From Developing Experience to Developing Nations
What have you done that changed your life?
Recently, TBC sat down with Fall 2007 alum Meagan Breidert, a graduate of Loyola University Chicago and Indiana University, to talk about her experience during and after The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. After a ten-year career as a management consultant, she is currently working to lead Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) efforts for a company. She is based in Washington, D.C., and attended the August 2022 Washington, D.C. TBC Alumni Meetup. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
So, Meagan, let’s start at the beginning – why did you learn Chinese? Why did you choose to come to TBC?
I was a Spanish and Anthropology major, actually. When I was looking for study abroad opportunities, I didn’t want to go to Spanish speaking countries. The reputation of many of them were that they were party places, and I wanted something different. I looked at Eastern Europe and other places that were nontraditional and further afield, but one day a TBC recruiter came to my Spanish class. I’ll be honest, although I did know where China was on a map, I didn’t really know anything else about the country. I couldn’t tell you who Mao Zedong was or about Chinese history, really anything much at all. Still, in that recruiter’s speech, two things stood out: that I could take classes towards my anthropology major and there were excursions built into the schedule like the Silk Road and Guilin – almost three weeks! I left that class sold on attending TBC and travelling to China! Not the most elegant origin story, but it worked just fine.
One of the things that stood out to me was that the recruiter really emphasized that TBC was a program designed to be more academically rigorous, that this was for the serious student dedicated to learning academically and experientially. I really appreciated that and liked that.
What was TBC like during that time? Do you have any memorable classes or professors?
One of the things I most clearly remember was how huge our class was – we had a hundred and twenty-something students, which was record-breaking at the time. It was really cool to have students from all over the US and a good chunk from the Philippines, and to be able to meet and interact with other UIBE international students from Africa and the Middle East in the shared dorm. We took up a lot of space in the room, but because we were so large, we easily made friends with students at UIBE from Africa and the Middle East. Back then, TBC didn’t have the Chinese Roommate program, but many students had studied Chinese and were “sinophiles” so we still had them to rely on.
I spent a lot of time as a student in TBC’s library – it’s beautiful, usually quiet, and had so many interesting books and artifacts too. Our first big trip was across the Silk Road, which focused a lot on Marco Polo and archeological discoveries, and so to come back and re-discover the treasures in the library that were from the Silk Road or were so historical from the time of the Silk Road was just amazing to me.
Another really great professor was Shen Weirong, who also taught at Renmin University. He led history class, archeology class, and was an expert in Tibetan Buddhism so he was the lead for the Silk Road excursion. I ended up spending a lot of time with him, learning with him and meeting with people from ethnic minorities because he taught and worked with many of them for his research. He really knew everything, so we all called him Genius. I also took martial arts with Howard Hao, who I understand is still teaching at TBC to this day. I remember most of his classes starting with running around outside to warm up.
What was it like being in a country where you didn’t speak the language?
One of the things I liked most about my time at TBC and living in a country where I did not know any of the language was that the public space was really my classroom. I could go out and immediately apply what I learned in the classroom at restaurants, taxi drivers, street vendors etc. I would have class, then go out for lunch and immediately used what I learned in class. I feel a little bad for all the street vendors and taxi drivers who were my guinea pigs for language learning, but also it helped me so much and I usually got where I wanted to go. Even to this day, I’m much more comfortable speaking Chinese, even though I studied Spanish longer because I learned it in-country and all the confidence that comes with that.
I remember this particular time I was trying to get to a friend’s rugby match at the Chaoyang Stadium. I had the address on a piece of paper, but of course it was written in Chinese. So I showed it to the taxi driver and got dropped off at a stadium. I trusted he knew what he was doing.
Well, the stadium was closed, and the only person there was a guard who didn’t speak any English but kept trying to tell me that there’s no event going on and that I was in the wrong place. But that couldn’t be right, so I thought I would ask if there’s two stadiums with similar names, and how to get to that other Chaoyang Stadium. But the only thing I knew how to say to mean ‘also,’ ‘additionally,’ or ‘other,’ was 也 (ye, an adverb that means ‘also; too; as well; already). I don’t think it was the right usage, I was basically asking him ‘Where is the also stadium?’ But it was all I knew, it was only two weeks in or so to the semester. I really didn’t know much more beyond ‘Hi, my name is Meagan.’ I was pointing to the stadium, then saying 也, then the paper, trying to say ‘there’s another, there’s got to be another!’ After a long five minutes, he actually did get it! He helped put me in a cab and tell the driver where to go, so I still remember 也 to this day because of that conversation.
What was your favorite restaurant or experience?
I had two favorite restaurants for very different reasons. One of them was called “Fish n Chips” and it was a British restaurant in an alley in Sanlitun. There were times I would eat there multiple times a night. I was probably out way too late, but it was wonderful.
The other place was a Uyghur restaurant not too far from campus’ East Gate. It had great lamb and pulled noodles, I spent a lot of time there. There was also a tiny baozi and jiaozi place I loved. They only sold one kind of baozi and jiaozi, and I ate there for breakfast almost every day.
One of the most memorable things was going to see a Wushu competition at the Olympic Park as part of Wushu class. Things were mostly done for Olympic Park, but not one hundred percent final. There was the Bird’s Nest and a few more things, but not a lot of people there. It was a really cool experience and atmosphere, something that will never be replicated.
What was your international experience like before going to China?
During high school I went on a month-long summer trip to the Italian Alps and Poland for hiking and history. I went to a high school with a lot of international students. I had a friend from South Korea who I spent the summer after high school with at his home. And I also did a summer in Spain before going to TBC because I was a Spanish major. My parents sort of always knew I would live and travel internationally, so when I went back to China after I graduated college to teach for a year and then went on to live abroad in more places, they were not surprised at all.
Actually, despite all of this experience, I was going to back out of doing my semester at TBC. I can’t remember if it was my mom or me, but one of us had reached out to TBC before I started packing to ask about what to pack for excursions and class. Fr. Anton, the founder, replied and said the conditions were going to be kind of rustic, and durable clothes that weren’t too bright would be best. Somehow we got the impression that he meant for the whole semester, so all I ended up packing were hiking and camping type clothes, despite not really being into camping. I ended up having to go shopping for clothes in Beijing, since camping clothes are not exactly suitable for everyday city living.
Anyway, about a week before I was supposed to go, I was nervous and thinking about not going. My mom told me that I could just not go – and obviously I ended up going.
Another Fall 2007 alum came to the same 2022 DC Meetup you did. Are you still close with members of your cohort?
I like to think so! Early on we stayed very close, although now that it’s been fifteen years of course people get further into their own lives and have kids and move so it’s harder to stay in touch, but if I saw any of them in person it would be just like it was. I had a core group of seven people and I remember that for TBC’s ten year reunion in 2008 they all came to Chicago to celebrate and stayed in my house. That weekend I had twelve house guests – it was incredible! Someone jumped on my bed and broke it, that’s how much fun we had. It seemed like most people at that reunion were from Fall 2007, just because there were so many of us.
When you came back to China in 2009, how was it different?
So much, so so much. Fall 2007 was just before the 2008 Olympics, before the huge strides that China has made in the past fifteen years. The subway system had three lines. I saved my money for half of the semester to take a taxi to the summer palace since it was so far and hard to reach back then. When I returned and Beijing had all the new subway lines and subway stations that was a huge change. It was so easy to get around. It was different from the one subway line that had been so far away from the East Gate of UIBE. Plus, people had been a little more interested in engaging with foreigners, especially foreigners who could speak Chinese, so I got stopped all the time to talk. I think Beijing changed so much after the Olympics. On one hand I was so excited for the development because it brought more shopping more restaurants, more nightlife, but on the other hand I was so nostalgic for aspects of the old Beijing that had disappeared within two years. I want to come back to China and back to Beijing when it opens up again to see all the new changes since 2010 too.
What do you do now?
Currently I am the head for Global Impact for a consulting firm, prior to that I worked in international economic development. I lived and worked in the Caribbean and all over Africa. I’ve worked with clients such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, US Department of State, and the US Agency for International Development. I travelled around China when I was there – Urumqi and Xi’an and those sorts of emerging cities. Now thanks to TBC and this exposure, I’m very comfortable in emerging nations. I really credit a lot of that to my time in China and seeing what development economics looks like and what it looks like to be in a country that was rapidly developing. It pushed me towards my current career and led me to passions I would have never discovered if not for TBC.