A self-styled “freelance troublemaker,” Vincent Ng is more like a serial entrepreneur with eclectic interests, helping to start both Teach for China and Beijing Improv. He also talks with us about what led him to China and his experience as an overseas Chinese.
When and why did you first come to China?
Let’s see… ah yes, that fateful spring of 2004. I arrived in Shanghai with no particular plan, 25 yuan in my pocket and the phone number of a distant aunt scribbled on a piece of paper. All right, perhaps it wasn’t quite as romantic as that, but it is true that I really had no idea what to expect or how long I would stay.
Ah yes, the “why China?” question. I’ve gone through various versions over the years but I think it was probably a combination of ignorance, curiosity, something to do with the fact that I have black hair and have a bunch of ancestors buried in Guangdong somewhere. On a slightly more serious note, it was a combination of wanting to get more in touch with my Chinese heritage—learning mandarin was certainly a part of that—and seeing what opportunities existed in the field of education.
What are you working on now?
I recently left the Linden Centre, which is a boutique hotel that focuses on educational and cultural programming in rural Dali, Yunnan. Right now I am stirring up trouble with a new business plan…
How mysterious. What kind of stuff have you worked on in the past?
Most of the work I have engaged in has focused on education and the intersection between education, travel, and sustainability. I have taught at a number of international schools and spent some time working with an environmental documentary filmmaker on a project that was sponsored by the World Bank, examining the impact that a major ecosystem rehabilitation project had on the fragile Loess Plateau area in central/western China.
During the Olympics I dabbled in event management and worked on a global sustainability conference that Coca-Cola organized. More recently, I was one of the early members of the team that helped to launch Teach for China during its first two years—a service program modeled off Teach for America that pairs outstanding graduates from US and Chinese universities together in cross-cultural teams and sends them to low-income rural areas in China for two years of teaching.
Apart from work, I managed to keep busy between swing dancing and teaming up with a couple of others in getting Beijing Improv going, setting the foundations of what has now become a very active improv community.
What are the biggest challenges you faced in China, and how did you try to overcome them?
I think it is very common as a 华侨, or person of Chinese descent who has grown up overseas, to get frustrated, particularly if you didn’t grow up speaking Chinese at home, with the struggle to constantly define who you are, or explain to native Chinese why it is you don’t speak the language.
It’s easy to assume that a simple question like “Where are you from?” or the surprised look on someone’s face when you tell them that you are Chinese are judgments about your struggling language proficiency or a perceived sense of otherness. I think that there are at least two ways you can take it: release an exasperated sigh, take offense, and refuse to speak for fear of being judged further; or use it as a conversation starter to explore some completely different context and world that the other person perhaps is unfamiliar with.
It can become hard when you hear it over and over again, but I have come to realize that 95% of the time it’s really just curiosity—they’re trying to understand why someone who looks like them sounds a little bit different. Don’t take it personally. People are simply curious and not every Chinese person has met another Chinese person who has grown up abroad.
How has living here influenced your work, career, or personal development?
I certainly didn’t anticipate living this long in China. In fact, when I first arrived I thought I would give it a few months and see how things go. Now it’s eight years later and counting.
Even if I don’t stay in China in the long-term or relocate elsewhere for a period of time, I think at this point anything that I do will probably have some relation to China. Let’s be honest though, it’s kind of hard to ignore China in anything one does these days.
Based on your experience, what do you think is the biggest misconception about China?
I think a fairly common misconception for many who have not been to China that China is a relatively homogeneous country and culture. For anyone who lives in China, it doesn’t take long to realize that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Here’s an example. I’ll never forget the trip I took to the Gansu-Sichuan border region where I stumbled across a remote Tibetan hot spring up in hills near Langmusi. I wasn’t really sure what to expect at this pilgrimage site, but I can tell you that all my myths about conservative Tibetan women and elders were completely thrown out the window when I stepped into a co-ed hot spring to witness a hilarious nude wrestling match between an old Tibetan grandmother and grandfather. I don’t know if that helps to illustrate my point but what I am trying to say is that China is such a vast country, it is impossible to draw any simple conclusions about its people.
That illustrates it perfectly. Alright, what are some of your favorite hangout spots in China?
Most eclectic mix of travelers Bad Monkey Bar, Dali China. Best ethnic and local live music, Jiangjinjiu bar in Gulou, Beijing. Nature: Huadianba, beautiful pristine alpine meadow, tucked away in Yunnan. Come talk to me if you want to find out how to get there.
Photo courtesy of Vincent Ng.