Marking 40 Years: Roberta Lipson and Tim Stratford Discuss their China Journeys
For the past 40 years, Roberta Lipson and Tim Stratford have been two of the pillars of the expatriate business community in Beijing. The AmCham China Quarterly shares some of their reflections from a conversation they had earlier this year as the two sat down for an expansive discussion about their personal and professional journeys in China.
Photo by Connie Zhao
Touchdown in Beijing
“I arrived in China in 1979 at Capital Airport at ‘terminal minus one.’ Today we have terminals one, two, and three, this was before those existed. I remember there were maybe two or three cars on the road. At the beginning, I lived at the Beijing Hotel. It was such an interesting place to live in those days. It was very much like a college dorm – a lot of Americans and Europeans living there and for everybody being in Beijing at that time was such an adventure. We would come back to the coffee shop every day to exchange stories after learning so many new things and seeing so many unexpected things. It was an amazing, exciting time.”
“It was a time when you kind of felt like anything was possible. The market opportunity in China was so great – people were looking for better quality of life. That’s when we had the idea that people in China might appreciate a different approach to healthcare. And, we also realized that simply bringing medical technologies and medical equipment into Chinese hospitals wasn’t going to fundamentally change the healthcare that was available. So, we had this idea that we could set up a new model in China. Back in those days there were plenty of official delegations travelling to the US. They would go and see American hospitals and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing, let’s make it happen in China too.’”
“I was working at the US Embassy in the late 1980s, when the bilateral relationship experienced a huge shock. At that point, our two governments were hardly talking with each other. However, there was actually a strong desire to try to put things back on track – but how do you do that? For the Chinese side, they had to go through some internal assessment of, what had happened, how they were going to deal with it, and what direction they were going to take in the future. This took a while to figure out but then when Deng Xiaoping made his famous trip to the south, that was the signal that they were still going to continue on the path forward. Back then I was able to get meetings because I was on the commercial side and people wanted to get business going. In the commercial section, we would gather specific company cases that had to do with IPR problems, investment permits, a whole range of issues. We’d write up something for each company and then we take it into one of the two committees at MOFCOM – they really worked hard. We were able to solve most of the cases. That was an example of how the common desire to pragmatically do business that was in everyone’s interest really helped create some positive momentum and put the relationship back on track.”
Raising Cross-Cultural Families
“I think it was the most awesome place for my children to grow up. They became people of the world before they graduated grade school, they had friends from all over the world, they were speaking two or three languages. For the first eight years when we had our children, we lived in a courtyard hutong. They live around the world now, but they still have a very important connection with China and Chinese culture. All of our children are of that next generation. Ones who studied here in China or Chinese students who went abroad for schooling, they are the hope of the next generation to keep peace in the world. Now today, I really hope we can get the exchange student numbers back up, because these cultural exchanges are so important. I feel blessed to not only have brought up my family here, but to have been able to be a witness these past 40 years of what’s happened in this amazing country.”
“I asked my daughter, who’s now 36, what she would say about growing up in China and here’s what she said: ‘Having the opportunity to learn and grow up in one culture by day, and then to come home to a completely different one by dinnertime is how I developed my critical thinking skills. I learned to observe my surroundings and try to understand many different perspectives instead of getting absorbed into one right way of thinking that conflicts with someone else’s beliefs.’ Our children feel very thankful that they were able to grow up in China. And frankly, in a lot of ways I’ve grown up in China too. Over 40 years my perspective on the world has been greatly enhanced by thinking about the differences between how Americans may look at things and the way Chinese could look at things. Each culture has made very important contributions in how I think about things and how I solve problems. My wife and our three children all feel very grateful that that we were able to be here during this period.”
“In my career, I’ve tried to focus on three things. Number one, where can I do the most good? As long as you’re spending your time doing something, you might as well do something that will help. The second is, where can I learn the most? I’m always curious to learn more. The third is, where can I be that I will enjoy the people that I’m working with and interacting with? If you take those three criteria you could say, how about China in 1982, 1992, 2002, or in 2022? You can make a really compelling case that a time of trial is the best place to meet all three of those criteria. I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to be here during this period. I think we’ve seen more dramatic change in China in the last 40 years than other any place in our history. Many, many positive things have happened. And, what’s evolving here now is of such great consequence for the future, to be here and to be able to be a part of it, what a great opportunity.”
“I came here with a very idealistic vision. I had studied Chinese history and knew of the great historic accomplishments of this civilization. I felt that maybe I could have the opportunity to also bring something fresh and interesting. After being here a very short time, I realized there was so much that we could contribute. And what could be better than that? Every day I am learning and every day I am able to be innovative and creative. I feel that there’s still so much that’s important that can be done and should be done. Especially during this challenging time in our bilateral relations, it’s all the more important that we keep on track and keep doing the things that brought us here, and keep us here. Frankly, I couldn’t leave. Sometimes people ask me that question – I always say I couldn’t possibly pull myself away. First of all, it’s just too interesting, and second of all, feeling like you are making a difference every day in what you do, I am very blessed for that.”
These quotes have been taken from part of a larger conversation and edited slightly for length and clarity.