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Beijing American Center: Our main goal is to explain America

Jesse S. Curtis, a Cultural Affairs Officer and the director of Beijing American Center   Photo: Rebecca Lin/

The Beijing American Center (BAC) may be the best place to go if you want to know more about American culture and especially when you hope to gain the knowledge through people-to-people direct exchange with American scholars, researchers, government officials or common Americans who are experts in the specific fields you are interested in. Or you may find the place enticing just to practice English.

The Center actually belongs to the US Embassy in Beijing, and Jesse S. Curtis, a Cultural Affairs Officer (文化参赞) who has worked for 15 years for the State Department (美国国务院), now is running the Center which has five separate units and a staff of 25.

In an exclusive interview with, Curtis talks about the Center’s programs, activities, main goals and future plans.

Q: Being a part of the US Embassy, when was the BAC established?

A: We fall under the cultural section of the public affairs office of the embassy. And the American Center at this space in Jingguang Building (京广中心) has been here for almost 20 years since 1994. Through this whole time, our mission has been the same—to provide a place and location where Chinese people can come and learn more about the United States.

Q: So, the BAC aims to bridge the cultural divide between China and the US, right?

A: Yes. Our main goal here at the Beijing American Center is to "explain" the United States to the Chinese public. The programs and activities we do here are designed to help Chinese get a better understanding of what is America, what is America like, and what are the values and ideals that we have in the United States.

Q: I find a lot of your activities and programs interesting. They encourage interaction between the audiences and speakers, which has definitely gained the Center lots of fans. How do you feel about that?

A: In fact, within the last two years, we have changed the main focus of our activities. About two years ago, we were just a library—a reference library, so that people can come in, read books, magazines, and find out about the United States. But the demand for books has gone down, while the demand for people-to-people direct exchange and information has gone way, way up. So, we made the decision to change the orientation, and now we have a much larger space that we can use to do different kinds of activities.

Q: Could you introduce some regular events or things that have left a strong impression on you?

A: For this afternoon, there is "Meet a US Student (activity)", which we would do every two weeks. It is designed to give our Chinese friends an opportunity to come into the BAC and talk with real Americans—students, teachers or anyone who is here living and working in China—to exchange information about what it’s like to live in the US and what it’s like for an American to be here.

We do Movie Nights regularly. We would show American movies and then talk about the significance of the movies. We sometimes do Game Night. And we feature special activities: for example, last fall, during the Halloween Holiday, we did a Pumpkin Carnival—we bought some pumpkins, invited people to come in and dress in costumes and we held a pumpkin cutting contest. And we did trick or treat and handed out candies.

Through the event, we gave people an opportunity to understand what the fall festival is like, and what the Halloween traditions are, so that they can actually blend into the culture.

Q: So, the BAC just started to hold activities two years ago, right?

A: No. We’ve been doing these kinds of activities all along.

The difference is that, before the past two years, we were doing about 10 to 12 activities each month, so we just did two activities a week on average, because our main focus was the library. But now, our main focus has become the activities.

So, we are now doing seven or eight programs each week. The amount of activities and programs has gone up almost four times in the last two years.

Q: Do you have any future plans?

A: We intend to further expand our activities, and to let more Chinese people know about what we are doing. Our goal is to do four or five programs every single day on average. We’re not there yet, but we’ll make efforts.

Q: Then, how would you do that exactly?

A: We’re looking at a couple of different things. One way is to organize more programs during the day. So, instead of doing one program each day, we try to do two or three programs each day. Another way we are looking at is to try to make our programs available in other ways. We can record the program and put them on the Internet. So people who can’t come for a lecture can watch it on the Internet later at a different time. For those very popular programs, we would try to do it more than one time. If we do it in the evening one time, we’ll do it another time in the morning, so that different kinds of people will be able to come to that program. Something else we are looking at is we may begin to do programs on the weekends.

Q: Would you hire more, in this case?

A: No. I will work with the staff that I have. What we might do is to adjust work schedules. Someone instead of working Monday through Friday might work Wednesday through Sunday. That’s common in the US for those companies that have to provide services every day. We’re looking at it as an option because that would allow us to do more programs on Saturday and Sunday, when more Chinese people have time to come in.

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