When I first went to China as a high school student, in 1987, my blond hair was a novelty and many Chinese friends asked to touch it. It was awkward, but harmless, and I indulged their curiosity. Today, as white Americans become increasingly ubiquitous in China, I hear similar stories of Chinese youth wanting to touch the hair of their African American classmates. And it raises the question: what it is really like to be a black in China?
While more African Americans - and minorities in general - are studying abroad around the world each year, the numbers fall far below their white counterparts. In 2013-2014, white Americans comprised nearly 75 percent of study abroad students compared to students of color who made up 25 percent. At the same time, however, the numbers are climbing - the year before, students of color made up just over 16 percent of Americans studying abroad.
That's encouraging, but it's not enough. As America becomes ever more diverse - by 2020, according to the US Census Bureau, more than half of American youth will be a minority race or ethnic group - so should our study abroad population. That's important for all US study abroad but particularly so for China, the fifth largest host destination for study abroad in the world.
Americans must do more to break down barriers and create opportunities for minorities to be exposed to other cultures.
At the US-China Strong Foundation, we work to increase the number and diversity of Americans who are studying Mandarin and studying abroad in China. Why? Because the US-China relationship is the most important and consequential in the world, and we must ensure that our next generation of leaders - from whatever background, socioeconomic class or ethnicity - is equipped to manage it effectively.
No major global challenge can be solved without the US and China working together. And our young people must have the knowledge, cross-cultural understanding and the skills to be able to compete and collaborate with their Chinese counterparts.
Increasing study abroad opportunities to China is important for all ethnic groups, not just African Americans. But the need there is particularly acute - according to a study by the Institute for International Education, in 2009-2010, just five percent of US students participating in study abroad programs were black. The percentage going to China is even smaller.
Over the past few months, US-China Strong has had the privilege to see many of our African American student ambassadors travel to and thrive in China. In July, for instance, a delegation of students from Bennett College - one of only two all-female Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) - participated in a study trip to Hangzhou where they engaged in project-based learning focused on clean energy. The trip was sponsored by Wanxiang America, and organized in partnership with the State Department's Global Women's Initiative. The Chinese government is also embracing American diversity, offering thousands of scholarships for HBCU students.
Of course, our commitment goes beyond the African American community. Here at home, US-China Strong is leading a national movement to increase Mandarin language learning in K-12 schools - including in underserved communities -- so that we are building a pipeline of students of diverse backgrounds who have been exposed to Chinese language and culture and who might go on to study in China and take on a China-related career. We are proud that 52 percent of US-China Strong student ambassadors are students of color.
We are making progress but we still have a long way to go to ensure that Americans studying Mandarin and studying abroad in China reflect the true diversity of the United States. But slowly, by expanding opportunities for students of color, these students and their Chinese friends will become more familiar and less of a novelty to each other.