29 January 2018
A generation of American professionals equipped to engage with China
This series showcases young American professionals who have studied Chinese for any length of time, including studying abroad in China. Where are they now? How have their studies abroad, and Chinese language studies more generally, shaped their experience as young professionals?
Today we feature Alexis Dale-Huang:
Alexis is the James C. Gaither Junior Fellow for China Studies at The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. A graduate of International Relations and East Asian Area Studies from The University of Southern California (USC) in spring 2017, Alexis spent a year abroad in China fulfilling her Boren scholarship.
As a research assistant in the Asia Program at Carnegie, Alexis continues to improve her Chinese. She researches Chinese foreign and security policy, US-China relations, and strategic developments in East Asia looking at both authoritative and non-authoritative Chinese sources. “Most recently, I translated a source describing Chinese military theory,” Alexis recalls. “It was dense, but manageable because of my time abroad.” While she can now read news sources and articles in Chinese with relative ease, this was not always the case.
Alexis’ journey learning Chinese language dates back to her freshman year of high school. Coming from a bi-cultural family, she recalls needing convincing from her mother to begin studying Chinese. Alexis agreed with her that being able to communicate with her relatives on her father’s side of the family would be invaluable.
Upon her arrival at college, Alexis says she was at a beginner-intermediate level of Chinese proficiency. A lover of languages, Alexis decided to try her hand at studying Korean for two semesters at USC. Her sophomore year, however, set her on a life-changing course to focus her language studies on Chinese. As part of her undergraduate program, Alexis was able to spend a semester in Washington, DC to intern with the National Defense University (NDU). “My time at NDU piqued my interest in Chinese security” Alexis said. “I realized just how important it is to know Chinese. My internship experience led me to choose to study abroad in China over anywhere else.”
At the suggestion of her mentors, Alexis applied to the Boren Scholarship, which enabled her to study in three different programs in China. The Boren scholarship is a competitive scholarship administered by the National Security Education Program. This program sends students overseas to study languages in regions critical to US interests that are underrepresented in study abroad programs. This was the beginning of an experience that would shape Alexis’ future. Alexis first spent one month in Beijing in an intensive language program, followed by a semester in Shanghai, and finished with a summer intensive language program in Kunming.
“When I got to China, I could introduce myself and order food, but that was about it” Alexis said. “By the end of my time abroad, I was discussing topics such as Chinese military diplomacy and gun control laws in the US without hesitation. There is no way I would have been able to advance so quickly by only studying in the States. I am so grateful for the opportunity Boren granted me.”
Alexis remembers being taken aback by the complexities of Chinese culture. “At USC, I had a set of ideas of what Chinese culture would be like based on readings and classwork. It took actually being in China, however, and interacting with local Chinese to truly understand the intricacies of the culture” she said. Though it was difficult at first to become fully immersed in Chinese culture, she eventually created invaluable relationships and memories.
“While in Kunming, I befriended a local college student who studied ethnic minorities in China. In our free time, we would interact with members of minority communities, either in restaurants that featured the minority’s cuisine or in nearby villages with our classmates. This is the side of China so few learn about, let alone experience firsthand.”
There is no doubt in Alexis’ mind that her time abroad shaped her future career path. “I knew I wanted to join a well-rounded think tank” Alexis recalled. “Some focus specifically on Chinese politics, economics, or security, but Carnegie researches each of these areas. Working for Carnegie out of college was my dream job,” she said. “I certainly would not have been able to get this position without my Chinese language skills.” Her time at Carnegie has solidified her long-term goal of pursuing a career in which she can apply her Chinese language skills in the field of US-China relations.
USCS: Advice to current and future Chinese learners?
AD-H: Go abroad! And when you are choosing programs, look for language-intensive programs that have a strict language pledge. Challenge yourself to stick to that language pledge even outside of the classroom. Instead of clinging to what feels comfortable and known, engage with locals. It can begin with your professors and Chinese peers, but eventually grow to making conversation with locals who are just as curious about you and your way of life as you are of theirs. Immersing yourself to better understand their world view will grant a more rewarding experience abroad overall.
Alexis currently works as a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. A recent college graduate, she has been studying Chinese for the past eight years. She hopes this is the beginning of a fruitful career in which she is regularly applying her knowledge of China and Chinese skills.