Why did you decide to study abroad?
Following the completion of my Bachelor's degree at the University of California–Davis, I wanted to take a gap year before beginning my career to improve my Chinese language skills and understanding of Chinese culture. As an aspiring professional in international affairs, I knew China would continue to play a vital role throughout my career. So, as I sought opportunities to live and work in China, I reached out to the US-China Strong Foundation, which works to encourage young Americans to learn Mandarin, study in China, and pursue China-related careers. After speaking with a representative, they notified me of an opportunity to study Chinese at one of China's top universities, Tsinghua University, also the alma mater of China's President Xi Jinping, and his predecessor Hu Jintao. After speaking with my family, they understood and supported the decision. So, with their support, I booked a ticket for September 1st, 2016 and started my new life in Beijing.
How did you pay for your study abroad experience?
I was fortunate enough to receive the Chinese Government Scholarship, a fully-funded scholarship that covered tuition, housing in Tsinghua's international dormitory, a monthly stipend and other basic amenities, including internet and healthcare coverage. The stipend was enough to survive off of.
What is one thing you wish you would have known about studying abroad before you left?
Since this was not my first time in China, there was very little I was unprepared for. Nonetheless, I wish I had taken the time to better understand the nuances and subtleties of Chinese culture. I think it would have benefited me to have talked to another African American about their experience living in comparison to just visiting.
However, for students interested in studying abroad, I would say do not let concerns over finances deter you from taking the opportunity. There are tons of scholarships, especially to China that could substantially reduce the financial burden. So, ultimately, if you want to go abroad, you can do it!
Did you experience any discrimination abroad because of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a physical disability? If so, what did you learn from the experience?
I identify as a cisgender heterosexual African American male. While I would not go as far as to say that I had incredibly negative experiences in regards to being a Black male; nonetheless, there were numerous cases of cultural insensitivity. Besides from the incessant fawning and attention I got when at tourist attractions, I did have other commonplace interactions that took me off guard.
One example was when I purchased a large quantity of exotic coffee beans that were in unlabeled brown paper bags. After bringing a bag of coffee beans in hand to work to give as a gift to a coworker who was a coffee fanatic, my Chinese male counterpart questioned whether I was holding drugs. Then after questioning as to why he asked me, he responded that it looked like I was involved in a drug trade, and laughed it off comparing me to drug dealers in American movies he has seen.
I would say there were other instances in which I felt hypersexualized by co-workers, classmates, or other people I interacted with. Nonetheless, I always chose to not allow it to frustrate me and use self-deprecation to make light of the situation.
How has studying abroad benefited you, personally and academically?
Now, my Chinese is significantly stronger. I am comfortable interacting in basic conversation in Chinese. I also have the confidence that as I continue, I will one day reach a place of fluency, which will substantially benefit me. I have made strong connections that I hope to leverage throughout my professional career. My in-depth understanding of China will be a great asset as I begin working in international governmental affairs.
Any additional comments or thoughts that you have about your study abroad experience
Living abroad before beginning my career was the best advice I could ever take. Whether it be a school-year abroad, a summer visit, a mission trip, or a gap year before you transition to grad school or the workforce, travel before starting your career is the best time to do so. Once you get into the hustle and bustle of a job or an advanced degree, it becomes significantly harder to travel. The earlier, the better. So go ahead a purchase that ticket to your dream location now!
Authored by: Kamaal Thomas