Picture the scene, a Saturday night, Halloween, in a smart downtown hotel, an intimate gathering of old friends and new acquaintances.
This was the Kerry Hotel, Beijing, 31 Nov 2015, when a dozen University of Dundee staff, fresh from leading an international symposium on student affairs, hosted, what they hoped, might become the inaugural meeting of the University of Dundee Beijing alumni association.
The evening got off to an inauspicious start when the carefully selected alumnae who was to kick off proceedings promptly fainted in the lobby and had to be carted off to A&E. The background ‘musak’, which has become such a pervasive conversation-killer the world over, threatened to dull the social chit chat as thirty alumni from over thirty years circled each other warily.
And yet by the end of the evening everyone was asking ‘when can we do it again’. Claims that ‘there was barely a dry eye in the house’ are too often hyperbole. Not this time…
Our inadvertent stroke of genius was to invite every alumni to tell a Dundee story. As befits China, with its reverence for age and wisdom, we invited our most distinguished alumnus to take the floor first.
Dr Sun Xiansheng, a hugely, urbane leader of Petrochina wittily recalled his Sunday morning trips, in the mid seventies, to Dundee flea markets. His assiduous attendance began after his first visit, spying a dirty £3 Chinese plate, he promptly bargained it down to £1.50, so “the seller did not believe it to be valuable”. Within 24hrs he had invited every Chinese student on campus to visit his Perth Rd flat to admire his Ming dynasty plate. He still has it to this day.
There were the stories of unrequited love, like the seriously handsome, young asset manager who shyly recounted a Dundee version of Sleepless in Seattle, replete with the long wait …this time unrewarded. There was Yue Li (Lynn Lee) looking as if she had just stepped out the pages of Vogue conjuring up her glamorous role at Savill’s in Shanghai.
There was Shelly’s touching testimony of lone parenthood and a PhD in 80s Dundee blossoming into a successful academic career in China. There were stories of a newly elected house rep lugging multiple pumpkins back from Tesco on foot – knowing nothing of Halloween – but determined to be a good rep.
There was the research scientist at Peking University, China’s premier university, quietly recalling his gratitude to Prof Ian Gilbert who had encouraged him each step of the way. And heartfelt praise for Dr Zhihong Huang, who has nurtured more 3+1+1s arrangements and mothered more Chinese students, than she cares to remember.
It is hard to convey the affection our alumni expressed for Dundee that evening. Amongst the wonderful comic turns by our alumns that evening, their universal conviction, that Dundee had transformed their lives, rang out time and time again. Totally unscripted and wholly moving, all of us heading back to Dundee were left feeling hugely proud of being part of this ongoing story, of lives transformed, stretching back decades.
And of course we ended the evening by replaying the drone video so everyone could catch fleeting glimpse of the new Tesco bridge!
Written by Wendy Alexander, Vice-Principal (International)