Sunday, September 9, 2007


John Thompson

Notre Dame High School
Class of 1957

After flunking out of Loyola University in 1958 and spending an aimless year at Los Angeles Pierce College, I opted for a change of pace and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, two of which were spent in Okinawa and other places in Asia. From the latter I developed an interest in Asian languages that led to a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language from San Francisco State College, a Master of Arts in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, and a 27-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, mainly in the U.S. Information Agency (cultural exchanges, media relations, Fulbright scholars, overseas cultural centers and libraries, English teaching) and the Department of State, most of it spent in Taiwan and Beijing, with additional assignments in Indonesia and Sweden.
The high point of my Foreign Service career was working in Beijing in 1978-1981 during normalization of US-China relations: participating in negotiations on treaties and agreements; reporting on Democracy Wall; translating in meetings with Deng Xiaoping; sending off the first 50 Chinese scholars to the U.S.; receiving the first American students and scholars; and witnessing at first hand the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and implementation of China's new policy of reform and opening to the outside world.
After 1981, I worked in Washington at the Voice of America China Branch, then in the American Embassy in Sweden four years, back to Washington for five years, and finished up with four years in Taipei, working in the same building where I had started with U.S. Information Agency in 1970. I retired out of Taipei, and moved to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County for a year before taking a job in Chicago for three years as Managing Editor at ChinaOnline, a China business information firm that went up and down with the Internet boom and bust.
After that folded, my wife and I enjoyed life in Sonoma County, working on our small apple orchard next to the Russian River. A year later I moved back to China, this time to spend four years at Tsinghua University in Beijing as Executive Director of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language, working for UC Berkeley, with 50 students (mostly U.S. graduate students and professionals) and 30 teachers. Returning to Beijing after 21 years, I felt like Rip van Winkle. It came as a complete shock to see a five-fold increase in population, and the remote farm villages that were way outside the city in 1981 suddenly metamorphosed into 20-storey building complexes. The change in both thinking among the Chinese people and availability of material things (no more ration tickets!), not to mention freedom of choice in housing, jobs, travel, spouse, etc. is just astounding.
In March of this year I started a new adventure, representing the City of Chicago in China. Our new operation is based in Shanghai, but I also travel to other parts of China to encourage and assist Chinese firms to invest in Chicago; help Chicago firms to do business with China, and promote tourism and study in Chicago. The year 2010 will see the World Exposition in Shanghai, and it also marks the 50th anniversary of my first trip to China, as a young Marine wading off a landing craft in south Taiwan. Time to return to our orchards.
I have been married for 34 years to a wonderful wife, Lea, whom I met in Indonesia in 1972, when I was building a cultural center there in Medan. One son is working in Beijing in an IT support company; our other son will finish his Master of Science in Ecology at UC Santa Barbara in December.


Richard said...

Hello, John!
Congratulations on a remarkable career. Did you ever run into Jake Gillespie or Tom Martin, who also were good USIS stalwarts?
Really hope we can have some time to meet and talk.
Take care,
Rich Marrone

Ron said...

It would be nice to reconnect after all these years.

Ron Epstein

Blossom Chen said...

Hello John, we're two voicew from your past, Frank and Blossom Chen, living now in Studio City. We want to make contact!