It Started with Zhuhai

Luou Zhang has covered a lot of ground since he graduated from Duke in 2011 with a degree in economics. He was born in China but moved to the U.S. at the age of 6 and grew up as an American. His first trip back to China was in 2010, when he went to Zhuhai with DukeEngage. In a recent telephone conversation, he said that he thought of it as his last chance to visit China before graduating and taking a desk job in Boston or New York.

Luou’s time in Zhuhai changed everything. In his senior year he assembled a group of students to perform at the 2011 Summer Universiade in Shenzhen, and that was another intense and successful trip. He was hooked by the incredible dynamism of China. So many things that are settled and institutionalized in the West are open questions there.

He accepted a job with Bain Consulting in Hong Kong, which felt like a place where he could get a feel for life in China and improve his grasp of the language and his business and organizational skills. While at Bain he did some pro bono work for Teach for China, and it got him wondering if he could design an educational experience of his own. Within a year, he met the director of an educational non-profit based in Beijing called IDEAS (Initiate Development for Education And Service). An anticipated one-hour conversation turned into a seven-hour marathon, and he was invited to join her organization as CEO of the “Gehua Camp.”

His core mission is to promote and provide experiential education — a new concept in China. He arrived at his new base on the mainland with a title but no staff and no facility. It was exactly what brought him to China, the open space–conceptual, institutional, and physical–to build something. He convinced people to join him, and a beautiful “phase 2” structure for IDEAS “Gehua Camp” was built in a matter of months.

When he was at Zhuhai Middle School, Luou passed out paper and crayons and asked the students to draw their future. It was, among other things, a nice way to get around the language barrier. He remembers them asking for more time, because they needed to draw the sun, and another tree. They needed to get it right. And that spirit, that need to get the picture right, represents for him the missing piece in an educational culture where, as he sees it, 90% of children will say they want to be a banker or a doctor or an engineer.

The arts are a key part of the experience he is striving to create. They promote exactly the things that are lacking in Chinese education — creativity, passion, and self-awareness.

In the summer of 2013, he was able to invite a group of five dancers from Duke to Gehua Camp to lead dance classes. Luou was also kind enough to send these recollections of a recent trip back to Zhuhai.

July 2013

by Luou Zhang

A bright red Chinese banner with the characters – 珠海二中 2013 届高三毕业典礼 – hangs triumphantly on the stage as I walk into the school auditorium for the graduation ceremony at Zhuhai No. 2 High School. I’m here to send off my students to college. As I hang out with the graduating seniors, a girl called Joanna pulls me aside to take a photo. When she stands next to me for the photo, I can’t help but be amazed at how tall she has grown in the past three years.

I first met Joanna in the second floor hallway of Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School, affectionately known “九中” amongst the locals, during the second week of our DukeEngage Zhuhai program in 2010. She would run up to me with a beaming smile and muster all the courage her English class gave her and say, “Hello, my name is Joanna, would you like to make a friend with me?” Three years ago, Joanna’s head barely came up to my chin, and her hair was near tomboy-length. The middle school forbade the girls from having long hair for fear of it being a “distraction” to their academic lives. From that afternoon on, she would often visit me in the school office set up for the DukeEngage students. On some days, she would practice her new-found English vocabulary on me; on other days, she would bring her classmates and ask me to share with them the mysterious world of America, college, and dating. In return, they ushered me into the world of the Zhuhai student, filled with buddle tea, endless test-preps, and one of their favorite TV shows, “Happy Summer Camp.”

Through lunch chats and email exchanges with Joanna and her friends, I began to see the complexity that these Zhuhai adolescents struggle with as they try to weave their past experiences and future aspirations together into personal narratives that will become their self-identity. To make this narrative-building process even more difficult, the Zhuhai students face unimaginable pressure to perform well on standardized tests. As a result of sky-high family expectation, peer competition and academic performance pressure, students often tie their self-worth to the last test score. As I talked to more of Joanna’s friends, I realized that while many of these students know their textbooks forwards and backwards, the insights that they truly thirst for is the knowledge of who they are and what they should be doing with their lives.

In the three years that I’ve known Joanna, through phone conversations with me, summer jobs, and by staying curious about the world outside her classroom. We had a short exchange that highlighted her aspirations:

“I’m so excited for college. I am going to study English so that I can pursue my dream of being a translator”! Joanna stated proudly after our photo was taken.

“That’s awesome Joanna, though why do you want to be a translator?” I asked.

“Isn’t it amazing how big the world is, yet how little of it we see in our lifetime? I want to be a translator so that I can meet all sorts of people and travel around the world through their stories,” Joanna smiled back.

It is amazing how our lives are shaped by a series of highly unlikely events and, even more unbelievable, what our lives become if we are brave enough to chase after these flickering possibilities. After discovering Joanna and her friends’ struggle with self-discovery within the imperfect Chinese education system, I decided in my senior year at Duke to do everything in my power and imagination to create a platform for Chinese students to not only discover who they are today, but also strive after who they aspire to be tomorrow. To the shock and awe of my friends and family, I moved to China after graduating from Duke to be closer to my Zhuhai students and my Chinese ambition.

Two years and many trials and tribulations later, I now lead an education innovation organization in Beijing that focuses on bringing holistic education to students in China. As for what I do every day – I wake up each day to finish what I started in Zhuhai.