At age 17, Eveline Bingaman traveled to China and returned to the US with tons of questions:
“ I could not comprehend people’s behavior….How could all of my basic instincts just be wrong in such a huge portion of the world’s population? It was like a huge mystery I wanted to solve, a puzzle I wanted to put together.”
That intense curiosity has led her back to rural China where she’s devoted much of her energy to solving this mystery and making a difference.
The Aletta Foundation
I first learned of the legendary Eveline Bingaman at one of the expat holiday gatherings in my new home town of Hsinchu. The Aletta Foundation had a booth set up, selling crafts made in remote villages in China in an effort to raise funds for the foundation’s projects. Eveline wasn’t there, she was on an anthropological mission in China at the time, but I spent some time talking with her volunteer, Gretchen Georgia Fudge. I learned of this mysterious woman who ventures into remote Chinese villages in an effort to learn about their culture and do her part to alleviate poverty – and I was intrigued.
A year later we were finally introduced, and a few months after that we met for coffee and I was able to dig deeper…starting at the beginning.
Eveline, when did you first develop an interest in anthropology?
“My first interest in anthropology was the sense of adventure in it. When I was young, my mother told me a story about a friend who was living among some tribe in the Amazon. I was just fascinated, totally missing the actual point of her story which I think had something to do with the perils of messing with stuff you don’t understand.
“Later, during high school career counseling, we were asked to fill in the blank of “what we want to be when we grow up” so they could advise what electives we should take. I went home and asked, “Mom, remember your friend who was living in the Amazon with the tribes? What was her job?”
“She was an anthropologist.”
“Needless to say the guidance counselor had no idea what to do with that answer and advised I take more writing classes, which was actually not a bad suggestion although disappointing at the time.”
So, he “guided” you to take more writing classes….and then?
“My real passion for anthropology didn’t take hold until after I finally took some classes and learned about the basic principles of how anthropologists do their research. First, the basic tenant of cultural relativity; that it is not acceptable to judge one culture by the standards of another (usually your own). To do that is to commit the crime of being “ethnocentric”. Secondly, the emphasis on fieldwork – an attempt to gain an insider’s view of another way of life, to understand it from their perspective.”
So instead of viewing a culture like photographs in a National Geographic magazine, you actually live it? You have a strong interest in the Chinese culture. Why China?
“My first trip to Hong Kong and China was in 1994. I was 17 and went as part of a sports exchange, which was really just glorified tourism. We spent as much time shopping as competing.
“It’s going to sound silly, but the thing that struck me at the time was how “foreign” everything was. I could not comprehend people’s behavior. I remember being kicked out of a store selling t-shirts because the shop owner was mad at me for digging through a stack of shirts. They were just regular screen printed shirts, but they were all different. Halfway through the pile, she comes over and angrily asks if I’m going to buy one or not. I said I didn’t know, I was still looking – and with that, I was thrown out!”
Sounds like “strange” Chinese behavior could have been a turn-off, but instead you were intrigued?
“With all the frustration on that trip, I came back more intrigued than anything (in addition to an additional suitcase of junk purchased at ridiculously cheap prices). After all, population wise, there are so many more of them (Chinese) than there are of us (Americans). How could all of my basic instincts just be wrong in such a huge portion of the world’s population? It was like a huge mystery I wanted to solve, a puzzle I wanted to put together.”
Before Eveline returned to China, she studied abroad in Australia, the UK and Germany, but China was always the biggest challenge she wanted to tackle.
“Twenty-two years later I’m still trying to figure it all out!”
Your focus on Chinese culture has led to the formation of the Aletta Foundation. How did that begin?
“The Aletta Foundation was first established in 2013 when a friend basically pushed me to do it, held my hand, and did much of the work of creating a brand, setting up the website, etc. I was already doing projects but didn’t have a name or marketing or an internet presence or anything, so I didn’t have a platform for fundraising or expressing to people what I was doing.”
The Aletta Foundation motto: “Changing the way poverty is fought”. How are you changing it? How is your approach different?
“I did some volunteer work in homeless shelters in Seattle in high school and that experience really had an impact on me. The thing that became really clear to me is that when people become homeless, as far as society is concerned, they become less human; they no longer have a voice, the right to speak and be heard. Whatever the circumstances that led to their homelessness, once they cross that line they basically become “non-people”.
“When I got into my Ph.D. work, I looked into anthropology research on poverty alleviation/development, World Bank, IMF stuff. What I found was that basically, the same situation exists on a global scale. As a recipient of aid, whatever it is, you have no voice. It’s the people that are actually living in poverty that are most clear about their situation. They know what is holding them back and what help they need. But no one asks them.”
And how can anthropologists change that?
“Anthropologists spend so much time trying to understand the community. This puts us in a position to be well-informed advocates for these populations, to be an amplifier for their voice.
“My goal with the Aletta Foundation is to try to change this power dynamic in the process of doing charity/poverty alleviation. Let the people tell us what they need, and then the Aletta Foundation builds projects around those goals. I call it a “location based” approach, meaning that we don’t specialize in any one type of aid, but we put the community first, let them tell us how we can help them, whether that is with health care, education or just direct donations.”
I’ve found that funding a vision tends to be the most difficult thing. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned regarding marketing and funding your projects?
“The most important lesson so far is how important it is to have a clear message when approaching potential donors. People don’t want the whole story, they want a one or two sentence pitch that they can connect with.
“This is where my anthropology background tends to be a problem. I feel the compulsion to try to explain everything in a very detailed and academic way. However, talking to potential donors, they aren’t interested in a history lesson. So coming up with clear, concise, messages about what we are doing is still something I am learning.”
Any advice for someone hoping to break into the international relief field?
“Be prepared for disappointments along the way. Someone told me that most entrepreneurs have about 10 failed startups before they actually put together a successful business. Luckily, each failure gets you closer to finding something that works. In my experience, starting an NGO is much the same, lots of false starts. Keeping the long term goal in mind and holding on to your passion and stubbornness and you will figure it out eventually.”
Be stubborn, curious, passionate, and unafraid to fail? Sounds like good life advice too!
(For more information on Eveline’s work, please see “The Aletta Foundation”.)