Meet Hannah, Project Pengyou Summer Intern


Hi Fellow Pengyous, thank you for reading my story! My name is Hannah James and I was born in sunny San Diego and will forever be a devout carne asada fry burrito lover. I just finished my freshman year at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

The story of how I became a Pengyou began at the elementary school lunch court.

In elementary school, I was the kid whose mom packed her all the good Asian snacks for lunch. When I unzipped my lunch box it was as if I was opening a vault of gold. Everyone wanted a chocolate Pocky stick or Hello Panda biscuit so people would flock to where I was sitting. I could trade for anything I wanted; my snacks had the highest market value at the lunch court. Friends always asked me where my mom bought all the snacks, but I always shrugged my shoulders and said: “the Asian store… but only Asians go there.” I had to keep my monopoly strong.

It was true. Once in a blue moon I saw a Caucasian person there and I always assumed they had come to the market on a whim or were on the hunt for a specialty item like Sriracha.

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My dad & I in Guilin, 1999

My dad told me he never liked going to the Asian market because of the overwhelming smell of the durian in the fruit sections and raw meat and fish in the meat section. Because of  his reaction, I assumed that other Caucasian people would also be repulsed by the smells and strangeness, and would not want to frequent the “Asian store.” The smells didn’t dissuade me as long as I brought back booty to trade at the lunch court.

Since I was very young, my mom took my brother and I to Chinese language school every Sunday afternoon. It was like piano or art class, something for “educational enrichment” and to connect with Chinese kids our age. It was just something 99% of Chinese-American kids did. But the experience felt disjointed and I was preoccupied with worrying that I didn’t belong. There were constant reminders I was different; my last name wasn’t Zhang, Wang, or Li and the parent that came to pick me up wasn’t always Chinese. Unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t look entirely Chinese: my brown hair and freckles mixed with almond shaped eyes that turn into half-moons when I smile probably confused people. These reactions triggered a pre-adolescent identity crisis in me: am I white or Asian or mixed?

Shifted Perspectives and Powerful Realizations

There are four main components of language learning: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Because I never really invested myself in Chinese school which would focus on reading and writing, I improved at a snail’s pace in those areas. When I was young I realized that listening would be the most useful skills to have. When I heard my mom talking for hours on the phone with Chinese family and friends, she always mentioned my brother and I and a mysterious “Luobote” (which I later figured out was Robert, my dad’s name, in Chinese). My listening skills got better and better out of a desire to understand the latest gossip and how I ranked with my mom’s friend’s kids. I tried to keep the fact I could understand a lot a secret from mom. So if you’re reading this, Mom, sorry!

Family portrait, 2001

When I was 13 and was about to enter high school, my mom offered me a choice to continue studying Chinese or to choose any language I wanted to. The prospect of starting a new language was not appealing to me so I stuck with Chinese because it seemed like the practical thing to do. I took a placement exam and skipped a level. I scored extremely well on assessments and quickly had a better grasp of speaking. Finally, I started seeing Chinese as a tangible asset that translated into good grades and later, a source of pride. I decided to pursue the language at a more advanced level, with an awareness that being proficient in Chinese would mean a lot to my family, some of whom I could never have deep relationships with if I only spoke English. My Chinese teacher told me about School Year Abroad China, a high-school program that allows students to spend their junior or senior year abroad in Beijing for credit while simultaneously focusing on Chinese Language instruction. Two and a half years later, I applied and was accepted.

In July 2012, I moved to Beijing, prepared to take on junior year. It wasn’t my first time in Beijing, however. Every other year while growing up my family in the states would make a pilgrimage to China to see my grandparents. The Beijing I remember then still had a handful of little red taxis scattered on the roads, with bicycles and motorcycles outnumbering private cars. When my dad went out on the street, people would come up to him and touch his tanned freckled skin and pet his light brown hair. He was still an anomaly. 

I have fond memories of eating “green tongue” (绿舌头) popsicles, that had ice cream inside and were covered in a gelatin that flopped around like a tongue when it melted. I spent countless hours with my brother and cousins filming silly skits, and being extra careful during action scenes not to knock down any porcelain vases or my grandma’s Buddhist amulets.  In the warm summer nights, we would take turns chasing each other around the courtyard until the sun set. When my grandma would introduce us to her laotaitai friends, they marveled at how cute and exotic we all looked. My grandma would always point to me “she even speaks a little Chinese!”

It only took a few months during that year abroad to fall in love with the language and culture, the bustling metropolis that never sleeps, and even grew to love eating red bean baozi every morning. It was the first time I felt an overwhelming sense of pride to have Chinese blood flowing through my veins. I realized how unbreakable my connection with this place had become; no matter how long I neglect it or if I try to sever it, it will remain a part of me.

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My host family & I (Top: July 2013 after my year abroad, Bottom: June 2015)

The Power of Language

Over the course of the year, my Chinese improved immensely; not just because of classes, but because I was practicing on a daily basis with my host parents. By spring, reading newspapers was less of a struggle. I had never progressed at this rate and I was amazed at myself; I knew the key to studying Chinese was living in China. Over Chinese New Year’s at my grandparent’s house, I cracked my first joke in Chinese. As soon as they began chuckling, digesting what I had said, I felt indescribably happy. I had finally gained the trust and approval of my grandparents. It was as if they truly understood my purpose in learning Chinese was to seek a connection with them and form deeper relationships. I had finally immersed myself and internalized my Chinese identity.

Being Chinese doesn’t mean I must look or dress a certain way. Being Chinese does not mean I must speak flawless Mandarin or be able to read newspaper. Being Chinese to me simply means I must accept and appreciate my rich heritage and connect with it, and that quest has led me back to Beijing.

I am American. I am Chinese. I am a Pengyou.

If you exchange a glance or even a smile with someone, a relationship can be established, but it will become stagnant fast unless words are exchanged. With language, trust can be built, understanding can be gained, and relationships can be solidified. The language barrier between me and my Chinese family had been a wall preventing comprehension on a deeper, intimate level. I did not want to be seen as a cute, exotic American any longer. I wanted my relatives to see that I truly cared and wanted to understand my family’s history and language. Speaking Chinese had become an integral part of my life. The year spent abroad marked my transition from a tourist to a resident, a teenager to a young adult, an American to American-Chinese. I realized my Chinese heritage was a part of me that I wanted other people to see. Finding the power in language truly helped me unveil my identity.

Project Pengyou provides me with the incredible opportunity to be a part of a greater mission, one that I can personally connect with and have an insatiable appetite to fill. As a literal melange of the two countries, I feel it is deeply ingrained in me to want to share my stories in China with my friends and family in America, and share what it means to be American with my Chinese friends and family. Project Pengyou is a platform for Americans to share their experiences in China, something I wanted to do since I finished my high school year abroad. Here, I feel that my story can make a difference and inspire someone else to embark on their own journey of discovering themselves. I am a Pengyou because all stories matter.