Dan Wright and his family visit Meng Shihua at her home in Guizhou in May 1998 during his ICWA fellowship. Meng served as mayor of Guizhou's Sandu County from 1955-1977. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
For business executive Daniel B. Wright, his 1980s study experience in China went beyond the classroom.
"I learned a lot in the classroom while I was in Beijing, but probably my greatest university was not in the classroom. It was outside the classroom," said Wright, who is the founder, president and CEO of GreenPoint Group, a U.S.-China strategic advisory firm with offices in Washington and Beijing.
From 1985 to 1986, when Wright was studying at Beijing Language and Culture University, his teacher would take the class on a field trip to see how farmers work, near the Summer Palace.
Wright volunteered to work with the farmers and soon got very involved. During the spring, he was spending more time farming than he was studying Chinese.
"We would ride a buggy, we would plant rice, we would at night get out to catch frogs," Wright said. "Probably my greatest 'university' in China has been society and Chinese people with different backgrounds.
"While the university needs to be the base where we study, we need to move beyond the universities into societies to really learn," said Wright. "Each of our societies are the greatest universities, and people are the greatest teachers," he said.
That has been Wright's philosophy in interacting with China, and his interest was to go deeper in China.
In 1995, Wright participated in a program and chose to conduct a social survey in Guizhou for a deeper understanding of China's national conditions.
"I really want to see China from the bottom up and also from the inside out," said Wright.
Wright, his wife and their two young children lived in a small city in southeast Guizhou for two years.
He wrote periodically about his observations and research and was not allowed to have contact with the U.S. government in order to ensure the research was independent.
Wright, who still goes back to Guizhou to visit, believes those two years were transformational for him personally.
"Now I have some of my closest friends who are still farmers from Guizhou. With WeChat we can communicate," said Wright.
Fifteen years after he left Guizhou, when Wright worked on the U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue, he found he can do his job better in supporting former U.S. Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, because he "knew China in a more full, deeper way".
"I could help Secretary Henry Paulson and the U.S. government to understand where China was coming from, in a more complete way," said Wright.
To continue to promote the idea of bridging cultures, Wright joined the Hopkins-Nanjing Center of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and served as the executive director from 2000 to 2004.
In that role, Wright worked to bring American and Chinese students together.
"It's about people, it's about really understanding each other," he said.
One of Wright's greatest lessons about China is that "we have national identities and cultural differences, and all of that, but we are all people", said Wright.
"We need to see educational exchanges as the doorway into friendship, and through friendship into understanding ... we need to get out of our bubbles, we need to get out of our comfort zones. And become a friend with one person and be active with that," said Wright.
"I always try to encourage Chinese students being here to find one American friend, find one way to volunteer in American society," said Wright.
"If every Chinese student in America, and every American student, at whatever age, in China, could make one friend, think about how different our reality would be," said Wright.
In 2010, Wright founded GreenPoint with the belief that more bridges should be built between China and the U.S.. He travels to China on a monthly basis and has been making many more Chinese friends.
"For many people, China is a job, if you are a diplomat or you are a businessperson being sent to China. For me, I would say China is more about lifestyle, it's more about lifetime," said Wright.