May 6, 2021
by: Euhwa Tran
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Hate crimes against Asians in the United States increased by 149 percent from 2019 to 2020, despite an overall decrease nationwide in hate crimes, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration in U.S.-China relations over the course of the year. Accordingly, Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocates have called for adjustments to U.S. foreign policy towards the People’s Republic of China as well as a reduction in incendiary U.S. rhetoric toward and about China. Although the correlation is legitimate, changes to the overall U.S.-China relationship – no matter how large or how positive – are not antidotes for discrimination against Asian-Americans, nor are they antidotes for the larger problem of racism and discrimination in the United States that undergirds the recent wave of anti-AAPI hostility.
It is unrealistic to expect that the United States will always have rosy relationships with all foreign nations and to hope that positive foreign relations will protect Americans whose racial or religious backgrounds differ from that of the mainstream. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the attacks of September 11, 2001 instigated a spike in hate crimes against Muslims in the United States. Furthermore, arguably no racial group in the United States has been more affected by racism than the Black community, which has experienced a long history of discrimination unrelated to foreign relations with any one nation.
But one relatively simple change in U.S. policy towards China that can help address the root issues of racism and discrimination in this country is the restoration of the Fulbright and Peace Corps programs in China. Both programs provide U.S.-government-funded opportunities for Americans to live abroad, with the aim of promoting increased understanding of the United States internationally and enabling Americans to better understand other countries. The Fulbright exchange with China and the Peace Corps programs in China, in operation since 1979 and 1993, respectively, were both abruptly cut last year by the Trump administration as part of the overall fallout from the increasing tensions in the U.S.-China relationship.
Whether it is the Fulbright program or the Peace Corps, any avenues for Americans to live, study and work abroad will contribute to making the United States a more open, tolerant, and inclusive society. A well-accepted, key benefit of studying abroad is the broadening and diversifying of an individual’s world view. A survey of Americans who have studied abroad found that “intercultural benefits are not fleeting but continue to impact participants’ lives long after their time abroad.” Ninety-four percent of survey respondents reported that that their overseas experiences continue to impact their interactions with people of a different cultural background, and 90 percent stated that their time abroad has influenced them to pursue a more diverse group of friends.
Anyone who has lived or studied abroad inevitably has experiences that can contribute significantly to the improvement of race relations in the United States. When you spend time abroad, you learn how it feels to be in the minority and to stand out, through no fault of your own but often simply because your skin or hair color or your accent is different. You also learn that you can be friends with people whom, on first glance, seem to have nothing in common with you.
In addition to learning to appreciate the culture and traditions of the foreign country that you are in, you also are more likely to strike up conversations with other fellow foreigners, including those from your own country as well as other nations. Many are people you would never have thought to talk to at home, but in a foreign country, not only are there fewer people that speak your language but all of you are also bonded by the common challenge of survival in an unfamiliar society. And as you get to know various individuals, you learn that people are not always as they appear to be.
These are the benefits of programs like Fulbright and the Peace Corps, and the closure of such programs translates into the loss of these types of opportunities for Americans.
My own experiences abroad taught me that neither age, socioeconomic background, nationality, nor language is a barrier to friendships. Some of my best memories from living in Asia are of conversations, meals and trips with those from very different backgrounds – people who were decades older than me, local residents with viewpoints and beliefs completely unfathomable to me and other foreigners who spoke next to no English. From debates on English grammar with South African colleagues to karaoke with Korean and Japanese classmates to sightseeing with Russian friends, all of these experiences taught me to appreciate the breadth of diversity in others and inspired me to form friendships both abroad and at home with people that I previously would have shied away from because of our differences.
Experiences abroad, like mine, help teach that every individual has a different story, background and experience, and people bring that more open, tolerant, inclusive, and accepting world view back home with them. At its extreme, racism takes the form of violent hate crimes. On a more physically harmless but nonetheless problematic level, racism is simply the view that everyone of a certain race shares or lacks one or more characteristic traits or qualities – for example, the conflating of all individuals of Chinese or Asian descent with the Chinese Communist Party or the opinion that someone of Asian descent can never be an “American.” Living abroad mitigates all of this.
The United States needs to invest in multiple approaches and angles to managing racial tensions, prejudice, and intolerance. Restoring the Fulbright and Peace Corps programs in China would be a first step in the right direction and would further pave a path to expand existing programs and to develop new initiatives that encourage Americans from all different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds to study or work abroad. Expanding such opportunities – and ensuring that all Americans, not only those from more elite backgrounds, have access to international experiences – will take significant financial resources, time and effort. But so will addressing race relations and creating a country that is open, tolerant and diverse – and in doing so, building a United States that, as former President George H. W. Bush once put it, is truly “a nation of communities … a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
Euhwa Tran is Chief Program Officer & Chief of Staff at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations.