only a third of us had an interest in going into foreign companies. Most went abroad to PhD programs." Today, Li works as a product development specialist at Achieveglobal, a foreign business training and consulting firm.

Before these alumni leave 13A, they promise to get together more often. Gordon passes around photos of his son, and they ask Kate and Jim about their attractive Chinese peasant-style furniture. Standing on the curb in the French Concession district of an ever-changing Shanghai, half the group decides to share a cab ride. For this night at least, they're heading in the same direction. --JPC