2021 Update: In recognition of Black History Month in February 2021, Tamia shared her reflections on studying in China as a Black American. As of 2021, Tamia is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and is serving as a NSLI-Y Alumni Representative.
Upon reflecting on the factors that made my study abroad experience possible, I realized there were several factors that led to my ability to embark on a 10-month academic year language immersion program in China for my senior year of high school. First, the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Global and International Studies Institute at the University of Pittsburgh during the summer of 2017 introduced me to the scholarship program that would eventually fund my study abroad experience in China. Being a recipient of the 2018-2019 National Security Language Initiative for Youth program in Changzhou, China made it possible to study abroad. Without the financial support of a fully-funded, government-sponsored language program, I would never be able to afford to study abroad for such an extended period of time. I credit my parents for providing me a childhood where further enrichment was encouraged and education was a priority. My mother taught me how to take the initiative, rather than passively wait until another takes the lead. She taught me how to take initiative in my own life. She worked tirelessly to provide the optimal environments within her limits to raise a child who would about to confidently and independently pursue her own passions. If not for my mother’s emphasis on extra-curricular education and performance, I may not have spent hours searching for funded high school study abroad opportunities since elementary school. I would have never committed to further enrichment programs where I would willingly go back to school during my summer break. If my father had not introduced me to anime when I was younger, I may not have been exposed to world languages until high school. This means that I would have never developed a love of studying foreign languages until the latter third of my K-12 education. Imagine being uninterested in any other country but America and no other culture besides American popular culture—I could never.
Studying abroad has not really shaped my identity as a Black woman. Rather, studying abroad shaped my identity as an African American. In my small suburb of Pennsylvania, it was very easy to subordinate my American identity to my racial identity. Before anything else, I am Black. I still hold onto this conviction today. However, my study abroad experience in China made it apparent that I was also very much American as well. In a city like Changzhou, I was the first Black person that many locals ever saw, especially with the older generation. I had many great experiences. For example, I was welcomed as a guest almost everywhere in China. On a 13-hour train ride to Beijing, I forgot my breakfast. An elderly man shared a boiled egg that he prepared and an unopened disposable toothbrush and toothpaste with me because he wanted to ensure that I had a good experience as a “guest of China.” To this day, his kindness still touches my heart. On the other hand, I wasn’t used to people taking pictures of me without my permission or comparing skin tones. I definitely was not used to seeing an elderly woman desperately run away from a girl with a pink bow in her hair, a book bag, and a school uniform. The best part was that I caught her staring at me, so I smiled and waved back. I might not have found the situation as hilarious as I did if I were anyone else. Even having three little girls on different occasions start crying at the sight of me became something that I could laugh about. What am I supposed to do? Feel embarrassed about my existence? Be upset about it? I may be petty, but I am just as jovial. I began to look forward to the “Which part of Africa did you come from?” questions that I would receive almost daily. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Every other Black person I met in China was, in fact, from all over Africa. I took two major things away from these encounters: 1) although the locals may only see a Black body, I cannot represent the beauty and diversity of Black culture as one individual. I am not an ambassador of the United States, I am a cultural ambassador of my life in the United States. 2) The brotherhood and sisterhood between Africans and African Americans do exist. You wouldn’t know it from an American education but we are valid in the eyes of Africans and welcomed with open arms. Everyone I met was unbelievably loving and kind. This made my experience among other foreigners very satisfying.
So, whenever someone asks “What country in Africa do you come from,” it is a chance to return some of my own experiences back to the community that so warmly welcomed me. Even though we had a Black president in the White House for eight years, some locals were still surprised to learn that my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents, etc. were American as well. My identity became an opportunity to open a dialogue between a Changzhou local and a Black American.
Tamia is from Bensalem, PA and participated in the Chinese Academic Year 2018-2019 program in China.
Boy, do I have a story to tell! For the past three months, I have been searching for opportunities to use Chinese in more settings than in my school and home setting. So far, I dedicated 24 hours to volunteering at the First People’s Hospital of Changzhou. I helped people register for an appointment in the hospital, directed them to where they could pay their hospital fees, and/or assisted the occasional English-speaking foreigner in navigating the Chinese hospital system.
I continued to find opportunities in the Changzhou Children's Hospital which is a five minute walk from where my host family and I live. The first time that I went, I performed two Chinese songs that I had learned at the New Year’s Show the hospital hosted! The second time, I was lucky enough to be put in charge of organizing the medication in the pharmacy and play with children in the rehabilitation center!
Just two days ago, my host aunt showed me around the hospital she works at in Wujin. One of the nurses allowed me to enter operating room to watch the moment that a new baby was born via C section. That same day, I watched two surgeries performed in the cardiovascular surgery department. What a blessing! Not only did I have such an amazing experience yesterday, but I was also told that I will have the opportunity to shadow a doctor in the upcoming days. I’m sure you can guess how exciting that will be for me!
I always knew that the field of medicine was interesting to me. Without much exposure to medicine besides a few prerequisite high school courses, YouTube videos, medical camps, and my experience as a somewhat frequent patient in the emergency room, I wasn’t fully sure if I wanted to pursue a career in such a competitive field. Although, medicine is an interest, world languages are my passion. In my mind, I thought, “You’re 17. You don’t have enough exposure to the field. Gain more experience in a little bit of everything and see what genuinely makes you excited to learn and continue from there.” With this my mindset, I will seek more opportunities to volunteer.
Early last December, I walked into our local elementary school, introduced myself and asked if there was an opportunity to share some information on a widely celebrated holiday in America, Christmas, as well as winter activities. I spoke on my winter experiences in Pennsylvania (northeast of the country). This was my formal way of sharing my experience within American culture as an exchange student. This was also a way for me to try to experience a little bit of teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language.
In a city like Changzhou, if you take the initiative to look for opportunities to engage in the community of your choice, you will get great results. Of course it won’t be easy. As a non-native speaker and beginner of the language your foreign country, you probably will not know many of the medical, business, or technical terms for the area of community service that you plan to participate. This takes motivation and dedication. If you are willing to commit, then the results will be as awesome as you wish for them to be! You will have discussions with your global peers on the differences between China and America and build new connections. You will have an experience of a lifetime.