When the 2008 Summer Olympic Games open in Bejing the night of Aug. 8, 29-year-old Yan Cai will have what she considers a perfect view of the action.
She’ll be watching the pomp and glory on a flat-screen TV somewhere in Salt Lake City—most likely in spacious digs at University of Utah student housing. “TV is better. You can see more than if you are actually there,” Yan told me—and accurately—as we killed time with pleasant conversation while trapped on a tour bus idling in Parley’s Canyon construction traffic.
We were returning from a Utah Symphony pops concert in Deer Valley. The symphony covered contemporary Broadway show tunes from
The Lion King, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera and others. Yan and her 22 Chinese colleagues had especially liked the encore number—“The Age of Aquarius” from
Hair. They stood up on their blankets and waved their arms in smooth rhythm to the music. The vocalists on stage were dressed for the part, in an Afro wig, bellbottoms and dashiki tops. “Hippies,” one of the Chinese visitors said, laughing.
Yan and the others are natives of Hainan Province, an island of 8 million off the southwest tip of China. Situated in the South China Sea with the Philippines to the east, Malaysia to the south and Indonesia to the west, Hainan is lush and moist, with expansive beaches and heat. It’s the Hawaii of China, a great draw to Russian tourists, and increasingly, Asians as well.
In its relentless effort to catch up with (and many would argue, to pass up) the rest of the world economically, the Chinese government granted Hainan Special Economic Zone status a few years ago. That means the once-sleepy agricultural economy is pretty much kicking ass in the realm of tourism these days.
This I know from academic types in the University of Utah’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, who are sponsoring the 23 Hainan residents in a 16-month Masters of Public Administration program. College Dean Steven Ott says the arrangement is the result of lengthy negotiations with the Hainan government, which is paying every nickel of the students’ education and stay in Salt Lake City. The men and women are all employed by the Hainan government or as leaders in industry and the growing nonprofit sector in China. By this time next year, all of them should have their MPA degree, as well as fluency in English and serious immersion in Western culture.
But from what I could tell in talking to the Hainan group, English is the least of its challenges. Yan, for instance, taught English before she joined the city of Sanya’s Industrial Development Bureau’s marketing team. Some of her colleagues work in setting tax policy, or as deputy mayors of various cities. Jiyang Chen is editor-in-chief of the
Haikou Evening News. Yan converses freely in English with impeccable grammar and a fine appreciation of American slang. The night we talked inside the idling bus on Interstate 80, Yan was wearing premium denim jeans and a pink polo shirt with a Disney Winnie-the-Pooh appliqué on the front.
In addition to taking courses and living on campus, the students have been paired with government and business types in Salt Lake City. They live a breakneck schedule. They have chatted it up in Mandarin with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. They took in a Sunday morning Temple Square outing and a recording of KSL-5’s
Music & the Spoken Word. They’ve been to Yellowstone National Park. Some have flown to Mexico; others plan a trip this fall to Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
“Some have been to Las Vegas a couple of times, too,” Ott said.
What does the Hainan program mean for them—and for us, I asked Ott.
“For them, it’s exposure to a public administration program that will help them set modern public policy for their government and workplace,” he said. “Our own students are benefiting because this is concrete proof that we at the university are globalizing our courses and our academic disciplines. And we’ve got to. This kind of exchange is the way of global survival.”
When the 23 students return to Hainan, more will replace them. The U signed a memorandum of understanding with the Hainan government last year for three groups total. Ott said that’s all they can handle right now. But Hainan has said it could send as many as 200 if the U were up to it.
On the bus that night, Yan told me she didn’t miss China much—she’s having too much fun. She wasn’t terribly wistful about missing the patriotic fervor—and political controversy—of the Bejing Olympics. She does miss her police-officer husband, however. Sixteen months is a long time to be apart. Some of the students have paid to fly their spouses and children over for a visit, Yan said. “My husband and I don’t have children, “ she said. “It isn’t because we are too young to have children. But we are both so busy with our work. We work really hard.”
How very American.
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