A New Yorker in Beijing

By Liu Xin
 
In a small office in downtown Beijing, a 23-year-old American is studying a document which details current developments in the Chinese education system. The document comes from none other than the most recent meeting of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
 
Gavin Newton-Tanzer, a Columbia University graduate who studied political science, is a board member of the Compass International Education Group (CIEG), and founder and president of the National High School Debate League of China, working to cultivate international education and extra curricular activities in China.
 
“As someone involved with the Chinese education system, I have to be familiar with all the new policies and trends that affect it,” he said.
 
He speaks fluent Mandarin with a touch of the native Beijing dialect, to the point that it is difficult to distinguish his oral Chinese from local residents.
 
When asked if he plans to take part in any of the many popular competitions in China that feature foreigners performing Chinese-style song and dance, he said that his priority is building a career, and not becoming a pop sensation.
 
“Beijing and I have passed the so-called honeymoon period,” Newton-Tanzer said. “And now we’re in the throes of a serious long-term relationship, as if we’re living together.”
 
Back in 2007, Gavin made his first trip to China, and studied Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) where he realized the importance of China.
 
“More and more Americans at that time were admitting China’s influence in the fields of military, economy, and politics,” Newton-Tanzer said. So he suspended his study at Columbia one and a half years and went to Beijing.
 
Newton-Tanzer’s mother was reluctant to send the son to the remote country at first, but his father was entirely supportive.
 
“At the time, Dad was a vice president at General Electric Co. (GE). He pushed me to go out and meet all kinds of people from all kinds of places,” Gavin mentioned.
 
As he arrived the remote eastern metropolis and flung himself full force into the study of Chinese, he did not hesitate in assimilating himself into the life of a Beijinger.
 
He pushed himself to communicate with local Beijingers and join different student unions at BLCU. “There is only one way to learn Chinese that sounds really local, and that is to interact with the local, which is what I did.”
 
At one point, Newton-Tanzer usually spent eight hours per day on studying Chinese. “There were times when I thought I was out of control; I would even mumble Chinese to myself when just getting up to use the toilet at night.”
 
In 2008, one year after arriving, Newton-Tanzer became an volunteer at the Beijing Olympic Games, and he used that time to get acquainted with more university students, local Beijingers, and even some government officials.
 
“These resources helped a lot later when I was trying to promote exchange between students of China and of the US,” Newton-Tanzer noted.
 
Over the course of his studies, he found that there are still quite a few misunderstandings between two countries’ people, and even among the younger generation, who supposedly is growing up with more Western influence in their lives.
 
“Admittedly, these are the two largest economies in the world, and the paths that each country followed to their current successes were very different. They will of course have misunderstandings on any number of issues” Newton-Tanzer said.
 
His goal is to fix precisely this problem: to reduce misunderstandings to a minimum before the students at top universities in both countries grow up. “If you put Chinese and American students in the same room, they aren’t entirely matured yet, and still very impressionable. What’s more, students at top universities know the value of knowledge and will seek a better mutual understanding all by themselves. They just need the opportunity.”
 
Indeed, former US President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 is not more than a paragraph in the history books for the likes of Newton-Tanzer and his peers. He says that even now there are limitless opportunities to be found in the future development of Sino-U.S. relations.
 
“International relationships built upon two nations’ common interests are generally the most stable,” Newton-Tanzer said. “So even if China and America do have disagreements from time to time, which they will, they will also build, either consciously or not, a heavy reliance on each other.”
 
“Additionally, there have been many Chinese in the States for a long time, and there are more and more Americans in China as of recently,” Newton-Tanzer explained. “and if you think about it like that, try and think if anyone truly wants for there to be a conflict between us two.”
 
Maintaining this great passion on building a bridge between the two countries’ youth, Gavin went back home and established a non-profit organization back at Columbia, called Global China Connection (GCC) in 2008.
 
“GCC connects future leaders from all nations and assists them in developing the skills and friendships necessary to succeed both in China and internationally,” the founder said. “Whether attending events, hosting delegations, writing research papers, or having heated discussions over coffee, every interaction among GCC members promotes understanding and exchange, building a network of leaders who will shape the future.”
 
 
At first, Gavin and his three collegues got lost because they had to deal with limited experience and social resources. They used to send thousands of emails and tell others what they were engaged in.
 
After three months of hard work, and not enough sleep, they organized their first event and successfully established relationships with universities like Harvard and Princeton. Years later, GCC has branches at over 80 colleges all over world, including the US, Canada, Australia, Britain, France, and Germany. All of these branches, as well as the central management of the group, are student-run and free for members.
 
In addition to an impressive chapter network, it also built sound relations with the student unions ofChina’s two topic universities of Tsinghua and Peking; companies like the Microsoft Corporation and American Airlines have been its sponsors; and its alumni base continues to grow, with some of GCC’s members having gone on to work in government organizations and banks, or pursue entrepreneurial endeavors.
 
The experience of creating GCC has helped Newton-Tanzer learn how to effectively lead a team, and communicate and cooperate with enterprises and people from the two countries.
 
Since that, there has not been a period of more than two months where he did not fly between China and the U.S..
 
“Generally speaking, U.S.students are not afraid of failure, while their Chinese peers are terrified of not succeeding, even in small things,” Gavin said, “but Chinese students are champions of examination strategy.”
 
No matter what they are good at, GCC highlights the necessity for exchange between two countries’ elite groups.
 
Beside GCC, Gavin said there are also some other student-run non-profit groups engaging in promoting communication between Chinese and American students. But GCC has stuck around longer than others.
 
Zhang Kai, Board Member and Vice President of CIEG, appreciates the American’s passion and determination.
 
“Gavin has a clear perspective on Sino-U.S. relations,” Zhang said. “After careful analysis about the future and accumulating knowledge of China’s current situation, he made a well-informed decision of doing  business in Beijing.”
 
Rather than being mapped out by his parents, Gavin’s life’s path has been directed solely by himself. “From Gavin’s story, we can witness the general difference between Chinese and American young people.”
 
Meanwhile, Zhang suggested that Gavin keep a low profile in China while continuously getting to know the country’s values.
 
“Even if he has the background of an elite education and an affluent family, he has to be modest and respectful if he hopes to succeed here,” Zhang said.
 
Now, Newton-Tanzer is busy with CIEG and rarely intervenes in GCC affairs. But he does not stop his quest to know more about China. When he goes back to his hometown New York City, his friends, neighbors and family members still always ask him China’s current situation.
 
“I tell them China is a fast-developing country with a long history,” Gavin said. “Chinese people are in pursuit of a better life, of reliable medical treatment and housing conditions. They hope their children can receive a better education than their parents, get a better job, and still still have time to look after their elders.”
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