Discovery Profiles: Uncomfortable Situations in China for African-American Student Soften Into Appreciation for Cultural Differences

Cultural Discovery: Amber Gore

“I would say to students who are African American or other races: Don’t be scared,” she says. “China’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t want anybody to be afraid.”

By Stacey Hartmann
GlobaLinks NewsWire Editor

The stares. Now those took some getting used to for Amber Gore, a Bloomsburg University student who studied abroad as a junior in 2009 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China.

Gore, from Harrisburg, Penn., is of African-American descent. So she knew before she boarded the plane to China that she’d stand out in the crowds there with her dark skin, natural hairstyle and larger physique.

In fact, her Chinese teacher at the time gave her some advice. “He said, ‘they might stare at you.’”

But it took awhile after she arrived to absorb the culture shock of the large numbers of people turning their gaze in her direction, elbowing each other, and pointing at her just about everywhere she went. Sometimes the local people took her picture without asking, or referred to her as “the negro,” a term she found stunning at first because it is “so 1950s” in the United States.

“Someone can tell you a million times what something is going to be,” she says, “but you really have to experience it for yourself.”

In Chengdu, very few people spoke English, so Gore was forced to put her Mandarin language lessons into practice almost all of the time and work extra hard to understand her Chinese language instructors at Chengdu.

“In Chengdu, you have no choice but to speak Chinese,” she says. “They even have their own dialect called Sichuanese, so a different way of saying things. But I didn’t understand any of it.”

Gore was afraid to speak when she first arrived, and when she did speak she felt she was all over the place, misusing words. After she started taking language classes, her Mandarin definitely improved, although not to the point of fluency. Still, Gore grew increasingly comfortable as the months passed. Toward the end of her study abroad, she started thinking of Chengdu as a second home.

“I knew where everything was,” she says. “I knew the local people. These people were just like us, but they have different norms within their society. Everyone’s kind of striving to make it. They try to do good in school and please their parents.”

If Gore studied or worked abroad in China again – something she’d like to do – she says she’d work even harder to push past the cultural differences she experienced so she could overcome her fear of talking in the native language. She’d worry less about making a fool of herself. And she’d also try to reach out more to make friends with Chinese locals.

“Once I got home, I thought, I could have done this,” she says, “I could have done that.”

But it is that realization that shaped her cultural discovery experience in China and her own sense of how her differences there have great power to enrich her experience within the culture.

“There were situations where it was uncomfortable,” she says, “but the benefits and positives of going to China are definitely greater than the little stuff.”

She hopes to eventually go back to live and work in China for a while.

“I would say to students who are African American or other races: Don’t be scared,” she says. “China’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t want anybody to be afraid.”

 

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