China-US / People

A long resume and early ties with China

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-11-14 14:53

A long resume and early ties with China

A long resume and early ties with China

Nathaniel Ahrens is director of China Affairs and director of Maryland China Initiative of the University of Maryland. Chen Weihua / China Daily

A long resume and early ties with China

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 re-enrolled 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 doing internet faxing. 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, 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 anti-corruption 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 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.

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