By Samuel T. Clover ’91
In the spring of 2007, while Ericka “Missy” Chehi ’12 (Greenville, Del.) was still a junior in high school, she took a whirlwind three-week tour of China as part of a leadership development program. Though she spoke no Chinese and spent only a brief time in a handful of cities—Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, Yangshuo, Huangshan—she found the country, especially the booming urban centers, astonishing.
Even so, Chehi never dreamed that four years later, during her junior year at Lafayette, she would live in China for 10 months—an experience that, coupled with internships in Allentown and Beijing, has shaped her plans to work with international energy trading companies in China.
“When I was taking classes my freshman year, going along with the whole liberal arts concept of trying different things, I thought I’d take Chinese for a semester,” she recalls. “I was also taking Spanish at the time, and I fell in love with Chinese. It was not expected at all. I just went for it, and ended up not continuing with Spanish and doing all my language classes in Chinese. When it came to my junior year to study abroad, China was my first choice. It was a natural.”
The year before she left, Chehi, an economics and Asian studies double major, interned at Allentown-based PPL EnergyPlus LLC, an energy commodities trading company. In the contracts department, she worked with the trading, credit, treasury, and legal departments to help create contracts, guarantees, and other agreements.
When it came time to study abroad, she chose to do it through the Alliance for Global Education, which offers an International Business in China program based in Shanghai. She took Chinese language classes for three hours each day, as well as courses on Chinese finances and currency, the emergence of the Chinese economy over the last several decades, and global marketing through a Chinese lens.
Though the courses were taught in English, her experience outside the classroom was a different story.
“In the beginning, I struggled—I didn’t even have conversational fluency,” she says. “My Chinese was very, very basic, but you use hand gestures and miming and charades and you get your meaning out and you end up making a friend for a day.”
One friend she made was a young woman she met at a restaurant she visited every morning for her jiaozi fix—pan-fried dumplings served with soy-vinegar or hot chili sauce.
“I ended up spending more and more time with her, and I can credit my language skills to my friendship with her,” Chehi says. “We’d speak half in English and half in Chinese, because she wanted to improve her language skills as well.”
Chehi also gained fluency at the knock-off markets scattered all over the city.
“We went every weekend,” she says. “They have everything you could ever possibly imagine, from fans that were five feet tall to Christmas ornaments to Gucci handbags to lasers. It was a great way to practice your Chinese. Bargaining, honestly, is the best thing I can think of to practice.”
Only two weeks into the program, Chehi knew she wanted to stay for the entire academic year, rather than the one semester she had planned. After the academic year ended, she made arrangements to spend another two months with a host family in Beijing, where she interned with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an NGO specializing in environmental concerns ranging from threatened habitats to climate change.
Aside from her interests in energy, economics, and environmental sustainability, Chehi conducted informal research on what became the subject of her senior honors thesis: the hukou birth registration system. The governmental system links people with the region in which they were born and determines what kind of social services they will receive. It also restricts rural-to-urban movement, since cities are overcrowded. Chehi ended up interviewing a range of natives about it, from students and her host family to people she met on the street.
“There’s this huge floating population in China’s major cities where people have illegally migrated from rural areas to urban areas,” Chehi explains. “They survive by selling food or anything, particularly at night. If they’re caught they will either be sent back or punished. A lot of the people I interviewed were people that I ran into, like people at the knock-off markets.”
Robin Rinehart, professor and head of religious studies, chair of Asian studies, and Chehi’s thesis adviser, knew about the hukou system from a Fulbright study trip to China five years ago.
“One of the things that’s very interesting about Missy’s research is she’s using a lot of the different scholarly sources that are out there about this, but she’s also interviewed people when she was in China, so she’s adding that factor to it,” Rinehart says. “She’s had good luck in finding sources because it’s such a crucial topic for China.”
Chehi is sure she wants to return to China after graduation.
“I think the best thing anyone can do as the world follows this globalization trend is to go out into the world, try something new, and push your own boundaries and limits,” she says. “It is a great way to really get to know yourself and the world you’re living in.”