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The relationship between the United States and China these days can be fraught with tensions. But the two countries agree on the need to send more young people to study language and culture in each other's countries. Part of that is an effort to make certain that more U.S. minority students visit China. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the experience of one young African-American student.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: I caught Jeffrey Wood in Beijing this summer as he headed back home to Washington, D.C. Speaking in fluent Mandarin, he ordered me a sort of Chinese breakfast pancake from a street vendor in downtown Beijing.
JEFFREY WOOD: (Speaking Mandarin).
KUHN: Wood had been studying China's language, culture and foreign relations at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. Some of the lessons he learned there were outside the classroom. For example, he describes one incident he dealt with last semester.
WOOD: There is this detergent ad that was released in China which sparked a lot of controversy.
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KUHN: In the ad, a Chinese woman puts a black man in a washing machine and launders him until he turns into a fair-skinned Asian. Wood says that the ad came up in conversations with his Chinese classmates.
WOOD: Just hearing most of them or all of them just talk about it and say how wrong it was was just very, very, very reassuring.
KUHN: This time around in China was a lot easier than his first visit in 2009. Speaking earlier at his school, he says some of the Chinese people he met back then were at first astonished by the physical differences between themselves and him.
WOOD: There is also a culture shock of, you know, getting different stares and just being, like, treated differently. So I had people come up and just randomly touch my hair.
KUHN: 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.
WOOD: Having people say, I've never met someone like you before - like, never met a black American before - that's never happened. And now from that experience to the person I am today, I would say that I know that I'm a lot more confident in myself. I know who I am.
KUHN: Wood now encourages other U.S. black students to follow in his footsteps. He's a student ambassador for the Washington, D.C.-based US-China Strong Foundation, which promotes U.S.-China student exchanges. But Wood says that it can be a hard sell. He found, for example, that the number of students taking Chinese language courses dwindled as each year went on.
WOOD: They would say, oh, no, like, you know, 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. So people just kind of give up.
KUHN: Wood says just paying for a plane ticket to China is a problem for many of his classmates, let alone affording tuition there. But US-China Strong Foundation President Carola McGiffert says it's getting easier, as China is now providing hundreds of scholarships just for U.S. minority students.
CAROLA MCGIFFERT: What's in it for them? I believe that they understand how important diversity is in the American culture and how important it is for U.S. business and the U.S. government. And they've embraced it.
KUHN: What other benefits China sees in diversity are not clear. The Ministry of Education, which gives out the scholarships, declined to be interviewed. The past year has not been an easy time for Jeffrey Wood to study in China.
He's watched from a distance as black Americans have demonstrated for equality on college campuses and against police violence towards people of color. He says he felt conflicted as he tried to stay focused on his academic goals in China.
WOOD: I want to learn Chinese and understand the culture. But then, you know, I feel for my community back home. You know, it's like a tug of war.
KUHN: 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. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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