It took coming to China for Jeff to realize he looks a little like Bill Gates

Jeff has different idea about "shortages in Shanghai," allowing me to view "negative" things in a whole new light.
It took coming to China for Jeff to realize he looks a little like Bill Gates
Holin Wang / SHINE

Name: Jeffrey S. Lehman

Nationality: American

Job: Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai

Years in Shanghai: 5

Holin: Do you have some impressing stories about Shanghai, maybe your first time coming here? 

Jeff: I guess what I would say is, my first visit to Shanghai was in 1998. At that time, I was living in the United States and I was asked by the American government to come and meet with leaders of Chinese law schools. It was because President Clinton was going to be meeting with President Jiang Zemin, so that was my first visit to China, my first visit to Shanghai.

I must say, it completely transformed my vision of China, and of the city of Shanghai, because I had not realized how rapid the process of reform was. I had not realized how quickly everything was changing, and so I remember, at that time, there was not much in Pudong; it was just starting to be developed.

I was staying in Puxi, and I remember going to the hotel where I was staying, and the man who was helping me with my suitcase, looking at me and said in perfect English, “Did anybody ever tell you that you look like Bill Gates?” And I thought, oh my goodness, here I am in Shanghai, and Shanghai is connected to the world. This man, who works in a hotel and knows perfect English, knows Bill Gates, and knows what Bill Gates looks like. I’m very interested in this process through which China is re-strengthening its ties to the rest of the world.

So, when I moved here in 2012, of course the thing that interested me the most about Shanghai was how dramatically it had changed in 14 years. It’s such a dynamic and high-energy and cosmopolitan city. I continue to be impressed every day by the energy of Shanghai.

Holin: How do you spend your weekends in Shanghai? 

Jeff: We work! You know, when you’re building something, weekends are often mixed together with the work week — there are always things to be working on.

But when we’re ready for a break, on weekends we really like to, one day or maybe both days, we adjust our eating pattern. So we’ll have one big meal in the middle of the day — there are so many hot pot places in Shanghai, for example. Hours go by, in a very relaxing way.

Holin: Indeed, and you can find different kinds of hot pot in Shanghai. Besides hot pot, what kind of Chinese food do you like?

Jeff: I happen to really like spicy food, like Sichuanese and Yunnan dishes. There is so much food here, in addition to Shanghainese food. When I think about China, the word that comes to mind is ‘variety.’ There are so many different kinds of foods.

Holin: And also a variety of different places with different flavors, right? Which place in Shanghai do you like best? 

Jeff: We live in Puxi, and we like to go for walks. There’s an area not far from the Shanghai Library, Hunan Road, Wuhan Road, that area, I like the feel. But I also like Nanchang Road, there are a lot of little shops and it has a very nice feel to it. 

Holin: And what do you like about Shanghai?

Jeff: I like the variety, and I like the fact that people we know, from all over the world, pass through Shanghai. They know we’re here, so they can stop by.

Holin: Let's flip it a bit: What do you hate or dislike? Any suggestions to change it or make it better?

Jeff: I honestly love life here, this is a great city. One of the things about Shanghai that I’ve learned over time is that a city is kind of like a person, they have a complete personality. If you say “Oh, if only I could change this one thing, then they would be better,” well, if you change that one thing, then they’re not the same person! 

Sometimes if you try to change one thing there are other things that are connected to that thing, a reason why this less attractive piece is here. It’s because these other good things are somehow dependent on it. So I hesitate to say, “Oh, let’s change one thing about Shanghai and keep everything else the same”, because I’m not sure that’s possible. 

Holin: Cool, that's a new way for me to think about something bad. But compared to your country, are there any shortages in Shanghai? 

Jeff: I don’t think in terms of ‘shortages.’ I expect, a few decades ago, there were shortages here. I know there were. When China was not as connected to the rest of the world, there would be things that you could not have here. That’s no longer true.

The truth is, I think China and Shanghai are on a journey to becoming more and more deeply linked to the rest of the world, and that’s why I was brought here, to be part of that. I think as long as that journey continues, this city has an incredibly bright future.

Holin: Thank you, and we are making the effort to make Shanghai's future bright, too. The last question, do you have some impressive memory during your life to share with us?

Jeff: So, I’ve had a very long life. I’m 60 years old, so in six decades, I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life! I guess what I would say is that I feel I’ve led an incredibly fortunate life. The opportunities that I have been given, to be in interesting places, to meet and work with interesting people, are very unusual. I’ve had those experiences here in China, in the United States, in France and in India. And I will say, every time I have the chance to actually spend time with someone new and learn about their own life and their own backgrounds, I feel enriched. I feel like they’ve allowed me, vicariously, to experience another dimension of life that I would not have had the chance to experience before.

I think, at some point, I want to write a book, about all these encounters I have had the opportunity to encounter.

What does Jeff want to say to his future self? Have a look! Jeff is sending a message to his future self to watch ten years from now!

Filmed by Holin Wang and Joan Zheng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

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