Lei Chen Wong is the executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute China and a graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. We sat down with her to talk about her China journey and what JGI-China is doing to foster environmental education.
When and why did you first come to China?
I first came to China in 2001 as a study abroad student. I majored in foreign languages, and started studying Chinese as a freshman in Hamilton College. In my third year I came to Beijing. My school was located near Dawanglu, which didn’t look like what it does today. It didn’t have buildings above three stories. It was all local, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It’s completely changed. The only thing I was able to recognize was the back gate of the school and the subway stop.
That year abroad really changed your mind.
This is what I would say to any American: if you have the opportunity to do a gap year or study abroad or spend more semesters away you should do it. You don’t have to worry about making money yet and you get a small taste of it without having to commit. As a student, you’re in that mode of learning and absorbing; it really does open you up to many different possibilities.
Before studying in China, I was actually headed towards finance, but studying abroad changed my entire perception towards what I wanted to do with my life. Not because of conditions or anything—it was just growing up in the States with a certain trajectory. Only after coming here did I realize that China could be a place where I could work and live.
How did you get into charity?
Growing up in an Asian family, I was imposed with: “You’re going to be a doctor.” That was my mindset from a young age and it took something as radical as being immersed in a different culture to deprogram me. When I was abroad I realized I wanted to have a direct impact in improving lives. I wanted to be in a position where a lot of people could really benefit from my help. That was what really set me on the path to charity.
Tell us about the Roots & Shoots program you’re working on.
The Roots & Shoots program is the flagship program of the Jane Goodall Institute here China. We focus on environmental education for young people. We have student groups that are really active and making an impact on the local environment. We brought the program in over 16 years ago and it’s been really successful and it has such a huge potential to grow. Since 1994 we’ve established in over 600 schools across China and we have three R&S offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu.
What are you teaching the kids?
Our different offices run different programs. The offices assess the different environmental issues in their areas and run projects that are affecting young people and people in the communities.
The R&S mission is focused on three core areas: environment, animals, and community. Dr. Goodall says we can do everything we want to today, but if the next generation doesn’t care about protecting the environment then it won’t matter. We ensure sustainability for the planet by changing the values of people at young age. We train students to become aware of how they can have a direct impact in these three areas.
How do you think being an American has affected your experience in China?
In 2001, I used to get a variety of different reactions when I said I was Chinese-American. It was really obcvious that my Chinese wasn’t native. That used to really bother me, especially if the reaction was strange or weird or seemingly negative. Over the years that’s really changed. Cab drivers will say, “Are you from Hong Kong? Singapore? Are you a Chinese-American?” They can discern the accent and pinpoint the origin. There is more exposure now and that has really made it eaiser to communicate with people.
Any other changes over the years?
In terms of work opportunities, it seems to have gotten harder to get a job here. Twenty years ago, you could land here and be exposed to many interesting opportunities being The Foreigner. But being able to speak Chinese is increasingly a must. When I came back in 2005, it was very evident to get jobs outside of teaching English you had to be able to speak Chinese and be offer a special skill set. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and they say they reach a ceiling when their language skills are no longer able to help them move up.
In your experience, what is a misunderstanding people have about China?
I think people tend to think of China in extreme ways. Certain Americans feel anixous about China, probably more from not understanding her too well. Others are in awe of China and say, “It’s the fastest growing country and it’ll take over US’s current global position.” I understand where both are coming from but China is so much more complicated than that.
Photo courtesy of Lei Chen Wong.