The Black girl that speaks Chinese. That was the way people identified me in my small, predominantly-white college in Connecticut. At first, it really bothered me because what did race have to do with my intellectual ability? Nothing. Little did they know, although I was the only Black person on campus who spoke Chinese, I actually came from a high school in Chicago where only black and brown students spoke Chinese outside of the Chinese teachers. I knew that the high school I attended wanted to groom Black and brown students to be great – and I knew I wanted to be great, too, to reach levels that no one from my neighborhood had reached. So, I used Mandarin to get me to Washington, DC, and that’s what led me to NABEA.

I grew up in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the country. Notably, Chicago has the third-largest Chinatown in the country, and that fact alone pushed me to choose Mandarin as my language of choice during freshmen orientation in high school. I knew that if I spoke Chinese, I could at least meet people from a different culture and learn how others think and interact with the world. I fell in love with learning the language and culture. I used every second outside of my other schoolwork to become as proficient in Mandarin as I possibly could.

I chose Mandarin in 2011. I joined NABEA in 2021. What led me to NABEA during that decade? Well, I first traveled to China in 2014, then returned almost every year after that – 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and left in 2020 during COVID-19. In 2014, I studied Mandarin at Fudan University in Shanghai for a high school summer program with Americans Promoting Study Abroad. In 2016, I returned with the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholar at Dalian University of Technology. It was my first language pledge where I spoke Chinese throughout the entire summer and lived with a host family who I still connect with to this day. My host sister, about four years old at the time, had an influential role in my language journey with her patience, willingness to translate, and teach me all the time. In 2017, I returned again with CET Academic Programs at Harbin Institute of Technology to both pursue a language pledge, live with a Chinese roommate in a university dorm, and conduct research with a Chinese professor on China-Africa relations. I returned in 2018 to intern at the African Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai to dive deeper into China-Africa relations and publish a paper highlighting the economic effects of African students studying in China. I last traveled to China in 2019 to pursue my graduate certificate in Chinese at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing Center at Nanjing University. Only in 2020 did I return due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time. 

Every single time I traveled to China, I made more Black friends than I did Chinese friends. Not because I actively avoided Chinese people, but because I never felt as welcomed as my white counterparts who I would travel to China with. Even when I was assigned a Chinese roommate, I was never able to develop lasting friendships because I felt I was treated differently. But I kept traveling back to China because I loved learning the culture, the politics, and the economy. I dug so deep into learning about China that I literally adopted the habits of northern Chinese people, such as speaking Mandarin in an aggressive tone when someone cuts me in line or eating sunflower seeds at any hour of the day. Culture aside though, most importantly it felt good to know I was representing African Americans while in China and making my family and friends proud.

While I enjoyed studying China over these past 11 fulfilling years, I grew tired of being the only Black person that speaks Chinese in the room or that understands an Asian culture. I felt isolated in the China space and even considered leaving the space altogether in 2020 while I attended graduate school on foreign policy. That is when I joined NABEA – the first time I was exposed to a group of Black scholars and professionals with the same career interests and Asia expertise as I had. I was instantly well-received and met people who became good mentors and friends. While I pursued a non-China focused internship, I would catch interesting news stories in the NABEA-China group chat, and I joined NABEA events to speak about Asia with people who looked like me. In those moments, I truly felt like I was in my zone. It was the first time I felt completely comfortable and accepted into the China space and gained confidence in myself to continue pursuing what I love even if I found it tough to fit in sometimes. The NABEA community pushed me to apply to jobs that I was afraid to apply to and were great resources to meet other people in the industry. Now in my first role, I am extremely grateful that I built relationships with NABEA, and I continue to expand that community and network by inviting to the group every Black person I meet in the Asia space.

NABEA will transform the Asian foreign policy space to look more like the United States population. I want to be a part of that change. I look forward to continuing to grow with NABEA throughout my career – this is just the beginning.


If you identify as Black American or African-American, join our Slack community to connect with other Black Asia experts by filling out our Slack sign-up form! Also, fill out the Database sign-up form to be added to NABEA’s Database, a publicly accessible resource for institutions to find Black Americans across academia, government, and private sector industries who specialize in the Indo-Pacific.

If you do not identify as Black American, sign up for the listserv to receive newsletters and stay up-to-date on NABEA’s activities and programming. Also, please spread awareness by sending this information to any Black American, Asia specialists in your network.

Why I Joined NABEA – Brandy Darling
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