Visit http://www.wokai.org/ for more information.
I went to a lecture about a Chinese microfinancing company during lunch today without much excitement. My parents were kind of pressuring me to go and I needed the extra credit my Mandarin teacher was offering for my attendance. I made a quick sandwich at the cafeteria and slid into my seat.
The following 40 minute presentation way exceeded my expectations. Casey Wilson, the founder and CEO of Wokai, talked about her experience with a Chinese microfinancing company.
First things first, let me explain what microfinancing is. Microfinancing is basically giving a small loan to help people start a business. This is not charity like aid efforts in Africa. Microfinancing empowers the people because it allows them help themselves and over time become financially sustainable. The people who take out credit then pay back the loan without much interest.
Casey Wilson traveled to China, already fluent after only 2 years of rigorous studying. She can thank Middlebury’s Chinese summer language program for that. She knew she wanted to get involved in helping rural farmers through microfinancing, and had a friend who was already involved. So she started Wokai, which means “I start” in Chinese, to help the poor rural Chinese citizens.
Despite China’s economy’s rapid growth, all of that wealth is concentrated in the cities, so the rich get richer while the poor stay poor. There is no way for the poor to eliminate that huge wealth gap without the help of small loans from nonprofits like Wokai.
Wokai receives online contributions and volunteers distribute the money to the appropriate farmers, pig and duck raisers, rice wine makers etc. along with teaching them skills like balancing a checkbook.
In the past these rural citizens had no access to credit from banks because it wasn’t worth it for the banks to travel out into the countryside and loan negligible amounts of money, the banks didn’t think the people would repay the loan and many of the borrowers were illiterate.
Despite not having assets to back up the price of not paying back a loan, a system of trust within the borrowers has worked remarkably well. Borrowers form a community where if one person cannot pay back a loan, others cover for him/her. If the loan is not paid back, then that borrowing community loses its privilege to borrowing. This system has had around a 98% rate of paying back the loan + interest.
Wokai is similar to Kiva, another microfinancing company started just a little while ago. Kiva is less grassroots than Wokai, mainly because Kiva has grown quickly. In Wokai, your contribution is permanent, you do not get your money back. Once your loan is repaid you get to choose who you want to reallocate the money to. In Kiva you have the option of getting your money back.
Some important statistics: 800,000,000 people in China do not have access to credit.
300,000,000 people live below the poverty line. Only a $150 dollar microfinance loan will change a person’s life.
Right now, Wokai makes it money through large donations and a voluntary fee that users can pay to the company. Once Wokai has 50,000 contributors, these voluntary donations will make the company sustainable.
Last Thursday 9/17 renowned fiction and short story write Tobias Wolff came in and talked to the entire upper school. Everyone had read Wolff’s collection of short stories called Our Story Begins over the summer.
I really enjoyed Tobias Wolff’s book. His stories ranged from a story about a father who killed his son to save hundreds, (The Night in Question) to a hunting trip going horribly wrong (Hunters in the Snow) to a cynical book critic getting shot for mouthing off during a bank robbery.
Besides the variety of the stories, I found myself actually enjoying short stories for once. Usually, when we read short stories in English class, I never understand them, dislike them and am forced to annotate them and occasionally write a paper. With Wolff’s book, I had no pressure to look deeper and could just enjoy his masterful prose. And because of my interest in the stories, I actually found myself wanting to analyze the stories.
Mr. Wolff is a man who can command $10,000 per appearance and is a world famous writer. He agreed to talk at Menlo for free, coming over from his usual teaching gig at Stanford. I was expecting a crotchety, egotistical man. And I wouldn’t have minded if he was a jerk, after all, he is one of the most prominent fiction writers right now, he gets cut some slack for being a big deal. But Toby seemed to be a genuinely nice guy, make funny jokes and seemed to have a limitless amount captivating stories. He was one of those guys, as my friend AnSan put perfectly, “He just seems like the old guy next door who you invite over for dinner and is just so sick.” I was also digging his walrus mustache, it made him seem less intimidating.
The next 4 things are tips that Toby said to help you become a better writer.
1. OK to imitate writers and their styles
When Mr. Wolff was a kid, he loved Jack London and sometimes copied London’s stories. He mimicked his writing style when he was just learning how to write and it helped him to establish his own voice and identity as a writer. Tobias encouraged this imitation of your favorite authors and their styles when you’re just getting started. Don’t be afraid, and make sure to distinguish this imitation from plagiarism, to imitate.
2. Become a better writer through reading
Every writer has to be a reader and reading for pleasure is awesome, it seemed like Tobias
Wolff had read every book that had very been made. But he suggested maybe rereading
some of your favorite books and noting what it is exactly that makes the writing so good. Learn
from reading and use that help you become a better writer.
3. Infuse your writing with personal memories
Toby went off on a rant about how authors were blurring the line between memoirs
and fiction. Memoirs are strictly fact while fiction can be based on a true story, but once
the story strays from the truth, it becomes fiction. I think some memoir have been rubbing
him the wrong way.
Anyway, back to the point. One’s writing is made so much better and more vivid when
your personal memories are inserted into the story. He talked about how one of his favorite
authors, Leo Toolstoy, used an event that happened in his life, and took it to the next step.
He bridged the gap between what happened, and then let his imagination take off to create
a great short story.
4. Writing won’t be perfect the first time
Tobias Wolff made a big point about how writing is so much more enjoyable when you
don’t put pressure on yourself to make everything sound perfect right off the bat. This
happens to me when I write; I freeze up because the words just aren’t quite the way I want
them to be in my first draft. But he said just get your thoughts down, plop them onto the page
because it will get better and better as you re-work them and edit. Don’t worry about everything
being perfect, with time the writing will get better, and the writer will be all the more happy