The scene: my ten closest friends, a Chinese teacher, a Buddhist monk, and me, just your normal, average, everyday kid … conversing with a Buddhist monk at midnight on a hill that has served as one of the holiest retreats for thousands of monks for hundreds of years at one of the most important monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism.
At that moment, I could not have asked for anything more out of life. I was living a dream – another country, another culture, another place, seemingly another time. But most importantly, I understood. I wasn’t a tourist with plaid shorts who returned to the king-sized bed in a hotel suite with room service after a five star dinner of Kobe beef. Quite the contrary. My hard-won American identity flew out the window. We wore Tibetan yak-fur hats with goofy flaps and Tibetan yak-fur robes, and we were sputtering along in Chinese with heavy ‘Tibetan characteristics.’ It was the perfect ending to a perfect year of the perfect mix of study and travel in China. I arrived a tourist; I left a local.
This moment was the defining experience that set me on my current path towards a career in US-China relations. I first came to China during the summer of 2001 on a goodwill tour with my middle school baseball team, but it was only when I lived with a Chinese host family in Beijing for a year of high school in 2005 through School Year Abroad that I fell in love with the country.
Despite learning Chinese since sixth grade, finally living in Beijing provided the window I needed to better understand China, its people, culture, history and myself—and to establish my relationship with the country. Now having lived in five Chinese cities and attended seven different Chinese universities over more than three years, I’ve realized personal interactions can make all the difference.
Although we often speak of US-China relations in terms of strategic dialogues between government officials, mil-mil relations between the militaries and media narratives between political elites, the people of both countries are still getting to know each other. These local interactions on both sides of the Pacific are crucial to building a sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship not only for the United States and China, but also for the world.