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Nathaniel Davis: An American with passion for music and Beijing culture

Nathaniel Davis Photo: courtesy of Nathaniel Davis

 Having lived in China almost solidly for over 15 years, Nathaniel Davis speaks perfect Chinese with a “Chinese” mindset. As the director of operations and founding partner for a company called Split Works (, he enjoys organizing music events and promoting international singers and bands in Beijing and around China. He hopes to expand the music horizon of the Chinese audience.

Early contact with China

Davis was born in a small town of Pennsylvania called Carlisle in the US. It is from one of his uncles that he first learned about China, when he was only a 10-year-old boy. “My uncle came to China in 1985 and it was quite a different China from it is now. My uncle was fascinated by everything that was happening in China. He sent me letters and sometimes a small package with interesting gifts,” he said.

Although his interest in China developed after hearing from his uncle, Davis didn’t have the idea that he would ever move to the fascinating and mysterious country which was geographically far away from his home.

It was not until his junior year in college in 1996 that Davis obtained an opportunity to visit China. He was studying world history and philosophy in the US. A study abroad program organized by his college called allowed him to come to China and study at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao (东北大学秦皇岛分校) for one semester. The program focused his attention more on Chinese history and culture. “It was also my first time ever spent outside the US because I had never really travelled extensively.” A feeling of excitement could still be sensed when Davis talked about this.

However, Davis admitted he didn’t learn much Chinese during the 3–4 month’s study in China, but his interest in the Chinese language and culture continued growing after he went back to the US. He had to finish his final year in college before making any future plans. “I dreamed of becoming a professor of Chinese history. I thought, if I really wanted to do that, the first step for me would be to learn Chinese properly. That’s why I came back to China and studied Chinese for an extended period,” he said.

Early years in China

Davis worked for about one year in the US after graduation in 1997 and came to Beijing, the capital city of China, in 1998. He applied for a language program at Capital Normal University (首都师范大学) and spent one year living on the campus. “Gradually I became bored with going to class every day. The teacher was very slow and I thought I could learn more quickly if I could meet and talk to people in a real life context,” he smiled.

Davis was right. The best way of learning to speak a language is talking to locals instead of just sitting in the classroom with textbooks. “Although I didn’t become fluent in Chinese, it wasn’t a challenge for me to talk,” he said.

Near the end of the program, Davis found a job which brought him into closer contact with the Chinese environment. He was hired by a businesswoman and social entrepreneur from Hong Kong who offered him a position of project manager in her group, responsible for charitable or philanthropic projects. The job made him travel somewhere around the country almost every month. One of the group’s concerns was children’s health and education in rural areas of China. He recalled that his team coordinated to provide hepatitis B vaccines for local children in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (宁夏回族自治区). “We worked with UNICEF and the local health bureau and I went to the region 27 times in those years. I really wanted to be involved in helping people, which was more meaningful for me than going back to school for a PhD,” he said.

Davis worked for the charity undertakings of the group for about two years and went back to the US in late 2001. Before long, he returned to Beijing again in early 2002 for a full-time job with UNICEF.

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