About the Authors: Travis Hall is an American exchange student in Shanghai who is participating in the State Department’s “Virtual Student Foreign Service” Program. He submitted the following in consultation with Foreign Service Officer Anny Ho, who is a Public Diplomacy Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Back home in the States, I might have been a casual Obama speech watcher, but when the President of the United States drops in on your study abroad locale, you take notice! Thus I found myself walking to campus, through the rain, to meet up with some friends to watch the President’s town hall held right here in Shanghai earlier this week. After managing to fall on my face only once while making the trek (note to my apartment complex managers: while polished black tile looks great for walkways, it is less than functional in the rain), I made it to the international dormitory and gathered our motley crew of study abroad students and their Chinese roommates.
As we waited for the video to load, we discussed our expectations. What does a U.S. President say to a group of Chinese students? What would they ask if they could ask Obama a question? After hearing about President Obama from Chinese students throughout the semester, but only in the context of “He is great,” I was excited to get into a more substantive conversation. However, at this point, we had reached that magical spot in the loading of a video where you can watch AND load at the same time, so we watched Ambassador Huntsman introduce the President.
When President Obama took the microphone and said “Non Ho,” everyone in the room started clapping at once. How cool! The President of the United States just spoke some Shanghainese! For those outside of China, learning the local dialect is just about the coolest thing you can do. For example, my host dad is pretty hard to impress. But when I changed from Mandarin Chinese “ni hao” to “non ho,” that sealed the deal. Ever since, we have been as thick as thieves.
For the rest of the town hall, we switched to reading a transcript provided online, since we quickly realized that being able to speak either a bit of Chinese and English or a bit of English and Chinese made listening to overdubbed speeches almost impossible. Taken as a whole, we thought that President Obama’s benefit of cultural exchanges was right on target. We never did get to have that discussion that I hoped would develop from watching the President speak about controversial topics like Taiwan and Internet freedom, but we did talk about what cities we were from, and our Chinese friends told us where in the United States that they wanted to study. If students like myself continue to live in Shanghai, and more of my Chinese friends come to the States, then I think we are on the right path toward the kind of cooperation that Mr. Obama was talking about in Shanghai.