Not so useful outreach, but a meaningful experience

Yesterday I represented the visa section in an outreach session to parents who are interested in sending their kids to U.S. community colleges. Representatives from several community colleges sponsored an event to promote their colleges. I was asked to be there as a resource person to answer questions about student visas.

There weren’t very many people there, and I didn’t get a lot of questions. I was starting to feel useless, then things got worse. An “agent” for a school cornered me for several minutes and asked why her clients would get denied visas. I told her that the simple answer was that they were probably not prepared to study in America. She wanted to press me on details of their refusals, which I was uncomfortable with. We in the visa section have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with agents and brokers. They do provide a valuable service to students who want to study in America, but who need help filling out their applications. That’s where the love part comes in: they help students get admitted to colleges. However, agents and brokers have a tendancy to hijack the process: they can push students to chose a particular school, and even give applicants false documents and tell them to lie in the visa interview. That’s the hate part.

So I wasn’t interested in talking with the agent very much. The agent didn’t seem likely to stop grilling me, so I looked for a chance to be more useful. I saw some parents in the room that were just sitting there, so I engaged one in a conversation. It turns out that she had a lot of questions, but didn’t realize that I speak Chinese, so she was reluctant to approach me.

The woman has a teenage daughter, and she’s considering sending her to high school in America. We talked about how the education systems in China and America differ, and I offered some insight into how Chinese students can benefit from U.S. schools. I shared with her that I have two kids, one in college and one getting ready to apply to college. We talked about the uncertainty of the future, how things are changing so fast, it’s hard for young people to know which direction to take, because we can’t predict where the jobs will be by the time they graduate. I commented that all we can do it encourage them to be flexible and well-rounded, adaptable to change.

She suddenly looked at me and said: “don’t you think that being a parent is really hard sometimes?”

I smiled and said yes, of course, and followed on with some personal experiences about parenting, and offered some perspectives about parenting in American culture.

I felt that the conversation changed at that point. I think that she began to see us not as an American and a Chinese person, or a diplomat and a citizen, but as two people, parents who are struggling with our common role as caregiver to our respective children. As a diplomat, we are supposed to be forging connections with the Chinese government and people. That is often difficult to do, given the linguistic, cultural, and political barriers. In my conversation with this parent, I feel that we managed to break down those barriers. Public diplomacy in China can be described as “challenging.” It’s hard for diplomats to have meaningful connections with the people in China. But through the combination of personal issues and my professional position, I had a small, but meaningful, public diplomacy win.

Trip to Guan Men Shan 關門山

Shenyang is located on a very flat plain. There isn’t a lot of interesting topography here. That isn’t very different from the landscape in East Lansing, so I should be used to it. However, after living in Taiwan, I got used to seeing mountains, and being near water. Shenyang has neither.

About a two-hour drive from the city, however, the terrain gets more interesting. Yesterday a group from the consulate community made a road trip to Guanmenshan 關門山, a national park. It’s a beautiful mountain gorge with mountains and water, my two favorite landscape features.

We were hoping to see some color from the maple trees in the park, but we seemed to have missed most of the color. However, we did get to see some.

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The mountains were especially striking. There was a lot of haze in the air that day, which added a classical beauty to the mountains. It was like looking at a giant Chinese landscape painting that had come to life.



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We took a bus up to the top of the trail, then walked down 8km (5 miles) to the bottom.

Nice trail in the park

Nice trail in the park

Proof that I was there.

Proof that I was there.

One of my coworkers has three young children. As he was taking pictures of them, some other Chinese tourists also took pictures of them. Here’s a picture of me taking pictures of them. It was very meta.

Hey look, there are some foreign people! Let's take pictures of them, even though we don't even know them and haven't asked permission!

Hey look, there are some foreign people!
Let’s take pictures of them, even though we don’t even know them and haven’t asked permission!

Taiwan Beer

Taiwan Beer is one of my favorite beers. For a while, it was the only beer that was available in Taiwan. When I visited Taiwan earlier this month, I saw that Taiwan Beer has started to diversity by adding flavors to appeal to a wider audience than your typical beer-drinking customer base.

Sweet Plum

Sweet Plum. This is a typical Taiwanese flavor, there is a tradition of adding dried plums to rice wine.


Mango! I’ve had mango beer before, it’s pretty good.


Grape. This one is a little confusing.


Pineapple?! That’s it, I’m done.