This week we spoke with the multitalented Brantley Turner, Dwight Schools Director of Programs China and Foreign Vice-Principal at Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School, a collaboration between a Chinese Public High School and a US Private High School.
What are your earliest memories of arriving in China?
Entering Shanghai in the late 90’s from the old Hongqiao Airport, it was raining and I remember all of the bikes and colorful raincoats. The memory is so strong – like it was yesterday. I coveted those raincoats and had a green one that I lost a few years back. I spent my time reading about Mao and Cixi. Later on the trip, I was cheated at the bathroom in the Forbidden City.
A few years ago I returned with a group of our China Prep students and chatted with another bathroom attendant. I wound up telling her the story and she asked me who was the person working that day, 13 years before! Apparently the dānwèi (work unit) is the same, so I could have gotten my CNY9.7 back if I remembered her name.
What’s your favorite thing about doing business here?
I love my colleagues, how smart, dedicated and fun they are. I’ve always felt like family with the people I have worked with here. Maybe I’ve just been lucky but I think there’s a collective spirit and entrepreneurial energy in the workplace that I’ve always enjoyed.
Any unexpected challenges?
Intercultural communication is the biggest challenge of living in China – I couldn’t care less about smelly toilets – but I feel like being able to truly communicate: to listen, understand and be understood is such a challenge. Life here is a never-ending, wild ride learning process.
“…I couldn’t care less about smelly toilets – but I feel like being able to truly communicate: to listen, understand and be understood is such a challenge. Life here is a never-ending, wild ride learning process.”
Even with your excellent Mandarin?
Often I’m just making sure I don’t wind up doing things that cause further problems! I regularly think I’ve mucked something up big time. Operating in Chinese most of the day reminds me how my life has been altered by communicating in another language.
What’s your best advice for entrepreneurs starting up in China?
Work harder than you think and be patient. Don’t focus on trying to “change China”; focus on finding your place. Learn some Chinese, at least in order to be polite. Consider all decisions from a collective point of view, reward merit, maintain a long term outlook, and last but not least, be humble.
Any memorable experiences from developing China Prep?
The opportunity to introduce international students to China has been the most amazing thing about running China Prep. To repeatedly see China through other’s eyes as they experience it for the first time. I feel that surge of excitement when the students exit immigration and get on the bus for the first time.
Getting young people from many countries together helps them explore areas of similarity and difference. To be more open and go outside their comfort zone.
Plenty of entertaining stories there I’m sure.
We’ve had students that have never been on airplanes and never eaten rice. I’ve had Chinese students run up to Americans in the first 10 seconds and ask their SAT score and whether they’ve ever had a Bat Mitzvah. Learning how to deal with any type of question and how to give an appropriate response is a huge part of helping young people become global citizens.
Other stories involve Ann Liu yelling at students for doing stupid things like eating Sichuan peppercorns (they were told not to) and throwing up. We once had a student so jet lagged he stumbled off the bus and fell asleep on a black leather sofa in the dark lobby of our Beijing University foreign dorm. He was wearing a black hoodie and it was nighttime. We spent 30 minutes frantically looking for him until some other guest sat on him! Talk about panicking. I tend to be the nervous mother hen of the trips and Ann is the commander general that makes everything happen. We’ve also had school chaperones embrace us crying in the airport not wanting to leave.
“Work harder than you think and be patient. Don’t focus on trying to ‘change China’; focus on finding your place.”
What have you discovered through your career shift to school Principal?
Similar to China Prep – working to create life-changing educational opportunities for high school age students. The main difference is the scale and the increased number of stakeholders that I deal with on any given day. Getting to work by 7am is new…another change is that I’m mellower about my own kids homework.
We’ve been in start-up mode for the past two years, so it’s felt like an entrepreneurial endeavor. For a Chinese Public High School and a US Private High School to team up and launch a school together is a very complicated undertaking. However, with all of us focused on the same mission, it has been incredibly rewarding as well.
What is the question you are most often asked as a Principal here in China?
What should my child do to get into Harvard? No seriously, college is a major focus but for the time being, questions range from the practical – how to improve English to the philosophical – what are the primary differences I observe regarding learning/pedagogy between the East and West. The answer is another interview topic!
Tell us about your interest in Chinese philosophy.
I wrote a paper for my PhD program reviewing Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism and Legalism in terms of applied business ethics. I like the Mohist attributes of caring for the masses and equality amongst people. Promoting the worthy and shunning nepotistic, hierarchical behavior and a focus on community was an admirable aspect of Mohist doctrine. Confucianism won out in the end and there was a bit too much dependence on the role of heaven and ghosts in Mohism, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Do you have a favorite Chinese language expression?
It used to be 摸着石头过河 mō zhe shí tou guò hé “crossing the river by feeling the stones underfoot” because it’s reflective of my experience. Lately I’m drawn to 心理肥胖症 xīn lǐ féi pàng zhèng “mental obesity” or overload from too much fragmented information, which is how I often feel.
Okay, let’s have two things the world should know about China.
That WeChat (a popular mobile text and voice messaging service in China) rules and that life is changing at breathtaking speed – get here and check it now.
Why should someone in the West care about what happens in China in the coming decade?
For the sake of the world, how can one NOT care about what happens in China?
Brantley Turner’s interest in China began as an undergraduate at Brown University studying East Asian Studies and Art Semiotics. After first traveling to China in 1993 and studying Mandarin in Beijing in 1995-96, she completed her graduate work in 2000 at the John-Hopkins Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. She founded China Prep in the experiential education sector and is a PhD candidate at the International School of Management with coursework in Shanghai, New York and Paris. Brantley currently serves as Dwight Schools Director of Programs China and Foreign Vice-Principal at Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School. Qibao Dwight will begin educating both Chinese and international 10th-12th grade students in September 2014. She resides in Shanghai with her husband and three kids.