A Story by Nathan Gwira

How to break common stereotypes: Why I became a bridge-builder (And You Should, too!)

posted on March 11th, 2015   1307 views


        My experiences abroad were strikingly different from those perpetuated by the American media.  When I was eight years old, my mother and I decided to move to Ghana where I lived for ten years. I realized that the mental picture I had of Africa, of emaciated children with bellies swollen from hunger, so devastated that they could not muster enough strength to bat away the flies buzzing around their heads, was a misguided stereotype. While I found this stereotypical view perpetuated by mainstream media to be very untrue, I find a place where the income disparity between rich and poor was undeniable.

       Although I had grown up abroad in a developing country, I was surprised to find that I had drawn from that experience a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American.  An advantage of living in Ghana was that it required me learning different ethnic languages, helping me build my appreciation for linguistics. Upon returning to the United States to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, I realized that my new, broadened perspective of cultural diversity enriched my worldview and granted me the ability to connect with people from various walks of life. Being elected as President of Psi Sigma Phi multicultural fraternity at Rutgers University opened another door to help me promote mutual understanding among different cultures and backgrounds. Suddenly, a year later I was on a plane to China to become an English teacher for eighteen months.     

       My time in China revealed more stark contrasts between stereotypes and reality; I discovered the portrayal of China as a threatening totalitarian rival to the U.S. in an antiquated tradition was like believing in a chubby, gravitationally-challenged man in a red and white suit sneaks into thousands of tiny chimneys around the world on Christmas Eve. No one I encountered believed that people in the United States were a threat to their society. Nobody believed that it was necessary for the Chinese to fear Americans or for Americans to believe in a stereotype that China is preparing for World War III against the United States. Even the most dedicated, die-hard communists that I conversed with seemed to have a positive evaluation of the bilateral relationship. Through first-hand experience, I was able to break down some of the more persistent stereotypes. China is so much more than an ancient tradition-steeped society; it’s more than a rising economic powerhouse. People are just people. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese people come in all shapes and sizes and form their own multicultural society. (no, they are not all kung fu masters, bearded-white Confucian sages, or Buddhist monks…)

          Armed with this new knowledge and perspective, I have been wondering how can I utilize these multicultural experiences to help dispel the myths and create understanding in my own community. After participating in the Project Pengyou Leadership Fellow Training Summit at Harvard University, the solution to these incessantly pestering questions became clearer.

          Project Pengyou is an organization originally conceived as an alumni network for President Obama’s 100,000 strong initiative. In 2013, a meager 1 in 1000 American students studied abroad in China. Project Pengyou selects Americans with first-hand China experience to participate in a leadership program designed to increase the engagement and learning about China beyond the classroom. Leadership fellows are equipped with strategic methods to create chapters in their educational institutions and communities as a national grassroots movement.

            Collaborating with Burlington County mentoring program, Burlington County College, St. Joan of Arc parochial School in Marlton, New Jersey and other concerned citizens within the Burlington County, we recently established a Project Pengyou chapter to empower and mobilize youth to become the new generation of U.S. and China bridge-builders. Within the Burlington County chapter program, we teach and encourage children within the community to study foreign languages including American Sign Language, French, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese.  Our hope is to inspire young children to learn more about different cultures to become more cognizant of our rapidly growing multicultural society.

            Through the Burlington County Mentoring program and Project Pengyou of Burlington County program, we seek to incorporate leadership skills with a sense of promoting understanding among different cultures and backgrounds into our youth. We envision that this program will propel more young intellectuals from Burlington County to put such skills to use by joining the United States Foreign Service or pursue other internationally minded careers. Most importantly, we seek to demystify the social fears and barriers that exist in our society by breaking deceptive stereotypes and promoting cross-cultural exchange within our communities.



Every Pengyou has a story.
We want to hear yours.

1 response to 1

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences in Ghana, China, and the US. Realities on the ground are often different from common wisdom.

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