By Zhen Ming “Tina” Tian (MSW’18)

From May 30 to June 2, I was one of 75 Chinese graduate students studying in the United States invited to attend the U.S. Foreign Policy Colloquium in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Professor Qin Gao, who is a Public Intellectual Fellow at the National Committee—and the director of the China Center for Social Policy at Columbia’s School of Social Work—had recommended the opportunity to me. As she had suggested, the four-day intensive meeting provided a unique opportunity to interact with key players in the foreign policy arena.

I was interested to see that politicians face similar obstacles to those facing us social workers when trying to create change. For example, Frank Jannuzi, a former policy director for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (now president and CEO of the Mansfield Foundation), told us that when it comes to policy change, it is always a battle between idealism and realism. Only when people organize at the local level and become a voice that Congressional leaders can no longer ignore can one anticipate big changes. This theory aligns with my belief in social work practice: to advocate for change as social workers, we need to make a strong presence by uniting together, targeting the right people in power, and using that leverage to reach the decision-maker.

The last day of the meeting, we were invited to a reception hosted by Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai. The senior Chinese diplomats welcomed us warmly. Hearing “Welcome home kids!” in my mother tongue made me feel so touched. I heard witty stories of President Xi’s meeting with President Trump from someone who was there. According to our Ambassador, President Trump is actually an easy-going person in private life, which surprised me a little bit. Meeting with Ambassador Tiankai and hearing of my country’s many achievements boosted my national pride. As a social work student, I know China still has a long way to go, but compared to twenty years ago, we have made so much progress.

During the reception, we were given chances to ask the diplomats questions about U.S.-China relations and to address our concerns regarding life in the United States. As an international student, I sometimes encounter cultural differences that trigger misunderstanding and uncomfortable feelings, but I also believe that, to some extent, each of us is an ambassador of our country. Though I tend to be mindful of the impression I am creating on others, I sometimes find myself trapped in a dilemma as to whether I should correct people who raise controversial issues about my country.

Ambassador Cui told us that reactions to cross-cultural misunderstandings should be linked to context. We should be slow to take offense when people don’t know about our country, he said, and we should not pity ourselves when issues regarding our country are pointed out. He told us that international relations are all about how you perceive yourself and how you perceive others. For him, the basis of building a relationship is to know yourself and be comfortable and proud with everything you carry.

One great takeaway from this colloquium was the experience of listening to my peers’ perspectives, which encouraged me to work harder and challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone. At the beginning of the meeting, my limited knowledge of international affairs triggered self-doubt and anxiety. But it also reminded me of the importance of comprehensive study—that being open to different information is an important part of critical thinking and that a holistic perspective can yield a more nuanced understanding of the complex forces that shape our societies and their relationship.

As an international student, I’ve cherished the opportunity to study abroad and take advantage of all the resources that are available to me. This privilege will not last forever, so my goal is to make the most out of it in my remaining year of study at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.

Zhen Ming “Tina” Tian ’18 earned her B.A. in Business English from Guangzhou University. She is a 2017-18 Women’s International Leadership Fellow at International House.

Professor Qin Gao is a Public Intellectual Fellow at the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations, and the Director of the China Center for Social Policy at CSSW. Her new book, Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China, is published by Oxford University Press.


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  1. Jeanette Takamura says:

    I love your openness to exploration and reflection and the wisdom you make so evident, Tina. Ambassador CUIT is also wise in saying, “that reactions to cross-cultural misunderstandings should be linked to context. We should be slow to take offense when people don’t know about our country . . . International relations are all about how you perceive yourself and how you perceive others. . . The basis of building a relationship is to know yourself and be comfortable and proud with everything you carry.” Americans can learn much from him, too. Thank you for sharing!