Like many recent (and not so recent) Union graduates, Jesse Karotkin '97 eats Froot Loops for breakfast — except Karotkin buys his cereal from a market in Beijing, where he works for the World Food Programme as a logistics support officer.
Karotkin, a political science major and East Asian Studies minor, has lived in Beijing for three years, working as a teacher fellow at Capital Normal University in Beijing for two years before taking his current position.
Kartokin's interest in China can be traced to his term abroad in Nanjing as a sophomore (a suggestion from Professor Byron Nichols of political science). “My term abroad was incredible,” he says. “Everything seemed new and exotic. I could just walk aimlessly through Nanjing taking in the sights and sounds.” He especially liked “rubbing elbows” with locals, eating street food, and living with a diverse community of international students.
“When the time came to pack up and leave Nanjing, I felt that I would surely go back to China,” Kartokin says. Back on campus, he found that only elementary Chinese was being offered. He rallied students who might be interested in the course, and the College added its first intermediate Chinese course in 1996.
As his graduation day approached, Karotkin became interested in teaching; he also wanted to maintain his grasp of the Chinese language, best done by immersing himself in the language. He applied for, and received, a fellowship provided by the Freeman Foundation to teach in Beijing.
“Teaching abroad is such an incredible experience to have right out of college,” he says. “It's easy to relate to the students and it's still clear in your memory what makes a good instructor and an interesting class. It gives you a chance to live abroad and travel while still doing something productive and satisfying.”
Karotkin taught a full schedule of English to typically overcrowded classes. “I tried to have a good time with my students and show them a more casual teaching style, different from what they are used to. One of my main goals was giving students (many of whom had studied English for more than five years) the confidence to simply open their mouths and begin using English as a spoken language.”
After two years of teaching, he landed an internship — and then a permanent job — with the World Food Programme, where he now handles operations for North Korea, one of the largest recipients of food aid.
Karotkin says that one of the reasons he enjoys living in China is because it gives him a great deal of freedom. “As a foreigner in China you get used to being perceived as fundamentally different,” he explains. “While this can be annoying at times, in general I find it very liberating. I feel that while living here I am not bound by many social norms and constraints.”
But living in China can also have its downs. “I think it's easier for those of us who speak Chinese, but there is still a big cultural gap that isn't easily crossed,” he says.
Karotkin marvels at the massive influx of foreign influence in Beijing — from MacDonald's to Pizza Hut to Popeye's (his latest favorite) — but maintains that the city is still struggling to preserve its own cultural identity. “While social and economic ties with foreign countries do have a liberalizing effect on the public, we have to be careful not to base our perception of China's social development and values on this exterior. Many Chinese people remain extremely skeptical of the United States, and such attitudes are slow to change.”
The recent bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is a case in point. “Things were pretty uncomfortable here for a few days,” he says. “Virtually all of the universities, including the one where I lived, erupted in protest.” Foreigners stayed indoors, and the campuses were decorated with anti-Clinton, anti-American, and anti-NATO slogans. “While it was tense, very few [foreigners] felt that our personal safety was in serious jeopardy. I have tried to better understand the Chinese world-view and thereby interpret the situation from their perspective. Although they've heard the U.S. explanation of events, virtually everyone in Beijing laughs at the assertion that the embassy bombing was an 'accident.' ”
Karotkin recently returned to the United States, though he says he is sure to return to China in a year or two. Meanwhile, he says, he is enjoying “good Western food, clean air, efficiency, and TV.”