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But first, China: Local teen experiences life, learning and working in the Far East

Courtesy Hugh Buchbinder via Instagram

Hugh Buchbinder outside Gunung Kawi Temple in Bali, Indonesia


It takes a lot of courage for a newly minted high school graduate to uproot and live abroad, rather than go straight to college. But Quaker Ridge resident Hugh Buchbinder, SHS ’15, did so with gusto — literally — as an intern at Gusto Fine Foods, the only organic food vendor in China.

“They were starting up a marketing department in the Chinese market, and I speak Mandarin,” Buchbinder said.

It was an opportunity he arranged through a family friend. Buchbinder’s mother is from Montreal and Gusto’s founder is, too.

For part of his job at Gusto, the 19-year-old made cooking videos in Mandarin to teach the Chinese how to cook with organic vegetables, kosher meats, cheeses and other imported fine foods.

The stint as a marketing intern at Gusto was just one chapter of his multifaceted gap year. He brushed up his Mandarin through a semester at prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai and a two-month home-study program further afield in Guilin, where he lived with a Chinese host family. Between his academic programs, he also traveled around Asia and then finished off his self-made year as a real estate company intern in Hong Kong.

This fall, Buchbinder plans to study finance and economics in a management program at McGill University in Montreal.

Mastering Mandarin was a focal point of Buchbinder’s four years as a student at Scarsdale High School and while traveling to Shanghai for two weeks through a SHS exchange program during his sophomore year.

Buchbinder, who also speaks fluent French, admits Mandarin is not an easy language to learn.

“It’s very intimidating at first because of all the [written] characters, and if you’ve never learned a language that doesn’t have the same alphabet as English, maybe that’s frightening,” he said. “There’s a big learning curve but, once you find how to study it, for the most part it’s not very difficult. It’s a lot of memorization.”

Regardless of the degree of effort, Buchbinder said he believes it’s an important language to learn.

“Mandarin is the future. That’s why I’m learning it,” he said. “The Chinese as a culture are the most poised for development of anyone I’ve seen.”

He saw the development juggernaut with his own eyes while traveling with his host family in Chengdu in southwest China.

“Chengdu is a city China is trying to develop as the forefront of the West. It’s mindboggling to see the money they are pouring into all the infrastructure, the buildings and education,” Buchbinder said.

Practicing Mandarin with his hosts and colleagues, and with Chinese university students, Buchbinder learned volumes about the culture and lifestyle on the other side of the world.

His host family, for example, had two young boys — one was born right after China changed its one-child policy — but the American didn’t broach that topic with them.

“I was told ahead of time not to discuss [politics], but any time I would, people would get very defensive,” Buchbinder said. “Chinese people are not necessarily proud about how unprogressive the government is. It’s really only in progressive places like Shanghai or Hong Kong you might actually see protesting or hear people talking about the government.”

An eye-opening conversation took place after a side trip Buchbinder took to the Tibetan plateau. He was stunned to learn a college-educated teacher in Guilin had no idea what he was talking about when he asked about the Tibetan Resistance movement and a missing Buddhist lama kidnapped some 20 years ago by the Chinese government.

“She pulled up an article on her cell phone from a Chinese website that said [the lama] had been returned home and was with his family,” Buchbinder said. “Then I showed her American articles that said no one knew where he is. She was so confused.”

Buchbinder recalled a similar exchange during his first trip to China in 2012. When he and the other SHS students tried to talk about the tank man, a protestor who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square to defy the Chinese military in 1989, their Chinese peers had no idea who the tank man was.

“That was incredible,” he said. “It was one of the most defining moments in their political history and they have no idea.”

And so, rather than current events, most of Buchbinder’s conversations focused mostly on comparisons of American and Chinese lifestyles or his family back home in America. He grew accustomed to responding to money-oriented, class-based questions, such as his dad’s profession — he’s a doctor — how much money he makes, how much rent he pays.

“While those questions might not seem polite in our culture, in China they see it more as [showing] interest in your life and what you are interested in, because it’s your job and it’s what you do,” he said.

He said he appreciated how welcoming the Chinese people are to people from other cultures, especially Westerners.

“So many times I met someone on the street and just cordially introduced myself and ended up having dinner with their family,” he said. “They love meeting people from other cultures and seeing things that are different, because they have been closed off in mainland China.”

But based on his experience, it seems the two societies are becoming more alike.

“We are used to such a different lifestyle here, so when you go there it’s a real culture shock,” Buchbinder said. “But I think, for the most part, Chinese culture isn’t very different from what we live like over here. Anything you can do in the States or the world, you can do in China.”

Shanghai especially is such a livable city, he said.

“There’s always so much going on, so much culture, old and new, and I don’t think there is any envy toward Western culture,” he said. “I think they just like that we have the music and the movies and celebrities and sports — everything they see on their Chinese Twitter and Chinese Facebook.”

Chinese food also is more sophisticated than Americans might think.

“Coming from the States, everyone thinks it’s all fried and very spiced and one-sided food. But it’s one of the most gastronomically diverse cultures in the world,” Buchbinder said. “There are more than 56 minority cultures, and each of them will have their own special dish, and each city within that culture will have its own special dish.”

And even though he worked for a purveyor of healthy organic foods, “I think I tried every single part of pig that’s humanly possible to eat,” Buchbinder, who prides himself on being an adventurous eater, said.

It takes more than a strong stomach to break away for a not-so-typical gap year as Buchbinder did. But he said he would encourage others to explore the world while they can.

“There are so many things to see in the world that you can’t see in Scarsdale or in the States in general — so many different people, cultures, perspectives to see on every different corner of the planet,” he said. “I always wanted to do something different, and this was, by far, the most life changing experience of my short adolescent life so far.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


August 26, 2016