Alex Foote in Hou Hai Park, Beijing, during senior thesis research in 2014.

Stranger: Where are you from?

Me: America.

Stranger: No really! Where in Africa?

Me: I’m from Texas.

Stranger: Oh, where in Africa is that?

This was a frequent conversation I’d have with strangers in China who were confused about where I was from. I tried not to take offense at the comments, knowing this stemmed from curiosity and a need for better cross-cultural exchange. Overtime, I found pride and comfort in this feeling of being “other.”

My first trip to China was in middle school with a student exchange group. I was enamored by how different everything was from what I knew in Texas and previous family trips—from the sharp, yet melodic tones of the language, to the nose-tingling smells, unique architecture and scrumptious food! I was lucky enough that my school started teaching Mandarin around the same time, so when I returned from the trip I started taking the class at school. Luckily the class was small enough (at most 9 people) that I could get individualized lessons from my teacher who pushed and encouraged me to learn more. I was able to go to China nearly each summer from high school through college at Harvard.

At first, I delved into migrant worker issues in China by co-founding an online ESL program for workers’ children. I became more interested in environmental issues after a few summers studying in Beijing’s smog and an eye-opening trip to rural Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau. This trip also showed me the ethnic discrimination and tensions in China and reminded me of the similar issues we face in the U.S. This new environmental passion inspired me to intern with the Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims in Beijing and pursue a master’s in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

During my early years of Chinese study, I felt “othered” at home, since I did not know many kids who took the language, and in China.  Yet, internally, I began to feel a sense of home in China, since it was where I encountered many of my “coming of age” challenges–taking the subway for the first time, learning not to get rattled when people confronted my existence, standing up for myself when people objectified me, pushing myself linguistically and mentally in order to survive. Stretching myself out of my comfort zone, I soon created a new comfort zone.

I joined NABEA to learn about others’ stories and to help others connect through shared experiences. I also joined to help inspire the next generation to push themselves beyond their wildest imaginations and to take a chance to be different and find comfort in that uniqueness. Of course, taking a chance is a bit easier with more opportunities to do so, and this is another reason I joined—to provide more opportunities for the next generation to take a leap across the globe and grow! As a quirky black girl growing up in Dallas, I sure never imagined my life would turn out this way, so I hope future kids like me can experience the same mind-boggling adventures in their development.

Sincerely,

Alex Foote

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Why I Joined NABEA – Alex Foote
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