Kelly Kleinkort, director of education, business & policy at the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston, says she considers herself a public servant. May Zhou / China Daily
Kelly Kleinkort has experienced aspects of China that even many Chinese have never enjoyed: She slept in a ger (or yurt) wrapped in a Mongolian gown and spent days at the Naadam Festival watching Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, archery and other performances.
Besides being fluent in Mandarin, she can speak a bit of Mongolian to boot.
Kleinkort, who is the director of education, business & policy at the Asia Society Texas Center, had spent three years studying in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, before settling back in the United States. Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area, Kleinkort said that her appreciation of other cultures stems from her family.
"My parents have always appreciated other cultures. In fact, they met and fell in love with each other in Madrid, Spain, and got married," she said. "They traveled a lot. At one Thanksgiving when I was growing up, we had more than 40 Polish physical therapists in our house. I remember peeling potatoes forever."
During her freshman year at Texas A&M University, Kleinkort was challenged by a mentor to travel abroad for a significant time.
"For some reason, I found myself thinking about China a lot. That was the year 2000; China was not yet in the center of the international stage as it is today. I still had the idea of China where people worked in rice fields," she recalled.
In the summer of 2001, Kleinkort got an opportunity to teach English at Hohhot for two months: "It was a life-changing trip for me. The people were amazing. They were interested in me, in the US, and interested in sharing their culture and helping me to understand China.
"I decided to change my major from education. Unfortunately at that time, Texas A&M didn't have a Chinese program, so I chose speech communication with a focus on cross-culture communication and comparative cultures."
Kleinkort spent her 2002 summer in an exchange program in Dalian to study the Chinese language and culture.
"In 2003, I graduated and I moved to China. I liked Dalian, but I loved Hohhot. It's smaller and less influenced by the West," Kleinkort said.
She went to the College of Inner Mongolia to study Mongolian singing, Chinese, and to teach English. "I was embraced by the community even though sometimes I felt like a unicorn walking down the street. I was invited to all sorts of TV shows and events to perform. I made friends, and we are like sisters. We are still in touch through WeChat," Kleinkort said.
Her time at Hohhot gave her new insight: "There is a reason why people believe in the way they do. It is framed by their history and their culture. When I approached things I didn't understand, I learned to step back and understand why. It also gave me the desire to come back to the US after three years to help building that understanding in education and business."
Armed with a deep understanding of the nuance of Chinese language and culture, Kleinkort went to work for her alma mater Texas A&M in 2009 and soon became the director of the Confucius Institute (CI) and assistant director for Global Projects and Partnerships, assisting in the overall internationalization of the university.
In 2011, she worked as the lead organizer of the China-US Relationship Conference at Texas A&M, an event attended by former president George H.W. Bush and then Chinese ambassador Zhang Yeshui.
At CI, Kleinkort developed the Brown Bag Lecture Series. It provided a platform for experts to have in-depth discussions on various Chinese issues and culture, such as why China survives many predictions of her collapse; the traditional Chinese medical view of human health, the Chinese perspective on world religions; and the impact of the one-child policy.
"My goal was to present information and the real picture to people and let them draw their own conclusions about China. Students and even businesspeople went away with a better understanding of China," she said.
While the relationship between Beijing and Washington is important, Kleinkort considers people-to-people exchange equally so, if not more.
"We provided more opportunities for our students to interact and engage with China. When I first went to CI, roughly 40 some students at Texas A&M went to study in China every year. By the time I left in 2014, the number had increased to more than 300. I loved my work there," Kleinkort said.
In July 2014, Kleinkort joined the Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) in her current role.
"I consider myself a public servant; my goal is to promote better understanding for the betterment of the global economy. I want to make an impact by what I do. ASTC provided me a larger stage to do that," she said.
In less than two years, she has created numerous education and policy lectures and programs at ASTC, including a regular Chinese-language course in collaboration with the Chinese Community Center. This year, she's pushing out a new Young Leader's Institute program for high school students.
Last summer, ASTC hosted Vice-Premier Liu Yandong during her Houston visit, and Kleinkort managed the event. "It was a tremendous honor for us to receive Vice-Premier Liu. I was given three weeks to put things together. There was a lot of patience, communications and understanding involved. This event gave me more gray hair than anything else," she joked.
The reception turned out to be a great success, and Kleinkort said she emerged with a better grasp of the art of finding a win-win solution when multiple parties are involved.
In the summer of 2015, Kleinkort was one of two American recipients of the Young Sinologist Fellowship offered by the Ministry of Culture and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Through the fellowship, she worked closely with government officials and academics to research China's soft power and rapidly changing foreign policy.
"Mark Twin had a saying that travel is fatal to prejudice and bigotry. You need to spend time outside of your own culture. It will change the way you understand and engage the world," Kleinkort said in reflecting on her personal and professional experiences.