“How do I stop?” asked the giggling Chinese teacher as Iceskatesshe swerved around the other beginning ice skaters. I demonstrated, explained, and asked “怎么说 ‘spin’ ”? The two of us, a nineteen year-old American figure skater, and a fifty year-old Chinese teacher made quite the pair every Monday of December. On the sixth floor of Mix City Mall in Shenyang, we would meet at the ice rink for skating and Chinese lessons; I was the skating coach, and she the Chinese tutor. We each learned from the other, and created a beautiful friendship through this weekly exchange.

Over my six-week long winter break, I spent over one month in Shenyang, Liaoning, China.  On weekends, I taught English classes at the New Concept English Language School in Fushun. During the week, I volunteered teaching English at a local primary school, gave lectures and presentations at the local universities, explored the city, and made many new friends and connections. I not only had the opportunity to explore and practice speaking Chinese during my time in Shenyang, but I was also able to observe Chinese citizens’ attitudes towards the U.S.

First, I noticed that belief in the importance of and the desire for cooperative U.S.-China relations is mutual.  Second, many people perceive the U.S.-China relationship as competitive and delicate at the national level, but still are eager to connect with Americans and their culture.

One of Shenyang University’s promising English students, whose chosen English name is Kay, described the U.S.-China relationship as “essential and subtle.”  She said, “China has been getting stronger, and America is the most powerful nation in the world. The relationship between US and China will not only influence the Asia region, but the whole world, so they have the responsibility to benefit to the world.  Also, they have a lot of common interests.” But as Kay observed, “Considering the policies the two nations produced, it’s delicate I think. The competition is inevitable, as every powerful nation wants to maintain its status.” Despite this perceived competition between our countries, Kay was the first of many Shenyang University students to offer to show me around the city.

I was struck by the welcoming attitude of the locals. Before the end of my first week, every night of my trip was booked with lunches, dinners, and outings with new friends who were eager to show me around and teach me about their culture.  As Shenyang and Fushun are not typical tourist destinations, the numbers of foreigners in the cities were very low. I was the first foreigner and American that many of my students had met.  The locals were delighted to hear an American speak Chinese and see my interest in their culture; when I would answer a student’s question in Chinese, the room of over 60 students would erupt with excited gasps and whispers, “她会说汉语!”  Later, students would gather outside the office door during my lunch breaks, watching and giggling, stunned by my ability to use chopsticks.

…through a willingness to both teach and learn.  In turn, I was in awe of their overarching eagerness to learn. However, in building relationships with the people I met, it was always a mutual assumption that I was not just there to teach English, and they were not simply teaching me about Chinese culture. Rather, we had much to learn from each other, and we both had lessons to teach.

Although U.S.-China relations are clearly delicate at the national level, local relations are less so, and individual connections have great potential. A bottom-up approach is both realistic and necessary. By increasing individual and local-level exchange through generous sharing of knowledge and experiences, we can create a stronger base and demand for strengthened relations at the national level, thus pushing our two great nations to effectively collaborate on pressing global issues. If we demonstrate interest and make an effort to connect, we will be astonished by the opportunities and friendships that can result from connecting with the Chinese people.

Kayla Blomquist is a student of international relations at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Relations and a long time volunteer with The Tai Initiative.  This summer she will continue her professional development in China through a U.S. State Department sponsored internship in Chengdu.