The relationship between the U.S. and China these days is fraught with political tensions. But both countries are committed to sending more of their young people to study language and culture in each other’s countries — and a component of that is sending more U.S. minority students to China.
That’s both to provide more students of color with the opportunity to study overseas, and to create a student body abroad that is more representative of U.S. diversity.
According to China’s education ministry, 21,975 American students studied in China in 2015.
Jeffrey Wood, a resident of Washington, D.C., is at the forefront of this recent trend.
Wood, 24, returned to Washington this summer after spending a year in Nanjing studying Mandarin, culture and foreign relations at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Wood says that during his sophomore year in high school, in 2009, he wanted to expand his horizons beyond his immediate community. At a teacher’s suggestion, he decided to go on a 6-week intensive Chinese language study program in Beijing. He says he was amazed by the experience and wanted to learn more about China.
I caught up with Wood as he passed through Beijing on his way back home. Just to check out his language skills, I had him order me a jianbing – a kind of Chinese breakfast crepe — from a street vendor. His Mandarin was fluent.
Wood told me that some of the most powerful lessons he learned in China were outside the classroom. One came up last semester.
“There was this detergent ad that was released in China,” he recalls, “which sparked a lot of controversy.”
In the ad, for Qiaobi detergent, a Chinese woman puts a black man in a washing machine and launders him until he turns into a fair-skinned Asian. The company that makes the detergent denied any racist intent, and instead blamed foreign media for overreacting.
While attitudes towards race and skin color are changing, Chinese society has traditionally shown preference for lighter skin color.
Wood says the ad came up in conversations with his Chinese classmates, and he was relieved by their reaction to it.
“Just hearing most of them or all of them talk about it, and say how wrong it was, was very reassuring,” he says.
This time around in China was a lot easier than Wood’s first visit in 2009. The Chinese had less exposure to foreigners — especially minorities — than they do now.
Some of the Chinese people he met in the northeastern city of Harbin back then, he remembers, were openly astonished at the physical differences between themselves and him.
“There was also culture shock of getting different stares and being treated differently,” he says. “So I had people just randomly come up and touch my hair.”
Wood says that never before in his life has he been so closely examined or forced to explain himself to others. This experience, he says, has given him a stronger awareness of his identity.
“Having people say, ‘I’ve never met someone like you before, never met a black American before,’ that’s never happened,” he says. “From that experience until today, I would say I know that I’m a lot more confident in myself. I know who I am.”
Wood now encourages other African-American students to follow in his footsteps. He’s a student ambassador for the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, which promotes student exchanges.
But Wood says that it can be a hard sell. He found, for example, that the number of African-American students taking Chinese language courses has dwindled every year because many students decide to discontinue their Chinese studies.
“They would say, ‘Oh no, like, I think I’m done with Chinese, you know, it was really difficult, I don’t think it’s for me, I have to spend a lot of time [on it],’ ” he explains. “People just kind of give up.”
Wood says the challenge of adapting to a non-Western culture and language also deters many of his classmates from continuing their Chinese studies.
“The typical American study-abroad student is Caucasian, female and from the upper socioeconomic classes,” observes Carola McGiffert, the U.S.-China Strong Foundation president. “And we are working very hard to broaden the community that has opportunities in China.”
McGiffert has helped build relations between historically black colleges and universities and China’s government. She notes that China is now providing hundreds of scholarships specifically geared to African-American and Latino students.
The Chinese now “understand how important diversity is in the American culture, and how important it is to U.S. businesses and government, and they’ve embraced it,” McGiffert says.
What other benefits China sees in diversity are not clear. The Ministry of Education, which gives out the scholarships, declined to speak with NPR.
The past year has not been an easy time for Wood to study in China. He has watched from a distance as African-Americans have demonstrated for equality on college campuses and against police violence toward people of color. He says he felt conflicted as he tried to stay focused on his academic goals in China.
“I want to learn Chinese and understand the culture,” he says, “but then, you know, I feel for my community back home. It’s like a tug of war.”
Wood says there will come a time when he may be able to do more in his own community. But for now, he plans to intern at the State Department and at a U.S. embassy overseas, as he prepares for a career as a diplomat.