Welcoming our alumni throughout the decades and around the world to join this online event
On Oct. 28th APSI hosted the first ever Duke Study in China Virtual Alumni Reunion. The reunion brought together over 40 alumni from a dozen different cohort years stretching back to the very first class in 1982 to the most recent in 2019. Alumni were welcomed to the event by Amanda Kelso, the Executive Director of Duke’s Global Education Office who acknowledged DSIC as “one of Duke’s longest running programs [abroad]” and praised it for its immersive and rigorous character.
Following Kelso’s opening remarks Ralph Litzinger—well-known China Hand, Assoc. Professor of cultural anthropology and former DSIC in China Director (1998)—took the virtual stage to address the audience with a keynote speech. Litzinger’s speech started off with an acknowledgement of “dark times” in U.S.-China relations that have been exacerbated by a global pandemic, rise in nationalism, trade and tech wars and flaring up of anti-Asian racism in the US, to name a few.
Litzinger then went on to highlight some of the main points of tension that have arisen during his personal engagement with China including vivid anecdotes along the way. Like back in 2001 when he and a colleague were in a small Kazakh village in the border regions of Xinjiang and Afghanistan where he recalls villagers pressing him on the US war on terror. This sadly ironic, as just 8 years later we would be hearing about China’s crackdown on ostensibly “domestic terror” in Xinjiang and the creation of what Litzinger calls “a new state policy away from multiculturalism to intensive state surveillance where we are today”.
But it was not all just doom and gloom. Sometimes it is challenging situations that open up new possibilities. For example, the devastating earthquake in Wenchuan back in 2008 bound the nation together in amazing new forms of solidarity and support. At the time Litzinger’s own Duke Engage students in Beijing joined in the massive fundraising efforts to help survivors and mitigate deleterious effects of the disaster.
Litzinger’s fondest recollections were of the year he directed the DSIC program in 1998. During that time, he saw “29 students come together in incredibly challenging times and build friendships”. Litzinger compelled the alumni audience to remember what initially drew them to China and recapture the relationships that have sustained them. Through connecting with old classmates and reflecting on the past, Litzinger suggested, we can find new sources of optimism for the future.
Professor Litzinger’s keynote was followed by a panel discussion of an all-star cast of alumni representing the four decades of the program moderated by Nicolas Cort (17’, 18’), currently serving as an intern for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. After brief introductions Nicolas called on panelists to reflect on their most vivid experience while participating in the program and comment on the impact the program has had on their current careers.
Peter Yeo (83’), President of the Better World Campaign, began by reminiscing about riding Flying Pigeon bikes, that had been rationed to him as a foreign student, from his dorm all the way to the Forbidden City. During the early eighties, Yeo recounted, it was easy to connect with people despite being “complete oddities no matter where you went”. When asked to comment on the lasting influences DSIC has had on him, Yeo exclaimed, “Duke [Study] in China has fundamentally changed my entire career”. Yeo has spent decades on the Hill working with powerful decision makers both at the State Department and in Congress. He credits the Duke program with giving him the “passion, credibility and language” to act as an authority on China when discussing matters of diplomacy and how the US should act in bodies such as the UN. Yeo hinted that the past four years of the Trump administration have caused a vacuum in international diplomacy that China is keen to fill. How the US can restore leadership is actively being discussed.
Philip Tinari (99’), Director of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and influential actor in the Beijing art scene got his start from learning language in the DSIC program. Tinari recalled fondly his intimate conversations about politics and identity over home-cooked meals with his faculty advisor during the program, a Hui minority scholar. When asked what role art plays in connecting communities across national and cultural differences Tinari stated: “the more [we] can put great art in front of curious audiences, the more possibilities open up”. Although Tinari has received some criticism from prominent artists such as Ai Weiwei on how he has navigated complex political restraints to artistic freedom, he feels the success of UCCA, soon to open a new center in Shanghai, reflects an ability to adapt while still providing eager audiences with meaningful connections to modern contemporary art. These connections, Tinari reflected, “may plant a seed in someone’s consciousness that maybe only blooms 10-20 years later”. Tinari hinted that Duke Study in China also possesses that potential.
Kerry Holahan (00’), a classical singer and cross-cultural arts consultant, warmly recounted her time outside of the xiao maibu (convenience store) with a cosmopolitan group of Chinese and international students chatting away in Chinese and “trying to avoid doing homework”. It was these informal conversations that she found so vibrant and essential to her experience abroad. Shortly after graduating from Wesleyan University, Holahan returned to China spending the next ten years performing and facilitating musical collaborations using her finely tuned language skills and artistic abilities. As a student in the program, Holahan understood herself as a “cultural ambassador” and maintained that commitment into the professional world. Since moving back to the US in 2012, Holahan has worked to introduce Chinese folk songs to a US audience while teasing out similarities in lyrical sentiments.
Ashley Davis (10’, 11’), now a manager at Apple Inc., discussed how her experiences in Kunming actively molded her own sense of identity as an African American woman. Davis recalled walking down the street with a diverse cohort of classmates that were constantly approached by curious onlookers. These sometimes uncomfortable encounters led to a better sense of self and stronger empathy for others that she was able to leverage while working for Apple Inc. in China. Over the 1.5 years Davis spent in Hangzhou with Apple, her team was able to open up 23 new stores. And this, she noted, in brand new cities with teams 90% new to the company. Solving the puzzle of how to connect humans to technology relied on Davis’s cultural knowledge: “What I originally set out to do was not what I ended up spending most of time on; I had to elevate because we needed people in the room who could understand and translate what we were seeing”. Davis relocated back to the US following the birth of her first child but hopes to eventually return with her family.
Ian Burgess (17’, 18’) reflected on his independent travels during the program which took him to inner-Mongolia via train. The nine-hour ride on infamous yingzuo or “hard-seater” car opened up an opportunity for him to engage with locals “trading snacks and chatting about life”. For Ian that was the first time he knew he could have a meaningful conversation on his own, far away from teachers and classmates. As an intelligence officer in the US Air Force, Ian hopes to draw on his strong language skills and experience on the ground to inform a healthy military policy that maintains a fair playing field in the region, especially in disputed areas such as the South China Sea.
In proper Zoom fashion, the event wound down with a series of breakout room mixers following the stimulating panel discussion. There, alumni were able to converse informally and share stories from their past experiences. The event was lauded by alumni as “highly successful” and has even inspired spin off reunions along cohort years. APSI hopes to build on the momentum of the reunion to offer further avenues for our 1,500 strong alumni network to stay connected. US-China relations may currently be in a nadir but the diverse community of DSIC alumni continue to draw from their myriad experiences and linguistic prowess to engage across difference. Here’s to hoping for a brighter year in 2021.