Qiujie “Angie” Zheng arrived at UAA five years ago, after two years as a senior risk analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co., and nearly four years of studying economics and statistics at Washington State University — while gleaning field experience amid the wheat fields and apple orchards of Pullman, Wash. While in China, Zheng earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in finance and international finance, respectively, at Nankai University and grew work experience: as a journalism intern for Financial News and for consultants and analysts at banks in Beijing, China. Here, Zheng talks about her life growing up and the work she’s done to help connect her two worlds.
What was it like attending school in China?
Tianjin is my hometown city, where I grew up and went to university. Back then, we were able to enjoy school. Nowadays, the competition is more intense for kids in school. They have to spend a lot of time on homework every day. When I grew up, we were able to enjoy school. We enjoyed learning in the classes, enjoyed getting to know all the teachers, enjoyed studying and playing with friends, and we didn’t have so much homework burden.
I went to Nankai High School, the best high school in the city. I learned a lot there. The whole high school had a science atmosphere that inspired a lot of students. So when I started there, that’s the first time I formed my attitude toward science and social science — to to be objective, diligent, to pursue a high-level scholarship. That was inspired by the high school because of the great atmosphere, great tradition, great teachers there. That is the alma mater of our first premier, Zhou Enlai.
How did life outside school differ from the kind of life Alaska students experience?
Every Alaska student to me is adventurous. A lot of them are avid skiers, campers or hikers. When I grew up, although I enjoyed reading and watching TV at home, playing games and sports outdoors with friends, there were not outdoor adventure activities. I remember in my late teenager years, I really dreamed of going hunting and flying in an airplane for fun. But back in those days, there was no way for me to do that. Nowadays, outdoor adventure is becoming a concept and reality to Chinese families, thanks to the rapid economic development and rising household economic conditions. In China, city lives are still quite different from rural lives. If you compare city life in China with city life in big cities in the U.S., it’s probably similar.
What other aspects of growing up there shaped you most?
China is so large. When I grew up, my parents loved travel and brought me to travel a lot. Although I didn’t get a chance to do fishing or hunting or hiking, traveling is one of our family traditions, so I’ve traveled to a lot of provinces. In China, the culture and the history, that’s one of the unique characteristics of that country. China is so diversified. In each part you get to learn a different culture, customs, history for the local area.
What places made the biggest impact on you?
My hometown, Tianjin, is in the north. The south is very different: weather, environment, business atmosphere, personalities of people. The most popular way for you to travel was to take a train instead of airplane. We traveled from Tianjin all the way to a south city called Xiamen, by train. That’s probably one of my best journeys, even before we hit the city. You started from the city and of course you pass all the countryside. That trip, I think it was the first time I saw the countryside. In the south, there are rice paddies, terraced. It’s so pretty. First, it was beautiful because of the layers of green colors; second, when we passed it, we could see people working there planting rice in the field. The hard-working farmers and the prosperous farming business activities combined with the beautiful rice paddy field — just like a gorgeous painting — impressed me deeply. From city to city, or city to countryside to city, that’s a good memory for me.
Travel over the first 20 years of my life, I saw a lot of changes. Now in China, we have the high-speed train. If you travel from north to south, you just need hours of time. That’s pretty amazing, and it provides great convenience for travelers. In the old time, it would take days. Because of that, the train would stop a lot. You’d have a chance to learn the names of many small towns. Another nice thing is that when the train stops, the merchandise would come to you: people would be selling local specialties. That was another fun thing that broadened my views on local cultures.
How else did your travels there develop your interest in culture and economics?
I have traveled to Shanghai many times. Every time, the most enjoyable moment in the city for me is walking on the Bund — the famous waterfront of the Hangpu River. On the west side of the Bund, there are various buildings of different architectural styles built in the early 1900s. On the east side of the Bund, it shows the story of rapid economic development in China. The first time I was there, the most impressive things were the busy barges transporting coal and other merchandise on the river. Since then, every time I’ve visited, I’ve seen not only busy river activities, but also skyscrapers built on the east side of the Bund. I always think the river brings vitality and thus creates prosperous businesses. Standing on the Bund, looking at the barges, admiring the old buildings and skyscrapers on the two sides, thinking about history and development of China — those are still my favorite travel moments in that city.
What do you most appreciate about the education you received in China?
In schools, we do have a very good and solid training in mathematics, physics, chemistry, those kinds of foundational core parts of training. Due to the high school education, I do — from my deep heart — appreciate scientific research, scientific scholarship.
What do you remember from the years after 1978, when China first instituted economic reforms introducing market principles, decollectivizing agriculture, enabling entrepreneurs to launch businesses and opening the country to foreign investment?
In my childhood, I still remember I had a family member who got the chance to travel abroad a lot. He brought us back products made in other countries. Back in that time, if we got mechanical pencils, erasers, pens from Japan or Western countries, that was really something precious, or the cookies, gums. When I was young, I got the chance to travel to Beijing a lot — the capital city — because my grandparents lived there. In the 1980s, there was still a big difference between Tianjin and Beijing even though there’s only two hours’ drive between the two cities. State-of-the-art products, a lot of times you could only get them from Beijing back then. Imported products, food, there was only one shopping mall where you could buy them, only with a special currency — foreign exchange coupons. My cousins had those coupons because their companies were involved in international business activities. They’d give me some coupons or bring me to the store.
How has life changed there?
One of my research interests is consumer preference and choice. Specifically, I did a lot related to consumers’ food choice and preference. Nowadays the rising middle-class Chinese can afford and also prefer high-quality imported food products. But now they can get them anywhere, even in small towns. The shopping convenience not only happens in traditional supermarkets, but also through online platforms. I’m working on a research paper about consumer preference for online grocery shopping, especially fresh food. It will be interesting to figure out factors that influence consumers’ online fresh-food shopping preferences and behaviors. Alibaba is a huge e-commerce giant. The popularity of e-commerce is really at a pretty high level in China. You buy clothes and other products, but people started to buy fresh food and drinks as well. Due to concerns related to food quality and freshness, fresh food is still an emerging area.
What is social media like, in China?
Just like the U.S. Each popular social media tool used here can find its counterpart in China. In the U.S., Facebook is famous. In China, there’s a platform called WeChat. It’s very convenient. You can stay in touch with friends by posting and messaging them. You can deposit some money in the WeChat wallet and make payment, for things like movie tickets and meals at restaurants. Here, Facebook is for entertainment, for fun, post pictures and links, keep updated with your friends. It’s for your life, not for work. In China, WeChat is for work and life. Supervisors and coworkers also like to use it to communicate work-related issues.
Your background in China, as an alumna of Nankai University, brought about an academic partnership between UAA and Nankai. You were involved in forming a similar 1+1 graduate-level partnership between UAA and Jilin University of Finance and Economics as well, and an undergraduate 2+2 partnership between UAA and JUFE is in the works. Why are these social-media channels so important in these communications?
I try to contribute by bridging China and the U.S. universities, to initiate the partnerships, which means I need to frequently communicate with Chinese universities. I helped with the arrangements when we brought the chancellor and a group to China for a visit, or sometimes we invited Chinese groups to come here to visit. For all those communications, we go through WeChat or QQ (another chatting software, similar to MSN Messenger). If you do not have WeChat or QQ, it is hard for you to communicate with Chinese [people in China] quickly. I prefer to use email when I make arrangements because it is easier for me to attach files and track information. They prefer to use WeChat to communicate because it’s quick — quicker than checking email.
You’ve served as a bridge in other ways — most notably by escorting groups of American students to five cities in China, to visit universities and businesses and learn about the culture of the country. In what ways can your unique background and activities benefit students in your classrooms?
Part of me is a science person. I think decisions should be based on solid scientific-based evidence. I believe research can help you reach correct decisions. And part of me is outgoing. I enjoy talking and working with people. I always learn through the talking and get inspirations to build ideas and strategies to solve problems. This faculty job is a good fit. I can do research and also, I want to make sure the research at the end can apply to real-world problem solving. If we talk about agricultural economics and business research, China has a huge agricultural industry and a big food market. The change is so fast and the consumers’ preference is dynamic. There are so many interesting topics you can research related to agricultural economics, consumer preference and behavior and the market structure. I did a lot of studies related to China. I enjoy feeling the difference between the U.S. and China, thinking things through and at the end, finding fundamentally we are the same.
How did your trip to China with the UAA students influence you?
With our students, the whole trip, I tried to introduce China to them through various angles, listen to their questions and have discussions with them. They tried to look at things, learn new things, think about the reasoning and comment on things. During a two-week journey, students got a chance to learn the ways Chinese people think, live and conduct business. They looked through all the phenomena — some similar to the U.S., some different — and at the end, found the philosophies are the same or similar. I also learned from my students. I traveled to these five cities many times, but never gave deep thought to some questions until my students asked me during this trip. Born and raised in China, a lot of phenomena are natural to me. You only think about the deep reason when you are approached with questions from a completely different angle. Thinking about the problems from those different angles, and finding answers, is intriguing. I think this is the most rewarding part of being on the faculty of a university.
Compiled by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage