Chautauqua conversations: Chang, Chu share first impressions of Chautauqua

There’s an old aphorism that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. In Chautauqua, where the marketing data shows that a majority of visitors stay on the grounds for mostly shorter periods in a nine-week summer season, first impressions seem to matter more than ever. In this context, an interesting opportunity recently arose. Invited by their daughter CiCi to spend the summer at Chautauqua, two elderly Chinese professors are visiting this area for the first time. They are Michael Chang and Sandi Chu. At times, their daughter interpreted their remarks from their native language. Michael was more reserved, so Sandi spoke mostly for the couple. We talked in the living room of a newly renovated home off the grounds. Before we spoke, the professors shared some impressions, first in a written testimonial by Sandi:

Thank you for visiting us. Actually, we’ve visited the U.S. over 20 times, except Chautauqua. We are very happy our daughter invited us to join the Chautauqua Institution summer season festival.

Chautauqua, what a beautiful, quiet and unadorned village. A lot of neat houses surrounded by a lot of big old trees by the main square. The air is fresh and comfortable. Chautauqua looks like a wonderful picture appeared in front of us.

It is the first time we went to the Fourth of July concert. The American people rejoice and are proudest on the national day and brimming with high respect for the American veterans.

We enjoy very much Chautauqua Institution-organized events. The theme of the subject informs us of the art, religion, knowledge, music. The old history of Chautauqua, excellent cultural tradition has continued and developed over 141 years. There are many various workshops, interfaith worship, lecture, museum, music school, arts and entertainment.

Finally, we enjoyed symphony orchestra concert, piano recital, opera, ballet and much, much more. We learn a lot, and we are having a great time.

Sandi, you and Michael have lived in Hong Kong for many years.

Sandi: Yes, we moved there a long time ago. CiCi grew up there, though she was born in Shanghai. We have been visiting in the U.S. for 30 years.

CiCi, how did you wind up in the U.S.?

CiCi: I auditioned for many music schools and was accepted for study here in the U.S.

Sandi and Michael, what were your impressions of Chautauqua before you actually came to visit this summer?

Sandi: We had expected a different countryside than we were used to. Very different from the city life.

CiCi: It was different from anything they had experienced. They have lived in the city in China, and stayed with me in cities when they visited in the U.S.

Sandi: We had visited in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco. We had visited our daughter many times.

CiCi: Their idea of living in the country was totally different than what they have experienced here. They were expecting poverty, crime, despair — the kinds of things that are present in the countryside in China. This is different from that. So they are actually getting a sense of a kind of cosmopolitan life in Chautauqua.

What were your first impressions of Chautauqua?

Sandi: It was very peaceful. The air was fresh. All the people were very kind, friendly, with a smile on their face. In China, people are different.

More private, perhaps?

Sandi: Yes, that’s right. More private, in their own world. Here, it feels more like a big family. People are friendly. We feel a personal warmth here. And no air pollution. There is an honest feeling.

Tell me about that.

Sandi: We have been talking with people, touching on the arm. There is an air of trust.

CiCi: My parents feel safe here — in the sense that they feel safe in speaking to a stranger. In China, there is a feeling that to approach a stranger is to invade their privacy.

Any other thoughts as you walk around the grounds?

Sandi: I was impressed by how disciplined people are. They are committed to the learning, to expand the knowledge. They are interested in everything. I went to a lot of things: master classes, concerts, opera, lectures, dance. And I have been going to swim often.

CiCi: My mom has been interacting a lot with people she meets around the grounds. She has gotten a good feel for this place, I think. She has felt very welcome.

Sandi: I think Chautauqua Institution stands for those four words: Knowledge, Art, Religion, Music.

It sounds like you have enjoyed your summer here in Chautauqua.

Sandi: It has been wonderful to enjoy everything Chautauqua has to offer. I want to continue to learn in my life and this place is full of people who also seem to want to do that. It doesn’t really feel like the countryside to me. It feels more like the city, with friendly people. I like it here.

Tell me a little about your life in China.

Sandi: We were college professors. I was born in Shanghai and taught piano. We moved to Hong Kong in the late 1970s for the freedoms it offered. It was difficult during the Cultural Revolution in China for a lot of people, including academics. Even since the British turned over Hong Kong to China, there are some rules there which are different and less restrictive than in China.

Michael: I was a mathematics professor at university. We were not interested in the politics in China. And it was much better in Hong Kong for the future of our two children.

CiCi: It’s kind of a “one country, two systems” set-up. I think it is not in the Chinese mindset to do anything but make money. Money is all that matters in China. People don’t care how they make their money, but they are always seeking riches. Wealth is what people look up to. I don’t think people care much about each other in China.

There is a lot of corruption in China, cynicism. People bring difficulties upon themselves, it seems. They don’t seek the easy path. Our American lifestyle is alien to them.

Michael: Chinese men are very reserved into themselves. Here in the U.S., there is more openness, more friendliness.

Sandi: People worry too much about life in China. And people in the countryside are always poor; they want to get into the city.

CiCi: There isn’t much of a middle class in China. There is a huge gap between rich people and poor people in China. It is 10 times worse than in the United States. No one much wants to live in the countryside any more. And kids are under intense pressure everywhere; it’s a very competitive environment.