‘Think China’ flies Oakland students to Beijing to break cultural barriers

A group of 13 teens traveled to Beijing as part of

A group of 13 teens traveled to Beijing as part of "Think China," in the first Northern California delegation to participate in the China-US Study Exchange program for high school students. They are (from left to right): Jordan Williams, Marisa Jolivette, Kahmaria Adams, Khristan Antoine, and Brandon Vonderwerth.

During a trip to China in July, Khristan Antoine, an 18-year-old senior from McClymonds High School in Oakland, struggled with a dozen other students to climb the Great Wall of China.

“What kept me pushing forward was I heard you become a hero after climbing the Great Wall,” Antoine said.

Antoine was one of 13 African-American students from the Bay Area, including 11 from Oakland, who traveled to Beijing and Shanghai from July 13 to 27 as part of President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative. Developed in 2009 to increase the visibility of American students in China, particularly minority students, the “Think China” trip was the first Northern California delegation to participate in the China-U.S. Study Exchange program for high school students.

Climbing the Great Wall and engaging in cultural exchange on the trip was all part of an effort to break down the barriers between youth in China and the United States, to create an international opportunity for minorities, and to help redress the imbalance between the numbers of Chinese and American students who go to each other’s countries for learning.

According to a report released in 2010 by the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors, almost 10 times more Chinese students come to the United States for educational programs than Americans study in China. The report also estimates that 600 times more Chinese study the English language than Americans study Mandarin.

The excursion was sponsored by grants from Horizon, Union Bank, the African American Male Initiative (through Oakland Unified School District), fundraisers through Pathway to College, and Ed Fitzpatrick with Coliseum Lexus. All expenses in China were paid for by the China-United States Exchange System (CUSEF).

Regina Jackson, the president and CEO of East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC), said the trip encouraged the students to expand their international awareness.

“Our young people need to think about something other than the United States,” said Jackson, who accompanied the teens as a chaperone. “They need to see themselves as part of this global world.”

“The way China is going and … the way (the economy) keeps moving, they have to think China. They have to think about countries that they would not ordinarily think about, and now they have a reference point,” Jackson added.

The taste of Chinese culture and language gave the teens an appetite for more. Some of them plan to take Mandarin lessons with an employee for Clorox Co. based in Oakland. The growing number of Chinese immigrants in America has influenced Jordan Williams, a 15-year-old student from Arroyo High School, to consider language study. “It would benefit me a lot to be able to communicate,” said Williams.

During the two weeks, the students focused on civic engagement, business and industry tours, cultural tours and a community service project. The students also visited Chinese universities and industries such as Coca-Cola and Toyota.

The trip included a number of “firsts.” For the majority of the students, the trip was their first time in another country. For some, it was their first time on a plane. Although the heat and pollution were sometimes difficult, the students agreed that the trip changed them in irrevocable ways.

The teens had a chance to see beyond their national differences to their shared humanity. During a dinner hosted by Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the American students met with eight other students from Beijing, teaching them the wobble line dance and the game “Zoom” and showing them an African-American praise dance. Over an eight-course meal, the kids chatted about life and school.

“They were just like us,” Khristan Antoine said she realized. “But their culture is different.”

Now back in the United States for a little over two months, the teens reflected on how the trip changed their outlook on education. Seeing the differences between rural and urban China allowed them to appreciate the resources that they are offered in the United States. Berkeley High School student Bryce Bell, 17, was especially affected by a service project in Hope Community, an after-school program for rural students near Beijing, where the students had to make the best of limited resources. Students had to walk several miles to study in the poorly equipped establishment.

Chinese students without money and resources may not have equal opportunity to become well-educated, Bell observed. “Here in the United States you can go to any school and, if you do your best, you’re going to get a good education,” he added.

Despite their challenges, the Chinese teens demonstrated a dedication to academics that imparted a greater respect for education in their American counterparts.

“They taught me how to be more competitive,” said Marisa Jolivette, a 17-year-old from San Lorenzo High school. “I feel like I have to do my work now. If I want to get to where I have to go, I’m going to aim high and get the job done, because there’s no way that I’m going to get into college by just playing around.”

By broadening their own horizons, the students said they hope that they can encourage others to strive for a global community and break out of their prejudices.

“Usually the first thing that comes to mind for people that aren’t from the Bay Area is an African-American boy from Oakland … isn’t a positive thing,” said Berkeley High’s Bell. “Showing them that I’ve done all of this: I went to China, I have good grades, I play sports. I’m all of these things, but I’m not done. I’m still going.”

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