Landon had been adjusting to his new surroundings in Chengdu, China, but upon walking into a local club one night, he found himself surprised once again by the different world he discovered: hip-hop music was blaring from the speakers, and Chinese and international students alike were dancing along in their backward-facing baseball caps, baggy pants, and basketball jerseys. Landon was in China’s Sichuan province taking classes in Mandarin, tai chi, and calligraphy; the hip-hop scene was a facet of local culture that he hadn’t learned about in the classroom. When the popular song “Panda” came on, his group was drawn with the rest of the crowd to the front of the room, where a large circle had formed around a group of break dancers. As Landon watched them, a young Chinese man with dreadlocks grabbed his hand and pulled him into the circle.
While retelling the story, Landon laughs. “They expected I would be able to dance because I was a black American, but they didn’t know that they could dance better than me.” Sure, he might’ve been wearing the right kind of clothes, but hip-hop dancing was not in his repertoire of skills. Still, he allowed himself to be pulled into the experience, and ended up making a new friend in the process. In retrospect, the moment is especially ironic, as the defiance of stereotypes was part of the reason Landon was living in China.
Landon discovered his passion for language learning in high school; he realized it was a way to break out of the boundaries placed on him growing up as an African American in a town where what little racial diversity existed was divided by geography. “It’s very easy for people who grow up in segregated neighborhoods to internalize how people see them,” Landon explains, something that he felt firsthand. But he didn’t want to become a professional sports player or famous rapper, two of the popular dreams he felt were expected of him. He wanted to do something different. When he was given the chance to study Portuguese in Brazil for a year in high school, he decided what he wanted to do.
Landon fell in love with language learning quickly, realizing it was the pathway he had been searching for. “Going to another country has allowed me to view myself as not solely an African American, but as a global citizen.” This was a feeling he’d continue pursuing in college where he began to study Mandarin, the process which had led to the unlikely situation he found himself in that night in Chengdu.
A new identity and some experience with hip-hop dancing weren’t the only things Landon took away from his time abroad. It also changed how he saw others. “Once you see yourself as a global citizen, you start to realize the humanity in others regardless of where they come from.” He’s taken this new understanding with him to Michigan State, where he works as an Intercultural Aide. As an ICA, his job is to promote cultural understanding amongst diverse groups of people, and building relationships with his residents is a key part of the process. A lot of his residents are international students from China, and Landon has found that he’s able to form stronger relationships with them because of his ability to speak Mandarin—he shows that he cares about them, and that he’s willing to go the extra mile to understand them.
As Landon nears graduation, he has plenty of options for the future he’s considering. Whether it’s grad school in Beijing on the way to becoming the next U.S. ambassador to China or serving in the Peace Corps and learning a new language altogether, he plans to continue using his gift of language learning to serve others. Given his interest in helping others, it’s fitting that the Mandarin expression Landon recalls as a favorite is “Jiāyóu,” which means “add oil,” and is used as a phrase of encouragement in China. It’s a phrase that he heard often while living in China, and now he passes that encouragement on to others at home. If you heard those words, could you learn a new language, or use those you speak in a way that impacts others? What might you be encouraged to do? 加油
- Story by Katherine Stark