A Leadership Program for Duke Students with A Global Mindset

Month: December 2021

Intercultural Journal #5

As I look back on my semester in the Global Fellows Program, I am grateful for the opportunity to have connected with so many people from so many different countries weekly. Through having conversations I have been able to gain an interesting insight into a group that I had not considered before – the spouses of international scholars. A recurring theme that I have learned from discussions with them is the lack of accessibility afforded through the visa process, specifically being barred from working. As some of the international scholar programs range from semester-long to 2 or more years, this can have a significant impact on them not understanding how to navigate American society. An instance that I faced this semester was trying to help one of my language partners navigate getting her license in North Carolina. This language partner is from Japan and her husband’s work relocated her and her family here to the United States. Originally, she started off asking me for advice about how the test might go and if there were any tips that I could offer. The conversation evolved into a discussion about how car insurance works based on observations that I had from when I was in the DMV trying to get my license. For married couples, insurance companies only put the husband’s names on the cards, so even if the spouse is covered under the same policy, her name does not appear on the card by default. At the DMV, this led to a lot of people turning away during their appointments or having the call their insurance company to have them fax over a notice with a new card that has the spouse’s name directly on it. To save my language partner the headache, I let her know about this in advance so that she could prepare and be in a better position for her test.

Due to these experiences, I would say that I skill that I have worked on this semester is creating space for others. As a member of the Language and Communication track this semester, one of my responsibilities was helping to facilitate English Conversation Club and I was unsure of how to approach being a facilitator because I expected a lot of the participants to be older than me. One of my concerns was how to stimulate conversation with people who have had all sorts of experiences with respecting the space. What I learned was to take a step back to let things evolve organically, rather than trying to make an answer for everything, and to also think about myself more like a mutual participant within the conversation rather than a facilitator. Through establishing equal footing with the participants, I felt that we were able to genuinely connect and create a community within English Conversation Club over the semester.


the hegemony of english: a thinkpiece

notes on style: 

as a young abolitionist, eco-feminist, anti-colonialist queer woman of color, i am writing in all lower-case as a form of political intervention in line with political theorists like black feminist bell hooks (1994, pp.167-175) and media scholar danah michele boyd (n.d.). having received colonial education in a chinese international high school with mostly white male teachers and now as a student of color in a settler-colonial state and an elitist, colonial institution, i have experienced how dominant rules of language (grammar, sentence structure, standardized accent, etc.) are all part of an ongoing colonial project. these elitist rules gatekeep certain bodies as “undesirable” – the fact that google doc constantly underlines my name to be a typo & is now suggesting that i switch to capitalizing the first words of all sentences provides a glimpse to it – and reinforce the sexist, colonial, and racist structures that created such rules, and differentially distribute privileges along racialized, classed, and gendered lines.



while my first intercultural journal mentioned that i would have a language partner from korea, they could no longer participate due to personal reasons. therefore, i was paired with a graduate student from kazakhstan in november. since this was fairly recent and amidst the final reason, we have only managed to meet up once before the thanksgiving break. i would offer english, while she offers kazakh. 


she shared with me her frustration in english: she sometimes found it very difficult to understand professors, because they talked so fast. if i remember correctly, she mentioned that she would listen back to class recording and understand previously obscure sentences. she also spent some time in ucsd in an english training program before this academic year at duke.


i echoed her concern and said professors and students whose first language is english tend to speak very fast, and it’s difficult for international students, and that she is not alone in feeling that way. “but your english is very good,” she commented, “it’s like you have no accent. since when did you start learning english?”



this question made me visibly awkward. it took me back to the multiple times when white visa officers asked me where i learned to speak such good english; when an older white man asked me if i was from california. all of these were meant to be compliments and there was no ill-willed intentions, they did reflect on deeply held notions of language, accents, race and nationality that are inevitably imbued with power: it is surprising that a chinese-looking person could speak fluent english, the US is a white country, english is a white language and only certain accents are legitimate (and defined as having “no accent”), it is surprising for (non-US-citizen) people of color to not have the racialized accents expected of them, but if they do have accents shame on them that’s “broken” english. 


the more sinister implication is that (im)migrants are divided into two distinct categories: the “good” and the “bad”. whenever (white) people asked me where i learned english or compliment that i have no “accent,” they are essentially asking: are you one of the “good” ones?


i struggle with my linguistic intimacy with english. on the one hand, it is a colonizing language that has tried to take away my sensibilities in my own language, mandarin chinese and multiple dialects that my family speak. but on the other hand, it is a signifier of privilege: while i am generally very sensitive to languages, my grasp of english is mostly due to socioeconomic privilege that allowed me to enter a colonialist international high school in guangzhou, china. my mom made it very clear that she intentionally trained me in english early on because she knows that materially, speaking “standardized” english would grant me even more privilege as i pursue my studies abroad. it is true: my visa interviews and border control surveillance check were always approved after a couple questions, while for others the linguistic impressions they give and the struggle with hearing and answering questions clearly might end up in visa rejections, long hours of interrogation at the border, and even deportation. when visa officers told me my english was immaculate, i always wanted to ask: is that why you give me a pass? are you going to reject those racialized chinese subjects who have anxiously held their folders of documents trying to prove that they are harmless waiting outside the embassy – who don’t sound like you?


therefore when my language partner said i had no accent, and that she clearly faces more structural barriers under a colonialist, predominantly white institution like duke, i did not know what to say. i can’t tell her that it’s okay to not try to be more fluent, when i myself is in a materially privileged position, but one that is nonetheless rooted in colonialism.


so therefore i said, when the english-speaking white colonists tried to spread their language all over the world through violence, they should have expected that people would speak differently. of course there would be different accents because people have different native languages. it is not your fault to have your own accent. and then i shared a bit on my complex intimacy with the english language, but i did not want to sound like i was being condescending and lecturing her on how english is bad when her compliment, different from those from white people, is a poignant reminder of my own privileged position in a colonial system.


being perceived as having “no accent” is a privilege, just like “whiteness”: it is a particularity normalized into a universality, a normalized background that rejects systemic reckoning. english is a colonizing language that gatekeeps differential privileges along classed, gendered, and raced lines based on proximity to whiteness. therefore when i as a chinese international student is burdened with the task of teaching other international students of color english, i can’t stop thinking about how as a colonial elite, i have also become the agent of this language’s hegemony. but in the meantime, i have to reckon with how helping them practice english would materially alleviate their struggle as they navigate this hostile landscape;  when international graduate students receive little support and find it hard to form a community, i can become an agent for communal caring.


while i have no answer as to how to approach this complex interplay of power and intimacy, but i do want to keep having these open conversations on how to navigate everyday survival within current systems on the ground without sacrificing sensibilities of violence and radical reimagining of an alternate future.

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