Travel, Travel and Travel Some More
Willie Thompson is a rising senior at Morehouse College majoring in Economics and minoring in Chinese Studies. His passions are education, fine arts and having a social impact. He hopes to one day charter an international fine arts school for the purpose of improving international relations between countries. After graduating from Morehouse, he plans on obtaining his Master's in either International and Comparative Education or Arts and Culture.
Before I came to Morehouse, I had never met an African-American who spoke Mandarin. All of that changed the first day of my Chinese 101 class. My professor was Dr. Henrietta Yang who, unbeknownst to me, was one of the most highly recognized professors of teaching Chinese as a foreign language in the country. Her job prior to being appointed as director of the Morehouse Chinese Studies program was an engagement with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where she trained agents before they went to their assignments in Asia. In other words, she was a boss, the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT); insert whatever culturally appropriate vernacular that encapsulates greatness and that was Dr. Yang. For those of us had not studied Mandarin before Morehouse, she allowed one of her students, Myles Postell-Reynolds to present for us. After he finished presenting (and translated), Dr. Yang told my class, “He began his Chinese studies at Morehouse. If he can do it, so can you.” Completely inspired, I decided that I would go to China one day and get just as good, if not better than Myles.
My first opportunity to study abroad occurred the summer after my freshman year. At that time, there was an established scholarship program for Morehouse students to study abroad for three weeks at Shanghai University. In essence, Coca-Cola and Deloitte LLP had partnered to provide funding for students as a part of President Obama’s 100,000 Strong Educational Exchange Initiatives. I applied and was blessed to receive a full scholarship for the program. During my time in Shanghai, I and 13 other Morehouse students, took classes at Shanghai University, networked with partners and other professionals at Deloitte LLP, and even traveled to Xi’an for a cultural immersion excursion. One my most memorable moments in Shanghai was walking down 南京路 (Nanjing Road) with the rest of my Morehouse brothers and seeing so many faces in awe. The level of celebrity associated (most people thinking we were a professional basketball team) with us [as Black men] was unlike anything I have ever seen—a function of their overwhelming curiosity.
My second opportunity to study abroad had been on my radar since freshman year. Remember Myles? He became my Chinese tutor. I had heard him mention an intense language program that was funded by the U.S. Department of State, called the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program. Myles was a recipient twice. I applied to the program, and got accepted in the first round. I spent 7 weeks in Suzhou at Suzhou University, which is about 100 kilometers west of Shanghai. I did not know the level of exposure that each person had with African-Americans, but I knew by the end of the summer when they thought about me, they would immediately think about academic excellence, humor, and joyfulness. The first week or two were trials by fire. Each day was a new Chinese lesson, taught entirely in Chinese, warranting all responses in Chinese. Amidst the confusion and frustration I faced those first couple of weeks, there was a bright spot—Jiang Meng. She was a student at Suzhou University, where she double majored in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and Spanish. We first connected during a talent show they held for students who were studying abroad from the U.S. and Hong Kong. I taught some of the guys in our group a stroll that we could do for the talent show. Afterwards she approached me and told me that she thought the dance was amazing. Fast forward a week and a half and we are meeting on a daily basis. Our friendship was meaningful on a number of levels through discussions regarding schoolwork, personal, and professional aspirations. Everything changed 4th of July weekend. Our entire group decided to go to Shanghai for the celebratory weekend. That night, before we left to celebrate, I met with Jiang Meng. She told me that because I was black, she could not see our relationship going past friendship. Oddly, I was happy. Don’t get me wrong, I was surprised but not totally taken aback. She had made earlier references that suggested bias, but my happiness came from the fact that she said it was the first time she had admitted that to herself. Her interactions with me forced her to be honest with herself about some of her flaws. I reaffirmed her that throughout the summer and beyond I would remain her friend. At that moment I realized I was not in China because I had good grades or a good application. I was sent there to meet people like Jiang Meng so that I could share with them my experiences, and ultimately my faith. At the end of our conversation, she was in tears fearing that she had hurt my feelings. As I wiped the tears from her eyes, I told her I already forgave her and no matter what, I would still love her, just as God loves me despite my many inconsistencies. I am glad to say Jiang Meng and I are still in touch and she is thankful for our friendship.
African-Americans must, I repeat MUST go abroad. Preconceived notions of who we are, what we represent, and what we are capable of have been infused within the fabric of societies across the world. In many cases, they are not positive. For many people, seeing an African-American in person is a once in a lifetime occurrence. Therefore, we have an opportunity to affect change at a rate beyond the scale and scope ever imagined. Furthermore, being abroad does something to you. It makes you realize how important the connections you make are in changing the world. In the three years I have been at Morehouse, I have been amazed at how expansive my network has grown. More surprising is the amount of overlap there is between my network and those of people who had experiences in different parts of the world. The narrative shared today is often, “Twenty five years ago, if you wanted to change the world, you went to law school. Today, if you want to change the world, you need to get an MBA.” However, I would like to add to that caveat. If you want to change the world...travel, travel and travel some more.