Catching Up with Dong (Carl) Cheng

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Two economists, two teaching jobs in different countries, one big commute and a whole lot of cooking.

That’s how life adds up these days for Dong (Carl) Cheng, the John D. MacArthur Assistant Professor of Economics, and his wife, Jun (Bean) Zhao.


Dong (Carl) Cheng, the John D. MacArthur Assistant Professor of Economics, and his wife, Jun (Bean) Zhao, in Chengdu, China.

“We commute between Upstate New York and the Greater Toronto Area,” Cheng says. “We like hiking and traveling. Our most recent big trip was back to our native China in 2019. We miss our parents and also the great spicy Szechuan foods we had in Chengdu.”

Cheng grew up in Nanchong, a city in China’s Sichuan province. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in economics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and an M.A. and B.A. in economics from Renmin University of China in Beijing. He joined Union in 2019 as a tenure-track assistant professor of economics after a year as a visiting assistant professor.

His wife also holds a doctorate from Vanderbilt and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Renmin. She is an assistant professor of economics at York University in Toronto after a year as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Zhao lives in Toronto with their cat, Dill.

Cheng is a macroeconomist and trade economist whose recent research focuses on the distribution of the newly invented automobile during the early 20th century.

“It’s is a perfect example of my passion for trade, history and macroeconomics,” he says.

Cheng’s automobile research intersected with Union in an exciting way during his campus visit in 2018 when he encountered the College’s 1914 Steinmetz electric automobile, which is on display in the corridor between the Wold Center and F.W. Olin building. Though he had been working on his research project for almost four years by then, “it was my first time to see a real automobile from the 1910s. Such a coincidence! More interestingly, I was even happier to learn that it was an electric vehicle.”

While Cheng is pleased to see EVs making a comeback in this century, “most of the time, my students are astonished to learn that we began with the dominance of EVs a century ago.”

Cheng teaches courses in Macroeconomic Theory and Policy, Chinese Economy, Introduction to Financial Analysis and Seminar in International Finance, in addition to supervising senior thesis students.

Catching up with...

Each week a faculty or staff member is profiled. Answering a series of short questions, the profiles are intended to be light, informative and conversational.

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“I generally follow the philosophy to train students as independent thinkers equipped with social engineering skills,” he says. “Not only are the theory and mathematics of economics indispensable, but also the skills to work directly with data and real-world policies using software such as Excel and Stata.

“All students are encouraged to express their opinions in my classes, and I also encourage them to support opinions with economics logic and empirical evidence. Understanding the world's economic system is a life-long learning process, and I am learning from my students as well.”

I usually follow CNBC News in the early morning to get a quick understanding of the financial markets and the macroeconomy. This helps me stay informed and also better communicate with my students.


I read many books more than once. The most recent is “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. This historical fiction is a very good fit for me as I am a fan of history and imagination. The combination of the two elements is great. As a non-native speaker, I am also fascinated with the succinctness of the writing. The best quote I wrote down in my notebook is: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”


A piece of advice that quickly comes to my mind is the one I received from my high school history teacher: “Be kind to others, but be strict with yourself." I like it because we all may find it is easy for us to blame others but difficult to reflect on ourselves.


I would say a combination of several spots as I like taking a walk from time to time. The places I usually pass while walking are Schaffer Library, Memorial Chapel, Nott Memorial and Jackson’s Garden.


It varies, from sandwiches and bagels to naans. But it always comes with a cup of flat white coffee and a fried egg.


I am not a podcast person, but I would be happy to try it if someone has something to share.


Skiing. In Sichuan province, skiing was not popular due to the moderate climate. However, I am jealous of the feeling of freedom and thrill people have when they ski. Moving to the American Northeast makes me feel it even more strongly. You really need to have winter sports interests such as skiing to consume long winters.


I like cooking, mostly Chinese and Korean foods. My skills improved significantly during the pandemic. Even before then, I cooked a lot. I spend on average of more than three hours every day in the kitchen. I find cooking very relaxing, and the routine steps involved provide a good chance for my mind to lay back. So, it is arguably leisure rather than home production for me.

3 DINNER PARTY GUESTS YOU'D LIKE TO HAVE (living or deceased):

I would invite my maternal grandfather, my mother and my father. My maternal grandfather gave me my formal Chinese name and saved me once from drowning, but he passed away when I was little. I really miss him. I never had a chance to have a formal dinner with him and my parents altogether, so the unrealistic moment has been long wished!


Actually, it was at Union. I was invited by our former colleague, Conrad Chu. Conrad is a conductor and pianist at Litha Symphony Orchestra in the New York Metropolitan area who served in 2018-19 as director of performance at Union. The concert was entitled “Autumn Romance” and featured Brahms and Verdi.