China Daily - - 40 YEARS ON - By ZHANG RUINAN in New York ru­inanzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Cheng Li, the first Chi­nese-Amer­i­can to lead the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s John L. Thorn­ton China Cen­ter, ar­rived in the United States in 1985 to pur­sue a mas­ter’s de­gree in Asian stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley.

“I might be one of the ear­li­est Chi­nese stu­dents who came to the US to study,” said Li, who grew up on Yan’an Road in Shang­hai’s Jing’an district. “Ac­tu­ally I came as a self­spon­sored overseas stu­dent, which was very un­usual in China at that time. And I was told in the mid-1980s that about a quar­ter of the self-spon­sored stu­dents study­ing aboard were from my district.”

Af­ter ar­riv­ing in the US, Li said, “What I first no­ticed was the high­way — in 1985, there were no high­ways in China.”

The sec­ond thing that sur­prised him was not build­ings or cars, but ice cream.

“There was a very fa­mous ice cream store around UC Berke­ley, which sold about 30 or 40 kinds of ice cream,” Li said. “At that time in China there was only vanilla ice cream, so when you saw 40 kinds of ice cream it was also quite amaz­ing.

“Cer­tainly there was cul­ture shock, re­lated not only to eco­nomics or life­style but also in China at that time ev­ery­one was part of a

dan­wei, or work unit, so when I came to Berke­ley I couldn’t ad­just my­self to the hu­man en­vi­ron­ment.”

The other chal­lenge Li faced was the lan­guage bar­rier.

“My English was cer­tainly not good enough in lis­ten­ing com­pre­hen­sion, writ­ing and speak­ing, so it was also a strug­gle for me,” he said.

Li said the two coun­tries were very dif­fer­ent at that time, but the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese stu­dents head­ing to the US to study would not en­counter such cul­ture shock and chal­lenges.

There are more than 350,000 Chi­nese stu­dents study­ing at US uni­ver­si­ties, the largest group of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents by far. And ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics pub­lished by China’s Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion, self-spon­sored stu­dents made up 89 per­cent of Chi­nese study­ing overseas last year.

“Now, China has more high­ways than the US,” Li said. “Ac­tu­ally, China has 50 per­cent of the high­ways in the en­tire world.”

For Li, global think­ing is the most sig­nif­i­cant change brought about by China’s re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy. The ex­change of knowl­edge and ideas with the West and the rest of the out­side world changed China from an iso­lated coun­try to a na­tion that em­braces for­eign ideas.

“My gen­er­a­tion was heav­ily in­flu­enced by West­ern ideas,” said Li, who stud­ied lit­er­a­ture as an un­der­grad­u­ate. “For ex­am­ple, Re­nais­sance lit­er­a­ture was very in­flu­en­tial for Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture stu­dents at that time.

“So that kind of learn­ing, open-mind­ed­ness and the em­brac­ing of ideas from the out­side world are very im­por­tant to China. That pe­riod was very ben­e­fi­cial.”

Li added that the tech­no­log­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion and cul­tural agree­ments signed by Deng Xiaop­ing and Jimmy Carter, then US pres­i­dent, in early 1979 re­ally ben­e­fited the Chi­nese peo­ple and changed the lives of many mem­bers of his gen­er­a­tion.

He said he was grate­ful for the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy, be­cause it meant “I was able to study both in China and the US”.

The life and ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ences of his gen­er­a­tion en­abled him to use the things he learned from the two coun­tries as a bridge to pro­mote mu­tual un­der­stand­ing.

Li said such things were im­por­tant in less­en­ing mis­cal­cu­la­tions, mis­per­cep­tions and mis­un­der­stand­ings be­tween the two coun­tries.

“This is some­thing beyond our pro­fes­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion, it’s the na­ture of our ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “I think the cur­rent ten­sions or con­flicts (be­tween China and the US) are tem­po­rary be­cause, more than at any time, the two coun­tries are in­te­grated so much in so many ways — tourism, eco­nomics, ed­u­ca­tion, sci­en­tific — and that’s beyond any­one’s imag­i­na­tion 40 years ago.”

Li added that China should con­tinue to re­form and open wider in the dig­i­tal era, with its rapid devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies and mas­sive ex­changes of peo­ple and ideas, to pre­pare for chal­lenges and changes that may oc­cur in the fu­ture.

I think the cur­rent ten­sions or con­flicts (be­tween China and the US) are tem­po­rary be­cause, more than at any time, the two coun­tries are in­te­grated so much in so many ways.” Cheng Li, au­thor and ex­pert on China

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