Being a Superhero Abroad

In collaboration with various partners and organizations, iEARN-USA helps implement programs that provide opportunities for young people to experience meaningful international exchanges. One such program is the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program. The NSLI-Y program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, provides scholarships for secondary school students from the United States to spend a summer or academic year in another country learning a critical language not commonly taught in the United States. Students live with host families, attend high school, engage in activities such as community service to share about American society and values, acquire leadership skills, and learn to appreciate the languages and cultures of different countries. 

While on-program and after returning to the United States, NSLI-Y students are encouraged to share about their program experiences by sharing a story on the NSLI-Y Interactive website. NSLI-Y Interactive contains content created by NSLI-Y students sharing about their program experiences both to showcase program impact but also to provide resources for future NSLI-Y students. One student, Hassane, wrote about how his identity informed and enhanced his experience as a NSLI-Y student on iEARN-USA’s summer Chinese program in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His NSLI-Y Interactive story is being shared below with his permission: 

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Not all superheroes wear capes. Myself along with the fellow Taiwan participants didn’t wear super suits or costumes. Yet, we had superpowers abroad. When I first applied and earned acceptance to NSLI-Y, I had many expectations. I believed I would study Mandarin Chinese and immerse myself in Taiwanese culture. But, I not only left the island with a sense of Taiwanese life but also a realization of my own identity.

I’m not a typical person in Taiwan. My curly hair, dark skin, and tall stature stand out in the homogenous ethnic makeup of Taiwan. In Taiwan, the perception of foreigners comes from what’s seen in the media and entertainment. Oftentimes, perception is different from reality. Whenever I introduced myself as American (美国人Měiguó rén), I would often get questions such as “Are you an actual American?” or “You don’t look American.”

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My identity became even more evident on a weekend excursion to Taitung (台东 Tái Dōng), a city in the east of Taiwan. Taitung is an attraction to locals from around the island to see the city’s famous hot air balloon festival (热气球 Rè qìqiú). While watching hot air balloons lifting off, a young boy around my age came up to me and asked for a photo in English. To his surprise, I responded to him in Chinese, introduced myself, and we ended up taking a photo. He told me I was the first black person he has ever seen. He also added that my classmates and I were the first Americans he met that could speak Chinese. We talked about high school life and American culture for a little while. It was clear I was forming this fellow teenagers’ perception of Black Americans. This interaction cemented the idea of American life for this teenager 7,000 miles away.

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I realized that myself along with the hundreds of other NSLI-Y students have a superpower. We all can change the narrative and ideas of Americans abroad. Our words, actions, body language, and personalities paint a picture of American culture. When I studied abroad, I changed the stereotypes of Americans by friendly interactions. A common stereotype is that Americans don't like to learn languages. During my time in Taiwan, I spoke Mandarin Chinese to all the locals I encountered. By talking about American life and being friendly, I broke down false stereotypes. In Taiwan, I balanced many cultures in my day to day life. I can be black and American in Asia, I can speak Chinese and English, and I can listen to J.J.Lin (林俊杰 Línjùnjié) and Kanye West. Relating and connecting with other people promoted valuable cultural exchange. I connected and got proximate with Taiwanese friends, my host family, and strangers. I learned about their lives, experiences, and interests while teaching about my life.

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Part of being a superhero is to share and learn about life to the new people one meets. Being kind and friendly goes a long way when forging cultural connections. The most important thing to be a citizen ambassador is to smile! A language everyone in the world speaks the language of a smile. Smiling is a tool that bridges people while breaking language and cultural barriers. Smiling and being kind to everyone I met was a great strategy that worked for me to connect with people. The hundreds of NSLI-Y students may only be teenagers in high school, but we all are superheroes. We bring the world closer through cultural exchange and understanding.

Hassane also created a video highlighting his NSLI-Y experiences last summer in Taiwan. We encourage you to check out his video, shared with his permission below:

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