A long re­sume and early ties with China BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CHEN WEIHUA in Wash­ing­ton chen­wei­hua@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Nathaniel Ahrens has a long re­sume for a 40-year-old, cov­er­ing more than a dozen com­pa­nies and in­sti­tu­tions in the business and aca­demic world, all re­lated to China.

But he first got in­ter­ested in China in the West African na­tion of Sene­gal.

After spend­ing his fresh­man year study­ing phi­los­o­phy at Vas­sar Col­lege in Pough­keep­sie, New York, Ahrens de­cided it wasn’t the best way to spend the tu­ition money, so he dropped out and went to Sene­gal to study mu­sic.

There he met Har­riet Boyce, an 82-year-old woman who had trav­eled all over the world and lived in Iran be­fore the fall of the shah in 1979. Boyce was also very in­ter­ested in China and had lots of books about the coun­try.

“That’s what I got the idea that I wanted to go back to fin­ish my un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree at Vas­sar and to study Chi­nese,” said Ahrens, now di­rec­tor of China Af­fairs and di­rec­tor of the Maryland China Ini­tia­tive at the Univer­sity of Maryland.

So after a year in Sene­gal, he reen­rolled at Vas­sar, study­ing Asian his­tory. “Of course, once I started study­ing Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture, I got ad­dicted,” he said.

Vas­sar’s Chi­nese pro­gram did not look that de­vel­oped to Ahrens at the time, so in his ju­nior year, he went to study at the Beijing Lan­guage and Cul­ture Univer­sity.

In Beijing, Ahrens ad­vanced his Chi­nese-lan­guage skills in a pro­gram purely about lan­guage. He felt lucky that the pro­gram did not in­clude other sub­jects, de­scrib­ing it as a lux­ury that al­lowed him to ex­pe­ri­ence stu­dent life.

“This is a very for­ma­tive time in your life where you are 18 and 19; it can have a great im­pact on your out­look,” he said.

In Beijing, Ahrens also met his fu­ture wife, Friederike, a Ger­man stu­dent in the same Chi­nese lan­guage class. “That was a good 12 months,” he said.

Upon re­turn­ing to Vas­sar for his se­nior year, Ahrens and his friends launched a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions startup that he ad­mit­ted was in­volved in send­ing those cell­phone junk mes­sages in China. By the time he grad­u­ated from Vas­sar, a new Chi­nese tele­com reg­u­la­tion had forced the company to close down.

The young man was at­tracted by a job ad in The New York Times that read: “will­ing to work on the Yangtze River, knowl­edge of Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture a plus”.

“Who can say no to that?” Ahrens re­called of the mo­ment.

For the next year start­ing in Fe­bru­ary 1998, the Amer­i­can spent most of his time work­ing and liv­ing on cruise ships on the Yangtze River, run­ning through the Three Gorges from both Chongqing and Wuhan. As cruise di­rec­tor, he man­aged the staff and also gave lec­tures on Chi­nese his­tory and cul­ture to some 120 mostly for­eign tourists each time, ei­ther go­ing four days down­stream or six days up­stream.

“We’d get off the boat and lead peo­ple on tours through fas­ci­nat­ing places; this area is so rich in his­tory, places like Zigui,” said Ahrens. That was years be­fore the Three Gorges Dam was com­pleted.

Zigui, a hilly and moun­tain­ous area fea­tured promi­nently in Chi­nese his­tory and cul­ture, was mostly sub­merged later when wa­ter rose after the com­ple­tion of the dam.

Ahrens re­mem­bered see­ing float­ing corpses dur­ing the flood sea­son on the Yangtze River that year. He re­al­ized the need to con­trol the flood with the dam, but felt sad to see some his­toric places dis­ap­pear­ing.

He said he learned a lot about work­ing in a Chi­nese work en­vi­ron­ment: the pol­i­tics and nu­ance of how to deal with peo­ple; the is­sues about “face”; and a lot of im­por­tant soft skills.

Though life on the cruise ship was un­like that in big ci­ties such as Shang­hai or back in the United States, Ahrens said it was the ex­pe­ri­ence he was look­ing for.

“The best time was eat­ing fish in a hot pot in Zigui, and huaquan (a Chi­nese fin­ger-guess­ing game popular while drink­ing at the din­ner ta­ble). It was some­thing I was look­ing for,” he re­called of his year min­gling with Chi­nese. Learn­ing about China

Hav­ing spent a full year ear­lier at the Beijing univer­sity, Ahrens said his Chi­nese lan­guage skills re­ally took off on the Yangtze River when he had to speak Chi­nese all day be­cause few peo­ple in Chongqing and Wuhan, in­clud­ing his mostly Chi­nese crew mem­bers, spoke English.

To­day, his Chi­nese is so good that most Chi­nese wouldn’t re­al­ize it is an Amer­i­can with blue eyes speak­ing it if they don’t see him face to face.

Ahrens hopes more Amer­i­can stu­dents go­ing to China th­ese days would seek the kind of ex­pe­ri­ence he had learn­ing the broader Chi­nese cul­ture, such as work­ing on a ship or with a pri­vate firm in Ningxia in north­west China.

Ahrens had im­pressed many for­eign tourists on the Yangtze cruises, and some had of­fered him job op­por­tu­ni­ties.

He went to Shang­hai and joined a tele­com startup called In­trin­sic Tech­nol­ogy, work­ing as a se­nior man­ager in ar­eas rang­ing from prod­uct man­age­ment and in­ter­na­tional sales and mar­ket­ing to business de­vel­op­ment and cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

After three years at In­trin­sic, Ahrens launched his own company, Shang­hai Pack Ltd, in 2004, pro­vid­ing pack­ag­ing, print­ing and ac­ces­sories for high-end Amer­i­can and Euro­pean brands such as Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuit­ton and Oc­c­i­tane.

Although Ahrens said he learned a lot from the job, he felt it was a tran­si­tional one, and he re­ally wanted to re­turn to his orig­i­nal in­ter­est, some­thing re­lated to broad Chi­nese cul­ture, pub­lic pol­icy is­sues and US-China re­la­tions, and as he said, to play a bridg­ing role be­tween the US and China.

Not long after his wife gave birth to their son Cas­par in Shang­hai Huashan Hos­pi­tal in 2006, the cou­ple de­cided to move back to the US.

While run­ning the Shang­hai pack­ag­ing company from the US pro­vided the fam­ily with in­come, NATHANIEL AHRENS Age 40 Di­rec­tor of China Af­fairs, and di­rec­tor of Maryland China Ini­tia­tive, Univer­sity of Maryland (2014-present) Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and founder, Amer­i­can Man­darin So­ci­ety (2011-present) Deputy di­rec­tor, fel­low and con­sul­tant, Hills Pro­gram on Gov­er­nance, and ad­junct fel­low, Free­man Chair in China Stud­ies, CSIS (20102014) Vis­it­ing scholar, Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace (2009-2010) Founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Golden Road Ven­tures Ltd (2005-present) Founder and gen­eral man­ager, Shang­hai Pack Ltd, Shang­hai /Wash­ing­ton (2004-2009) Ahrens was for­tu­nate to meet Carla Hills, the for­mer US trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive and now chair­woman of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on US-China Re­la­tions.

“She took me un­der her wing,” Ahrens said. “I found her to be an amaz­ing men­tor. “She’s got such a grace, in­tel­li­gence and hu­mil­ity. She is a won­der­ful role model.”

With his own con­sult­ing firm known as Golden Road Ven­tures Ltd, which fo­cuses on US-China re­lated is­sues such as mar­ket en­try, Ahrens worked on projects out of the of­fices of Hills & Co, an in­ter­na­tional con­sul­tancy chaired by Hills.

Start­ing in 2009, he worked as a vis­it­ing scholar at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace, re­search­ing China’s in­no­va­tion, en­ergy, cli­mate and gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment poli­cies. He trav­eled fre­quently to cen­tral China’s Hu­nan prov­ince on sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment projects.

In 2010, he moved to the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (CSIS) as a con­sul­tant on the Hills Pro­gram on Gov­er­nance, founded by Carla Hills and her late hus­band Roderick, who re­cently passed away, on Oct 29.

He then worked as an ad­junct fel­low for the Free­man Chair in China Stud­ies at CSIS for sev­eral months be­fore go­ing back to the Hills pro­gram as a fel­low and deputy di­rec­tor.

Still af­fil­i­ated as a non-res­i­dent fel­low at CSIS, Ahrens just re­turned last month from an an­ticor­rup­tion con­fer­ence in Beijing, us­ing his ex­per­tise work­ing un­der the Hills pro­gram. Man­darin So­ci­ety

While at the CSIS, Ahrens launched the Amer­i­can Man­darin So­ci­ety in 2011, at­tract­ing mostly Americans who have spent their for­ma­tive years study­ing in China.

The non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, which now has 1,500 mem­bers, aims to main­tain the lan­guage skills of those who re­turn from study­ing in China while also up­dat­ing them with the lat­est de­vel­op­ments in China.

Ahrens said that when stu­dents re­turn from China, their lan­guage skills drop off. “I ex­pe­ri­enced that; ev­ery­one ex­pe­ri­enced it. That’s painful on the per­sonal level, but also from the na­tional in­ter­est per­spec­tive,” he said.

“We need to find ways to keep peo­ple’s skills up,” he said. “So when the next Tim Gei­th­ner comes to his or her po­si­tion, they re­tain a bet­ter grasp of their skills and in­ter­est.”

Un­like other sem­i­nars on China, those hosted or co-hosted by the Amer­i­can Man­darin So­ci­ety are all in Chi­nese.

Ahrens be­lieves it makes a huge dif­fer­ence when speak­ers talk in Chi­nese. “There is more nu­ance, more hu­mor; the per­son­al­ity and the power dy­namic is dif­fer­ent,” he said.

Be­sides send­ing out a weekly

• Founder, Pow­derblue Tech­nolo­gies, Shang­hai (2003-2004) Di­rec­tor, se­nior man­ager, In­trin­sic Tech­nol­ogy, Shang­hai (2000-2003) As­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager, Asia-Pa­cific Real Es­tate/Qual­ity Hous­ing for China, Shang­hai (1999-2000) Cruise di­rec­tor, Vic­to­ria Cruises, Chongqing (1998-1999) Mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor, LinkRe­lay Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Pough­keep­sie, New York (1996-1997) Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, MIPP, Wash­ing­ton (2011-2013) AB, Asian Stud­ies and Chi­nese, Vas­sar Col­lege, Pough­keep­sie, New York (1992-1997) Chi­nese Lan­guage and Cul­ture Univer­sity, Beijing (1995-1996) news­let­ter, the or­ga­ni­za­tion also is on Sina Weibo, the most popular mi­croblog in China.

Ahrens is proud that the Amer­i­can Man­darin So­ci­ety has been able to con­nect with the Party School in Beijing and the China Ex­ec­u­tive Lead­er­ship Academy in Shang­hai’s Pudong area, where Chi­nese of­fi­cials re­ceive their train­ing.

Last year, the Man­darin So­ci­ety se­lected 10 mid­ca­reer ris­ing stars aged 30-45 who are flu­ent in Chi­nese, for a week­long lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment pro­gram in Beijing and Shang­hai. “We can hear very sim­i­lar to what the (Chi­nese) lead­ers are hear­ing when they go to th­ese schools, from the same pro­fes­sors,” Ahrens said.

He said it was im­por­tant for Americans to hear those voices. “Only when you hear chal­lenges from their per­spec­tive do you re­ally un­der­stand why de­ci­sions are be­ing made the way they are,” he said. “It helps us to un­der­stand the fu­ture mo­ti­va­tions of Chi­nese lead­ers.”

To Ahrens, it also should be a good way for the Chi­nese to know the next gen­er­a­tion of Americans.

Since tak­ing over the job at the Univer­sity of Maryland in July, Ahrens has trav­eled to China ev­ery month be­cause of the many China-re­lated projects.

The di­rec­tor of China af­fairs was a new po­si­tion cre­ated to over­see the univer­sity’s en­tire re­la­tion­ship with China, while the Maryland China Ini­tia­tive, es­tab­lished in 1994, helps bring some 600 Chi­nese of­fi­cials a year for train­ing at the Univer­sity of Maryland, on ev­ery­thing from in­no­va­tion pol­icy and gov­er­nance to phi­lan­thropy and gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment.

Ahrens be­lieves he has found his dream job, work­ing on ex­changes and col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the two coun­tries and hav­ing a great univer­sity plat­form that does not have the re­stric­tions one would in work­ing for the gov­ern­ment.

“It’s the per­fect plat­form for me,” he said.

While Ahrens be­gan his in­ter­est in China in Sene­gal, he later found out that his mother’s side did have a long his­tory re­lated to China. His un­cle, Howard Bal­loch, be­came the Cana­dian am­bas­sador to China in 1996. And Ahrens’ great-grand­fa­ther, from Scot­land, was a tea trader in Fuzhou in East China’s Fu­jian prov­ince.

“So I got the gan­qing (feel­ing),” Ahrens said in a com­bi­na­tion of Chi­nese and English.

He was re­fer­ring to his China con­nec­tions: his great-grand­fa­ther, his un­cle, the place where he met his wife and where both were study­ing Chi­nese, and where their first son was born.

Both of their sons, Cas­par, 8 and Hen­rik, 6 , are study­ing Chi­nese in a pub­lic school in Fair­fax County, Vir­ginia.


Nathaniel Ahren is di­rec­tor of China Af­fairs and di­rec­tor of Maryland China Ini­tia­tive of the Univer­sity of Maryland.

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