By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Li Yanan left her home in Beijing to become an exchange student in Niskayuna in 1997, it was the first time she had ever left China. She was 16 years old.
Earlier this month, she walked the halls of Niskayuna High School again.
The building’s appearance has changed significantly due to renovations since Li was there last, but she connected with the setting immediately.
“It’s this feeling that’s so different, but so familiar,” she said.
Past touched present as Li strolled through the music wing and the Nisk-Art Gallery, and walked by rows of classrooms from her past. Her husband, Bai Jiang, whom she married in September, was by her side. Guiding the tour was Board of Education member Bob Winchester, whose family hosted Li when she attended class at Niskayuna.
Winchester told stories as Li took in the differences and similarities between the Niskayuna High School of her memories and the one she was touring.
There was the time she finally called her mother in Beijing without crying, after three weeks in the United States. And the time she mastered English well enough to study by herself. And the first time she complained about her schoolwork or asked for a favor with an attitude she had clearly picked up from her American friends, Winchester’s daughters Beth and Amy.
She adapted quickly, and became an immediate part of the family. Li called Winchester “Dad,” and sometimes still does when they’re reminiscing.
Since her first-ever overseas voyage, Li has gained plenty of international travel experience.
She earned a master’s degree in French while studying in Paris when she was in her mid-20s, and later worked for a French consulting company, which involved some travel. Li lived in Algiers for a couple of years for work, and has traveled to Denmark, Japan, and plenty of places in between. During this trip, before heading back to China, she and Bai will make stops in Montreal, Toronto and San Francisco.
She’s an expert traveler now, but the first foray abroad was a shock in a lot of ways.
“At that time, China was pretty closed,” Li said. “It was an amazing year for me.”
She was one of just a handful of Chinese students who were approved to study abroad that year through an agency that was then called AFS, the American Field Service. There were fewer than 20 students from China in her exchange group, and they were split up and sent to different places. One of her friends, for example, landed in Alaska.
Li said the experience changed her life. Learning English so young, she said, made it easier to learn French as a young adult. Plus, absorbing American culture changed her personality, even the way she solves problems, and made her feel more comfortable with people outside of Chinese culture.
“It’s not just that we are talking,” she said of English speakers she encounters. “We are communicating.”
Li said being young when she spent her year at Niskayuna High School was crucial to the ways the experience affected her.
“I love everything about France, but it can’t become part of me like the States,” she said.
“Part of me will always be American.”
That identity, the seed of which was planted 17 years ago in Niskayuna, recently led Li and Bai to start a new business: an event planning company that throws parties for recently returned foreign exchange students, where they can meet one another.
Bai hasn’t traveled as much as Li, and didn’t participate in any exchanges as a student, but the way the pair met influenced the business decision. They were introduced at a similar party, a common way of meeting people in China.
There aren’t many women in finance, so Bai was looking for a girlfriend at one such event. Li, in her early 30s at the time, was hoping to start a family. They met and hit it off.
The couple’s early days, plus Li’s travel background, inspired their new venture. She now works on it full time while Bai explores other projects, and she said so far, the concept is doing well.
“That’s the problem that most kids have,” Li said — trouble meeting like-minded people for friendships and dating.
Information in China is nowhere near as tightly controlled as it was when Li was a teenager, but restrictions on Internet communication still exist and make it difficult for her to stay in touch with those abroad. She said she has friends all over the world from her time as an exchange student, but hasn’t seen many of them since the last time she was in Paris, in 2007, when she met up with her host sisters and some of her AFS friends.
In China it’s impossible to use Facebook without elaborate work-arounds, which makes it difficult to keep up a consistent relationship with her host family in Niskayuna. That means, occasionally, the Winchesters get a surprise visit.
Earlier in November, not long before Li and Bai took a train to Niskayuna from New York City, Winchester received a LinkedIn message from his adoptive daughter. She had accompanied Bai to New York City on a trip that was part business, part honeymoon: he had work to do at the Stock Exchange, but they planned to enjoy themselves, too. And for Li, no trip to the States is complete without visiting her host family.
Now that she’s married to Bai, who has frequent business in New York City, Li expects to visit pretty regularly — she usually translates for her husband, who is newer to English and has spent most of his life in Beijing.
That makes Winchester very happy.
“We had an absolutely wonderful visit,” he said.