Mark Akpaninyie in Baoshan, Yunnan, China

The year 2012 is one I will never forget. After graduating from college, I accepted a fellowship that took me to China for the first time. China had long been an interest of mine as I had closely followed its rise in global affairs with great interest and curiosity.

My first year in China was the most profound of my three years there. Upon my arrival in Beijing on a hazy, gray day which I quickly learned is typical for the city, I soon departed for Yunnan where I would spend the majority of my time in China. I spent the first month in Kunming followed by two months in the small southwestern city of Lincang (临沧). Lincang exposed me to the uneven and unbalanced development in China. Its agricultural backdrop and glaring poverty revealed the disparities between urban and rural China. However, Yunnan provided an unparalleled introduction to the many minority groups living in southwest China and its unique fusion of history and culture due to its proximity to Vietnam and Myanmar.

I spent the remainder of 2012 in Shantou (汕头), Guangdong and Beijing where so much was happening around me. The year brought the 18th Party Congress and the buzz of the city focused on what this gathering would mean for the direction of the Chinese Communist Party. I would soon experience the ripple effects stemming from the transition in Chinese leadership and the rise of Xi Jinping. I also remember the anti-Japanese riots that sprung up due to political flare ups surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Nightly strolls that were once dazzled by the endless line of garment factories dominating Shantou’s streets were soon engulfed by caravans of military humvees and vandalized Japanese cars. I eventually relocated back to Yunnan to Baoshan (保山), my home of the next two and a half years, providing an intense culturally immersive experience that further cultivated my fascination with China.

These experiences helped solidify my interest in Chinese history, politics, and culture. I returned to the United States with a desire to transform my experience into a career. Support and guidance from friends, former colleagues, and mentors provided me with insight and opportunities that enabled me to enter the China research and policy space. Unfortunately, my excitement and insatiable desire to learn all things China were not always met with encouragement or enthusiasm. Instead, my interest was met with suspicion or shock. I was frequently asked why I was even interested in China. However, my non-Black colleagues’ interests in China were never met with the same type of responses. I was singled out as I was an anomaly. I quickly realized how underrepresented Black people were in US-China relations. Despite my initial mixed reception trying to break into US-China relations, I was fortunate to work with and learn from many experts and mentors who helped me grow as a professional. Sadly, I know many Black professionals are not as lucky.

I joined NABEA so that Black people with interests in Asia are met with support and encouragement, rather than suspicion and discouragement. As a community focused on professional development and mentorship, NABEA provides an avenue of advancement many Black professionals may be denied in their places of employment. I also hope that collective Black experiences in Asia can help empower more Black Americans to pursue careers in this space and provide insight in how to do so. The challenges faced by many professionals can help others learn how to better navigate careers related to the Asia-Pacific region, hopefully circumnavigating similar challenges. Most importantly, I joined NABEA to let the world know that Black professionals are already in this space. We are here, we are qualified, and we want to be seen and recognized. NABEA represents a much-needed opportunity to attract and develop Black professionals who will enhance the vitality of professional spaces related to Asia and ensure it reflects the true diversity of the United States.

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Why I Joined NABEA – Mark Akpaninyie
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