Dear Mr. Loewenstern,
Thank you very much for being the reason that I could go on this three-month journey in China to learn more about a country that I thought I knew. By myself, I’ve been able to determine what I value, what I respect, and what I find frustrating.
Emily, my fellow Fellow at Collective, and I have talked about the purpose of travel. As someone who wants to go into foreign service and diplomacy, I think the purpose of traveling is to broaden your own worldview and recognize the differences and similarities between other cultures and yours. As a part of that, I think it is absolutely essential to take it upon yourself to familiarize yourself with a country’s history, culture, and most importantly, language. It’s easy to assume that many people in foreign countries understand English, but I don’t think we should make that assumption, even if it may be correct in big cities. If you truly want to learn a little bit more about a culture, having a barrier like language factor in conveying knowledge will not provide an accurate view of a county. In my years of learning languages, I’ve found that it is much easier to understand someone else speaking a foreign language than it is to speak it yourself. To get the most honest portrayal of a culture, I think it’s better to convey this through the local language. Now, if you are going to a country as a tourist to have a brief introduction to a country, I think it’s fine to just be cognizant of that fact and respectful in your own actions. But, I think to have the most meaningful travel possible, it’s essential for me to keep learning more languages. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
I hope to travel to many countries in the world throughout my life. I know it’s not practical to expect myself to learn hundreds of languages, but I want to try to learn as many as reasonable. My most immediate goal is to learn the six official languages of the United Nations, which are English, Chinese, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian. I am proficient in the first three, so it’s a good start. I’ve dabbled in learning the rest, but other than being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet and recognizing similarities between French and Spanish, I haven’t really applied myself. However, after my Loewenstern experience, I’ve realized how important my near-fluency in Chinese was in my work. I will be working hard to learn the last three languages, at least (hopefully) to the point where I can hold everyday conversations with locals.
Throughout my Loewenstern experience, I’ve also learned how important local context is in understanding policy and governance. Repeatedly, I’ve looked at how some things work in China and wondered why the government doesn’t just do something to make it work better for the people. With a government like China’s that keeps track of everything, they definitely have a good grasp of the problems their society faces. What took me a while to realize was that what is happening now is already progress. Things have changed a lot in the past 20 years, and while I might not think the current situation represents progress from my Western point of view, there has been a lot of improvement. China has a long way to go to reach its own goals of equalizing access to opportunities and reducing the gap between urban and rural people, but it has come a long way.
Of course, I’ve very much enjoyed researching the issue of migrant children in China over the past ten weeks, but I’ve learned so much more than policy analysis and implementation. I’ve learned the role that innovation can play to solve social issues. I’ve learned about the complexities of governing a society of 1.3 billion people. Most importantly, I’ve learned that I am ever more certain in pursuing a career that combines public policy, international development, and civic service.
With much gratitude,