Interview: Carson Tavenner on leading a Chinese youth summer leadership camp in Gobi Desert
By Wen Liu Sept. 1, 2016
We all know how Carson Tavenner burst onto the Washington state-China scene in 2011 with The Tai Initiative, first reviving the dormant Washington State Sichuan Province Friendship Association, then organizing three regional conferences on subnational U.S.-China relations in three years, and also hosting an online forum as well as a podcast on China-related topics, etc. What we didn’t know is that Carson has started yet another initiative, or found an exciting, vigorous and military way to spend part of his summers: in the Gobi Desert in China with a special group of young Chinese called the Gobi Expeditionary Army (戈壁远征军). What was this youth army about? What did it do in the desert? What did Carson do and find out there? Here we have Carson Tavenner, fresh from the Gobi, with tales, and sweat, and a tan.
WCWD: So I heard that you were recently in China, not as part of The Tai Initiative or Washington-Sichuan exchanges, but as a commander of a youth leadership program called the Gobi Expeditionary Army, which trekked in Gansu province along the ancient Silk Road. Could you tell us more about this Expedition Army in Gobi Desert?
Carson Tavenner: The Gobi Expeditionary Army summer elite youth leadership training camp is one of many programs of the Xingzhi (行知) Group, as part of the Proto-Leadership (元领导力) Development Center and under the banner of their Road of Xuanzang (玄奘) brand.
The Gobi Expeditionary Army (or GEA) -- of which I am the camp commander and program designer -- is a two-week, two-part program. It has an intense seven-day military-style "boot camp" in the middle of the Gobi Desert (30 km S/SW of Guazhou, 70km east of Dunhuang) in a very special oasis we call the "Gobi Spring". The schedule balances outdoor and indoor activities, all of it providing leadership instruction material. After the first week, the campers cross 85km of the Gobi Desert on foot during four days of guided exploration. With the focus of the GEA in leadership training, we find the application of that leadership in this second half to be a critical part of giving the training a real face, in real challenge, in a demanding environment. And, actually, the design and implementation of the GEA camp is a service of The Tai Initiative as an outgrowth of our organizational strength teaching leadership. Being a major part of this exciting new program is indeed a great privilege which we do not take lightly. As a result, we pour an extraordinary level of passion and expertise into our rigorous program designs.
WCWD: I read that the founder of this program is an American-educated entrepreneur called Zhou Baolin. He asked young people to embrace the Gobi, the heat, the trek and the blisters, to challenge themselves, overcome their cowardliness and laziness, and broaden their horizons and mind. The Gobi Expeditionary Army was also mentioned as the Chinese version of Deep Springs College in the desert of California which has manual labor as part of its curriculum. So is this an American-inspired program? As an American commander, did you teach your young “soldiers” American values?
Carson Tavenner: Zhou Baolin’s story contributes in a major way to the appearance of GEA in the world. His friend, the Xingzhi Group CEO Qu Xiangdong, is the man who makes the program happen; Zhou Baolin is his senior advisor and my partner in camp instruction. Before GEA appeared, Xingzhi Group sponsored several years’ worth of desert marathons under the banner of “The Road of Xuanzang.” Zhou Baolin is a professional wheelchair marathon runner and had been instrumental in speaking to and inspiring the large crowds of participants. The material, emotional and philosophical success of these desert-crossing marathons led many participants (Gobi Veterans, he calls them) to ask Zhou Baolin for a similar program specifically for the benefit of their late-teenage children. From this plea, the GEA was born. Gobi Veterans began to send dozens of late-teen youth to participate over the next two years. I designed the camp content from Xingzhi Group requirements and applied my own convictions and life experience; I'd never heard of the Deep Springs College, so that too is more an example for comparison rather than an origin point of inspiration.
So this was not an America-inspired program except in the general sense that in America we have been holding such youth leadership training summer programs for over 100 years (Boy and Girl Scouts of America being the primary example) so the best practices of what makes a great summer camp experience have largely translated across in real human terms. We do not teach American values, but we teach the human values of love, respect, discipline, and the value of others' lives. We stick deliberately to Chinese culture as a reference point for action whenever it does not get in the way of proper discipline and the vision of the program.
Here is one example of the values in the teaching. When I present them with their dog tags on the first day of the program, I speak to them about the function of dog tags, why they are a special item and not a piece of “cool jewelry”. I speak to them about the one purpose of dog tags: to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. I don't know which country first started using dog tags for its soldiers, but they are not a specifically American item. I point out to the campers (we don’t usually call them “soldiers”, BTW) that even though they are not expected to be ready to sacrifice their lives, they are being challenged to ask the question “what am I willing to sacrifice for the good of my country and the good of the world?” We play China’s national anthem at the start and close of the day, and teach them proper flag etiquette and respect. When we do this, I put my Chinese staff up front to let the campers see clear demonstrations of these skills and qualities from those in authority over them.
WCWD: You seem a good fit as a commander for this Chinese youth leadership army, with your U.S. Air Force career, your China studies and work, especially with your Tai Initiative, involving young people. But how did you find your way to this Gobi Desert program in northwestern China in the first place?
Carson Tavenner: After the first year's experience of the GEA (summer 2014), Qu Xiangdong and Zhou Baolin knew they would need an additional partner to create more demanding, accurate, leadership content for their military-style camp. They wanted someone who shared their conviction that strong character and moral development must be in the bedrock of the foundation for this elite leadership training, someone who possessed a unique combination of several years’ experience in a true military profession, could therefore provide disciplined training in the professional manner of the American military, was a believer in the value of China and the Chinese people, as well as possessing strong teaching skills, available in the summer, and displaying a heart for mentoring young leaders.
In that same summer, Zhou Baolin heard that I was leading a team of teachers to Changsha where I was providing an English language camp for rural school children. My mentors in that program (Love the World, or Ai Shijie – a group of retired Christian military officers) had previously met Zhou Baolin in Shenzhen and spoke of him to me, and vice versa. Baolin flew out to Changsha to meet me, we became instant friends; later that year he suggested to Qu Xiangdong that he hire me to design the 2015 GEA camp program. That first experiment instantly appeared to be a great success to all involved. Immediately we all knew the process should repeat again and again.
WCWD: When you were spending time as a commander and instructor with the members of the Gobi Expeditionary Army, most of whom I believe were Chinese nationals, did you find them to be different or the same as young Americans in terms of their education, their career, their dreams, or even their government?
Carson Tavenner: You are correct in your understanding the vast majority are Chinese nationals. Only two campers so far – a brother & sister pair – have been raised American. As for finding them different or the same, they are by far similar in most respects to their American peers but the differences are substantial nonetheless. The campers tend to come from the highest levels of the socio-economic class of modern China, so their education has been first-rate for those subjects in which they have been instructed. The biggest differences are that they have generally not been given many opportunities to express themselves, their parents are usually quite absent from their lives, and no one pushes them to inquire about who they are themselves; this is mostly due to a general process in China in which the parents set the agenda for a child’s life, expecting them to perform and plan for a career in the directions which the parents deem best. Zhou Baolin and I prepare our content to address these particular needs as well as many others.
Also, many American children have a “camp experience” in their early teen years, in which they enjoy the outdoors with peers, surrounded by group activities and experiences which challenge the question “who am I?” The 15-21 year olds with us in the Gobi are often experiencing this important adolescent process for the very first time. My limited language abilities and lack of experience growing up in the Chinese child/parent culture prevent me (at this point) from being able to "join them in their pain" as they open up about the very deep emotional struggles they are going through, but that is where the mutual collaboration and partnership with Zhou Baolin comes in beautifully. I provide flexible content that gives the campers the information they need to see themselves in a new light, as leaders of their own lives, respecting authority but also learning to grow into their own authority. It is the beginning of a process leading them to be skilled, morally-directed authorities over their fellow citizens.
WCWD: As I understand this was the third season of the Gobi Expeditionary Army, and your second as the commander. How do you like this program? Are you going back next summer? And do you see young Americans or young Washingtonians joining this Chinese desert camp someday?
Carson Tavenner: I love this program, and I do see young Americans and Washingtonians joining! In fact, both have already happened. Imagine my great excitement (and surprise) to discover a third American-born camper in the ranks, and even more surprising – he has been spending the last two years of high school in Kent, Washington! For me, from Puyallup, and he from Kent to meet in the middle of the Gobi Desert was really a thrilling discovery.
This program bears within it the seeds from which will grow the thousands of Chinese global citizens this world desperately needs. America has been very busy for many decades training its youth to be global leaders, and the results are clear: today’s young American adults demonstrate global citizenship in innumerable ways all over the Earth. As China grows and develops, the world wants to see the appearance of a generation of Chinese leaders who understand what it means to be global citizens, not just being Chinese citizens elsewhere in the world. This vision guides much of the content which I present each summer, and I intend for it to remain this way for many years to come.
And let’s not just hope for American campers. Xingzhi Group and The Tai Initiative are ready and willing to receive more foreign students from any country to this program. I am very hopeful The Tai Initiative will be responsible for drawing more American campers into the 2017 program (which I know already will be even better than 2016’s!).
The Tai Initiative is thrilled and privileged to have Zhou Baolin serving on our board of advisors. We are in good company, and I look forward to see what the next year's program will grow to become.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)