Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Discovering China through Youth

A photo Brantley took on her first day at Tiananmen Square in 1994. (Brantley Turner Bradley)

A photo Brantley took on her first day at Tiananmen Square in 1994. (Brantley Turner Bradley)

Brantley Turner Bradley has traveled, lived, and worked in China since 1994 and is fluent in Mandarin. In 2006 she founded China Prep, an organization that provides small groups of high school students with educational summer experiences in China. Before that, she worked in consumer market research, and developed a group to track youth lifestyle trends for multinational companies operating in China. She served as a market advisor to Coca-Cola and Nike, and has worked in both rural and urban China.

A baby in a peach dress sparked your interest in learning Chinese. How?

I think a lot of foreigners have a "watershed" moment that jumpstarts an interest in learning Mandarin or more about China. For me that moment was on my first trip to Beijing, on my first day there, when I was standing by myself in Tiananmen Square. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a family rushes up to me with this beautiful little girl all dressed up in a peach-colored dress. They put her in my arms, gathered around me, took my picture, and suddenly they were gone. Of course, they were speaking to me the whole time, but I had no idea what they were saying. How much more amazing the experience would have been had I been able to talk to them. I had so many questions and no way to get answers.

Why did you start China Prep?

I am passionate about making China accessible to people from the West. At its core, the personal growth of participants is what China Prep is all about. We have worked very hard to build a program that gives young adults the structure, tools, and confidence to embrace the future in a globalized world with China and the U.S. at its center and, by extension, to begin to find their places in it.

You grew up in New York City, but your family is from Alabama. Did this influence your interest in urban and rural China?

I think my experiences in Alabama (I spent all holidays and many summers there) influenced my experience of China primarily in how I treated people I met, especially the older generation. I have traveled all over China and stayed at many friends' homes. I have always felt like their families were similar to mine in Alabama. There are many shared values of family, importance of mealtimes, and a general family support network.

You have worked with teenagers in China and in the United States. Do they have similar concerns as they prepare to set out into the world?

I think many students have the same pressures in both China and the U.S. I think getting into college is a major one, as well as coping with peer pressure, and feeling like you need to figure out your own identity and place in the world. I think teenagers are great at asking questions and searching out common ground. Many of the China Prep activities that we design are inspired by questions put to me when I speak at schools in the U.S.

You have said that people in China work incredibly hard. What do the young people you know hope to achieve in their lives?

I think there is a broad range of goals, but primarily to be successful, which is highly correlated to making money. Young people work very hard for the college entrance exam. They spend years preparing to take this one test that determines their entire university fate. For many, upon exit the goal is to get a good job in a respected industry and to perhaps to eventually own their own business. Due to the size of the population in China and the value put on higher education, it is incredibly competitive. Also, for the young generation of students now, many of their parents missed out on the opportunity to attend college and they have transferred their own missed opportunities into a desire for their children to be successful.

Do young people in large, international cities like Shanghai and Beijing have dreams that are different from teens in smaller cities like Xi'an?

Where you are born or grown up in China determines a lot about your life. I think the dreams are similar but the reach may be different. For a young person from Xi'an a dream might be to go live and work in Beijing. For someone from Shanghai it might be to go live and work in Paris -- or at least to travel there.

How are young people in China changing the world of business?

The Chinese economy is changing from a production economy to a consumption economy and I think young people are a big part of this shift. They control the remote control for the TV, the Internet usage, and will often influence parents on buying new drinks, snacks and trying new foods out of home. Also as they grow up and require a higher living standard, industries like travel, insurance and healthcare will grow to meet their needs.

What do young Chinese people that you know do for fun?

Eat, shop, spend time on the Internet surfing, chatting, sharing photos, lots of time sending SMS with their friends. Young people are amazingly fast at sending SMS and they are great at typing with Chinese characters. They also use shorthand like young people in the states and sometimes use English shorthand like "hihi" for laughing. There are lots of icons in use as well :)

You have said that in general young people in China have even closer friendships than young people in the United States. Why is this?

I don't think they are closer than U.S. young people, but I think the nature of friendships in China have changed because young people don't have brothers and sisters. Often they call cousins brothers and sisters and also feel that friends become like siblings.

Daily life in China has changed dramatically in the last few decades. How would you describe the generation gap between teens and their parents?

There is an idea that life used to be œxian ku, hou tian or "first bitter, then sweet." Now there is more of an idea of œbian ku, bian tian "bitterness and sweetness together." I heard a young person say once that they œpao zai tang shui zhang da or, "grew up soaking in a syrup bath," whereas their parents' life had been filled with struggle.

You said that when you are in China, you miss the New York subway: What does the New York subway have that the subways in Beijing and Shanghai don't?

For me New York subways are all about the people. I love the people-watching, the diversity. In China the subways are more modern and are often equipped with LCD screens playing endless loops of advertisements for the latest gadget or shampoo. Also, cell phones work in Chinese subways. They don't go to as many neighborhoods.

When you are in New York, you say you miss the "Wild West" feel of China. How is the storied "Middle Kingdom" like the Wild West?

I think it's an "anything goes" kind of feeling. Lots of grey area to work with -- things aren't as narrowly defined as they are in the actual "West." It can be frustrating but also fun. Its very important to learn how to zhao banfa -- find a way!

Foreigners often struggle with Mandarin's tones, but you say that Karaoke helped you master yours. What is your favorite Chinese Karaoke song?

Tian Zhen's "Zhi Zhuo."

What are some of your favorite Chinese expressions?

A lot of the words I like are driven by the written form: mao dun: "spear" and "shield" meaning "contradiction"; wei ji: "crisis" and "opportunity" meaning "threat"; hao, meaning "good", where the character is a singular combination of girl and boy­. One of the expressions I use most is mozhe shitou guo he or "crossing the river by feeling the stones underfoot."

Author: Interview conducted by Heather Clydesdale