As an electrical engineering student at Morgan State University, one of the things 23-year-old Khir Henderson wanted to see during a recent trip to China was how the country was conserving energy.
He also wanted to get a better sense of what the common people were like in a state that is known to unleash cyber hackers on the United States.
He was not disappointed on either front and gained a new appreciation for what diversity, censorship and even his own blackness means in a cultural context other than his own.
“I wanted to explore,” Henderson said of his rationale for visiting China as part of the HBCU–China Scholarship Network. The network is a consortium of 42 Historically Black Colleges and Universities formed in 2014 to facilitate the implementation of 1,000 scholarships awarded to HBCUs as announced by Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong.
“There’s a lot of culture,” Henderson said. “Since the land is so large, there’s so many different sets of people that live differently and act differently.”
Henderson was one of 18 students who visited China for two weeks last month during one of the HBCU-China Scholar Network’s study abroad trips.
The group included 10 students from Morgan State University, seven students from Harris-Stowe State University, and one student from Florida Memorial University.
The students were hosted by Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) in Beijing and Hangzhou Wanxiang Polytechnic (HWXP) in Hangzhou.
The students spent six days in Beijing, five days in Hangzhou, and one day in Shanghai.
They studied China’s language, philosophy, political system, economics, education system, astrology, calligraphy and painting, ethnic minorities, martial arts and clean energy initiatives.
“At times, the students were exhausted because of the amount of scheduled activities we had,” said Sumanth Reddy, Study Abroad Advisor & Coordinator at Morgan State University.
“However, overall, we had a hectic but wonderful trip to China,” Reddy said. “The students enjoyed trying new food, meeting new people, and soaking in all that is China.”
Reddy said students used words such as “unforgettable, amazing, enlightening, life-changing, inspiring, humbling, educational, and spectacular” to describe their trip.
For Henderson, the trip represented a chance to broaden his perspective as a student of electrical engineering. He was particularly interested in how everyday Chinese felt about the United States given cyber conflict between the two countries.
“For the most, what I saw, they were very peaceful. They didn’t want any type of negativity,” Henderson said.
He also wanted to see how the country conserved energy.
“A lot of the things they did there we could bring to the United States to conserve energy,” Henderson said, referring to photovoltaic cells on rooftops to heat water so that electricity or coal was not necessary to do the job.
He also noticed power switches that would turn off power for the entire hotel room except for the refrigerator, which would stay on at a lower state of energy.
“They have to save energy because there’s not enough resources for everybody,” Henderson said. “I felt the United States could use it not only to save resources but to save money as well.”
Henderson said his group drew lots of interested looks from everyday Chinese.
“A lot of people don’t see someone who is dark-skinned,” Henderson said, noting that non-African-Americans in the group did not draw as much attention and interest.
He speaks of a particular interest that the Chinese had in his and other Black students’ hair.
“Especially the braids,” Henderson said. “They didn’t quite understand how that worked.”
While “diversity” is often thought of in terms of race and ethnicity in the United States, Henderson said he gained a new appreciation for what diversity means in a different country.
“There’s always a big conflicting idea of what culture is and what culture and history is since it is so diverse,” Henderson said of different groups within China.
Henderson said it was interesting to be in a country where there was no access to Google or Facebook—websites that Americans take for granted.
“The internet was censored heavily,” Henderson said. But he said he learned that one of the reasons behind having Baidu—an internet services company in Beijing—instead of allowing Google—and WeChat mobile messaging instead of Whatsapp—was to give China a chance to create its own search engines and applications instead of relying on search engines and applications from abroad.
Henderson had to spend $1,600 on a flight to China to make the trip, which was financed by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
But given the fact that it was just a small portion of the cost of the trip, he said it was “money well spent.”
“Not only the actual monetary cost but the value of going to China and seeing China and experiencing it with the people and building networks, it was almost invaluable,” he said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.