The Peace Corps China community grieves the loss one of the program’s ground breakers, its longest-serving staff member, and a paragon of diplomacy, intercultural communication, and humanity.
Ms. Zhan Yimei passed away last night after a nearly two-year battle with lung cancer. She has been a hero to Peace Corps Volunteers in China since the program launched in 1993.
According to Peace Corps China’s founding country director Dr. Bill Speidel, Ms. Zhan “was an integral part” of Peace Corps China. He said, “I’m not sure whether Peace Corps China would have gone on without her, if she hadn’t been with us. She was a major element in the development of the program. She worked tirelessly,” spending many, many hours establishing and growing the program.
Dr. Speidel called her “one of the finest professionals I’ve worked with throughout my career. She was able to help us solve problems no one else could have. She was a wonderful bridge between our staff and the Chinese bureaucracy; she knew how to handle both. She was a fine interpreter even without preparation. A Jill of all trades who came in handy in so many ways beyond what any job description could capture.”
Dr. Speidel cited an example of when the staff experienced problems importing medical supplies for the new program. Ms. Zhan spent a long time negotiating with Chinese officials to make the arrangements possible. During my time in Peace Corps in the late 90’s, I witnessed countless such negotiations. Ms. Zhan could handle any conflict, it seemed, with staggering grace and effectiveness. She was one of the strongest and most even-keeled people I know. She fought doggedly for us, and we truly loved her.
Before joining the staff of Peace Corps China in the spring of 1993, she’d been a teacher in the department of foreign languages at Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu. Sichuan Normal was the original site of Peace Corps China headquarters, and where I was trained in 1998. The university made efforts to get her back to take on a high-ranking position among the administration. Dr. Speidel said, “We can all be grateful that she stayed on as long as she did; longer than 15 years.”
Ms. Zhan is survived by her husband Lin Ping, and her son Zhan Zilin.
Ms. Zhan, we will miss you.
The nonprofit organization Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of China is collecting donations to help her family cover medical bills left in her wake. For information on how to donate, please email me at amy[at]idealist.org.
This month’s The New Service podcast episode (due out mid-January) will feature an interview with current Peace Corps China country director Bonnie Thie. In that conversation — recorded in December — we talk more about Zhan Yimei and her role.