Just as many young students, John Gordon was nervous about leaving the comforts of his home to study abroad. The North Carolina native's high school offered two destinations.
"One was to study in Spain for a year, and the other was to study in China for one semester," Gordon said. "I chose the latter simply because I didn't want to leave my home for a year."
But during his short stay in Beijing in 1997, Gordon fell in love with the Chinese history and culture. "I lived with a host family, started to learn Chinese and gained a lot of Chinese knowledge," he said. "From then on, I told myself that I should come to China again."
His perseverance paid off. Gordon, 31, is now the vice-president of New Channel International Education Group Ltd, an international language institution in China.
After his semester in China, Gordon went back to the United States and enrolled in the Eastern Asian studies department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was during his college years that he got the chance to study at Beijing Normal University and Tsinghua University, both in Beijing.
In 2002, Gordon settled in Beijing after earning his bachelor's degree. "I started to get involved in the field of education by doing administrative work for University of California students who were studying in China," Gordon said. "I was born into a family of teachers, which is perhaps why I am drawn to such jobs."
His educational career began when he started to teach oral English at a private language institute to help Chinese students prepare for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), the world's leading test of English for higher education, immigration and employment.
"It was in that language school where I met my future boss, the founder and president of New Channel. I am one of the first batch of teachers and executives of the 7-year-old education group," Gordon said.
As other executives, Gordon has routine jobs, such as paying visits to the 18 branches of schools to assess their educational qualities. The institution focuses on providing courses on TOEFL, IELTS, GRE, SAT and other classes to Chinese people. But because he is the only foreigner on the management team, he also spends a lot of time working on his communication skills.
"I am a foreigner who has to supervise Chinese staff members. Therefore, it requires me to not only speak fluent Chinese, but also master the art of leadership. I have to make myself understood by them in a Chinese way," Gordon said. "Communication is the most important thing."
Another barrier for a foreigner managing a Chinese staff typically would be mastering the language. But Gordon's Mandarin is impeccable. From 2006 to 2008, he hosted a Chinese television program.
"During that period, our team and I used to drive from Northeast China's Liaoning province to South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region to shoot programs. That allowed me to visit so many places and some of them are so small that they are even unknown to most Chinese people," he said.
For Gordon, whose Chinese nickname is "bilingual wanderer", learning Chinese was not easy. He watched Chinese movies and TV programs to practice listening to the language and improving his pronunciation. Just getting by was not enough for him, he wanted to master the language.
"Some foreigners think it is OK to speak Mandarin with an accent if Chinese people can understand them. So even if their tones are wrong, they do not bother to learn the correct pronunciation. I cannot allow my Chinese language level to be so low," he said.
Since his first visit in 1997, Gordon has witnessed enormous changes in China.
"Metropolitan areas are developing fast, but rural areas are still relatively poor," he said. Gordon has also noticed that the economic growth in China has changed the attitude of his Chinese students who are thinking about going to study abroad.
"In the past, many Chinese graduates come to our school to learn certain courses to obtain postgraduate degrees in foreign countries. But now, many high school students come to us to study English to attend foreign universities. Families are becoming richer to support their children," he said.
However, according to Gordon, when Chinese students finish studies in foreign countries, they may return to China rather than living abroad, which is different from their predecessors decades ago.
China offers many opportunities for recent graduates who studied abroad as well as for foreigners like him. For that reason, Gordon, who is married to a Chinese woman, has continued working in his favorite city, Beijing.
"I like this city for its combination of fast-paced and relaxed lifestyle, although sometimes I get homesick," he said. "How do I soothe my nostalgia? I play basketball with US friends in Beijing every weekend," he laughed.
Besides sports, Gordon is fascinated with songs by China's most famous rock singer Cui Jian and early movies of kungfu star Jackie Chan.
(China Daily July 12, 2011)