At 55, I took a big chance in my career. And found love.

By: Wendy Kuran

A Chinese person born the same year as me is more likely to say “I am 1956” than “I am 60.” Your birth year becomes a temporal anchor in a country so impossibly fast-moving that every micro age cohort has had a vastly different life experience from every other. It’s an ID tag to help others quickly grasp what you might be like, given the version of China you grew up in.

If you are 1956, your youth was like no one’s before or, blessedly, since. At about age 10, you were probably ripped from a contented if impoverished life when either one or both parents, or you by yourself, were “sent to the countryside.” Not until you were 20 did the Cultural Revolution end, and not until you were 21 did the university entrance exams resume.

I was also sent to the countryside starting at age 10, to YMCA Camp Takodah in New Hampshire every August. We made friends in our cabins by the lake and learned canoeing and archery and wood crafts and dozens and dozens of camp songs, of which I still remember every verse. Now, as I struggle in vain to learn Mandarin, how I wish I could “clear the cache” of those lyrics and so much other no-longer-useful knowledge to make room for this vanquishing language.

Above: Summer camp and the state fair. I now have an entirely new perspective on how idyllic my New England childhood was. Camp Takodah photo courtesy of Camp Takodah.

But I would not want to erase the memories of those relatively carefree years between ages 10 and 20, in my pretty New England town with the good school system that offered choral groups and musicals and yearbook and student council and proms and tennis lessons and a great deal of time to watch TV and hang out with friends. I took two AP courses and one round of SATs, applied to four colleges and slipped fairly easily, by today’s impossible standards, into a good one. Before starting, I lived with a family in Finland as an AFS exchange student. In today’s college argot, I went to gain a global perspective by taking a gap year.

Exchange student gap year in Finland with AFS

Meanwhile, my Chinese friends who are 1956 or thereabouts were taking a gap decade. Xiqing, from a distinguished family in Xi’an, was sent away to break rocks for the railroad, carting them in wheelbarrows into piles. For years on end. One day, the hammer flew apart, felling him with a near-fatal head injury. Mingkang, Xuchao and Xiaoping, like millions of others, became subsistence farmers, surviving in primitive conditions on a bare minimum of food. Lifen, now an acclaimed journalist, watched as the Red Guards burned all the books at the school where his mother was a teacher. Wen Li has an eye that is blind and clouded over. As a child, she was scheduled to have sight-saving surgery, but then the eye surgeon was sent to the countryside.

I met Wen Li in 2011 on my first trip to China, a family summer vacation built around an economics conference my husband was attending in Beijing. Recommended by friends in Durham, Wen Li was a professional guide with self-taught perfect English and enlightening explanations of the historical roots of modern China. She and I were both aged 55. This, she explained, is the conventional retirement age for women in China (for men, it’s 60). For blue collar women, it’s actually 50, something to do with the need to take care of elderly parents, and also attitudes about menopause. But in view of their impossibly difficult youths, perhaps there’s a tacit recognition that they deserve a break.

Turns out that I did not retire at age 55, but instead got the most improbable job offer of my life. “We would like you to head up business development and fundraising for Duke in China.” After pointing out the many obvious reasons why I was unqualified to do this, I thought about the absence of American-style philanthropy in other countries. My question, “Is this job even doable?” was met honestly: “We have no idea, but it’s a job that needs doing.” It was true. With Duke getting ready to open a full-scale joint-venture university in Kunshan, near Shanghai, it was time to start building support. So with my beloved, globally-minded husband’s support (“Yes, the dogs and I can manage with you spending a third of your time in China”) and assurances that we could recruit Chinese staff to shore me up, I said yes.

Thus began my opportunity to get to know fellow 1956ers a world away. As a cohort, they bolted out of the Cultural Revolution and onto the path of wealth creation that has changed China beyond recognition. Some but not all managed to pick up the pieces of their shattered education, resuming high school and college; a small number were welcomed into special programs in the U.S. For me, the mention of “Nixon” calls to mind the year 1974, when I binge-watched the Watergate hearings after high school graduation. To my Chinese friends, it conjures up the year 1972, when, they would learn later, he secretly traveled to China for a meeting with Mao that would change their lives, and through them, the world order.

While the Cultural Revolution somehow failed to crush the entrepreneurial drive of the 1950s-born Chinese, it did succeed in snuffing out the millennia-old tradition of Chinese philanthropy. Clearly, if the Party and the State are perfect, there can be no social problems and hence no need for private support. As one of Mao’s party bosses, Dong Biwei, wrote, “Social relief and welfare should be in the hands of the government … Charity should be considered ‘an icing that deceives and anesthetizes the people…and a conspiracy to sabotage the People’s Republic of China by imperialists.’”

Cultural Revolution-era propaganda poster “Mao is the Red Sun,” courtesy of the Robert White collection of Chinese posters, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

But just as I now walk by the adjacent Ferrari and Maserati dealers in downtown Shanghai, knowing that 30 years ago there were only pedestrians and bicyclists in that spot, I’ve had a chance to witness the green shoots and first flowers of 21st century philanthropy in China. And like most economic and social trends in China, it’s moving really fast. When I started my job in 2012, Chinese colleagues advised me to leave “philanthropy” and “fundraising” out of my title. “We just don’t do that kind of thing here,” they cautioned. The year before, a scandal involving the embezzlement of free-flowing donations to China’s Red Cross for Sichuan Earthquake relief had set back the entire field. It came on the heels of the Bill Gates dinner in Beijing in 2010 intended to spur Chinese billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge and donate half their wealth while still living. Lower than expected attendance reminded everyone of the differences between East and West on this dimension.

That first year on the job, I got to know the young reporter in Beijing who wrote the Bloomberg Chinese Billionaires report. This involved weekly calculations of the top 100 billionaires’ net worth to update their rankings. (In 2012, there were about 350 Chinese billionaires; today there are 568, surpassing the U.S.’s 535). He also conducted periodic in-depth interviews with them. When I asked how his subjects viewed philanthropy, he said, “It never comes up.” Dismayed, I asked why. He said, “Becoming rich in China is such a recent phenomenon, we don’t yet have the kind of social norms and expectations of wealthy people that have developed over time in the U.S.” Fair enough.

So imagine my surprise and delight when just two years later, the bold CEO of a social club for ultra-high-net-worth Chinese families commissioned our team to create a U.S. study tour not on making money, but on giving it away. In June 2015, she and 14 intrepid members of the Taimei Huigu (Wisdom Life) club arrived at Duke for “Philanthropy and Family Legacy.” In our nine days together — moving from Durham to New York to Seattle to experience academic sessions and meetings with Giving Pledge signers, various Rockefeller institutions and family members, Goldman Sachs corporate philanthropy heads, MOMA fundraisers and Gates Foundation leaders — hearts and minds were opened, and subsequently, so were wallets. Closing-dinner testimonials were full of personal calls to action: “We ourselves can become role models; we should become a light in China. Because of us, history will be different.”

In January of this year, my Bloomberg Chinese Billionaires friend — who had since become a graduate and employee of the Harvard Kennedy School — wrote to tell me about the launch of his latest ranking exercise: the “China Philanthropy Project.” He had analyzed and ranked the Top 100 wealthy Chinese according to how much they had donated to charity, then created a companion “generosity index,” dividing their charitable giving by their net worth. I was able to greet one entrepreneur I recently met for lunch as “China’s 9th most generous man.”

But regrettably, I could not do so in Mandarin. While philanthropy, along with environmental clean-up, a crackdown on government extravagance, the search for meaning and happiness and numerous other positive trends in Chinese society have sped forward in the last four years, my own language abilities have not. Nor has my directional sense. After nearly 30 trips to Shanghai, I can find my way from People’s Square to the Bund, the equivalent of finding one’s way from 50th to 30th street along 5th Avenue in New York. Same for Beijing, neatly divided up by six ring roads, and districts that are recognizable, but not to me. I have been in tears near the hardly-obscure Forbidden City, lost in plain sight. I still mix up Shanxi and Shandong Provinces and pronounce well known people’s names in a way that causes Chinese friends to stare blankly or shout back, “Who?!” I’ve started John Fairbank’s definitive China: A New History three times and tried the user-friendly Harvard MOOC on Chinese history twice. I’m still trying to master the order of the dynasties. Every day, it seems I have forgotten something important that my super-sharp young Chinese colleagues had explained. Fortunately, respect for age is part of their culture, so they are kind.

A few months ago, one of the Taimei Huigu members invited me to dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Beijing. After a free-flowing discussion about the social-benefit features she had built into her start-up women’s fashion company, the potential of Duke Kunshan University to make a meaningful impact on China’s future and many philosophical topics, she surprisingly turned to this one: “Wendy, you know that ever since the philanthropy tour, we have all become so fond of you. We admire you so much and talk about you all the time in such glowing terms. Let me try to sum up in one word how people would describe you.” She thought for a moment, then stunned me: “Loving.”

In that moment, a week before my 60th birthday, I realized that this is what we know now that we can’t know at 30 or 40. That being regarded as technically competent and “smart” may be a means to some important ends but not to the most essential ones. That despite dwelling on our weaknesses, we will not be able to overcome them, and for the most part this does not matter. The empathy gleaned through years of unexpected but inevitably difficult experiences; it can come back to us as love.

My actual birthday fell during a hectic long weekend in Kunshan, where a dozen Duke Trustees had traveled to explore the new university and join the Duke Kunshan Advisory Board members for their annual meeting. At one of the dinners, I was seated next to Xiqing, my friend who suffered the head injury while breaking rocks on the railway during the Cultural Revolution. He went on to become the first Richard Nixon Scholarship recipient at Duke Law School, then helped create China’s financial market regulatory body and later ran its sovereign wealth fund. Now he is both a Duke University Trustee and Duke Kunshan University Advisory Board member, playing a unique and essential cultural-interpreter role between Duke and our Chinese partners.

Celebrating my 60th birthday with colleagues in China

So it’s fitting that he was the first to tell me, when my birthday was publicly acknowledged at the dinner, that Confucius had figured all this out in 500 B.C. The philosopher had described each of the age milestones, saying “At 60, my ears listen to what they hear with ease.” I take this to mean not that we 1956ers like everything we hear — streaming news reminds us that the world we’ve helped create is fraught with some pretty horrifying problems. But we have reached an age where tolerance, born of an appreciation of how complex life and people really are, serves to tamp down quick judgments; ideally, this includes self-judgments, too. With all this in mind, I’ve vowed to embrace loving, even if I can’t say it in Mandarin.

Wendy Kuran is Associate Vice President for Development: Duke Kunshan University (DKU) and China at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.