My China Story | Megan Cansfield (United Kingdom & United States)


Megan Cansfield is a British-American dual national and 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with majors in Political Science, International Studies, and Chinese Studies. She was also a Fulbright fellow at Yanbian University in China, where her research focused on the role of the Korean Peninsula security dilemma in U.S.-China relations and U.S.-China geostrategic engagement in East Asia. Following her studies in Politics and International Relations at the Yenching Academy, Megan plans to pursue a diplomatic career as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, where she hopes to specialize in bilateral and multilateral engagement with China at the intergovernmental level.


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It seems that everyone who comes to China from abroad – for work, internships, language study, study abroad, personal ties – has a different “China story” of how they first became interested in China and how they wound up here. The destination is the same, but the “why” is different.

I have had the privilege of hearing the personal journeys of many people throughout my years of language study in and out of China. Now, I thought I would share mine.

China Calling

Before deciding to focus on China in particular, I had long been fascinated by East Asian languages and cultures more broadly ever since my friends introduced me to Japanese anime and manga around fourth grade. The more I learned about Japan through pop culture, the more I became curious about other Asian countries with similar cultural heritages like China and Korea, and the more I became determined to explore this interest in person. Years later, as a high school senior, I felt drawn to Asia once more after resolving to follow my love of world affairs and foreign cultures into a career in diplomacy.

Although it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when I became aware of my growing interest in China specifically, hearing journalists and authors focus more and more on China over the years undoubtedly helped me “catch the China bug,” motivating me to follow their stories to learn for myself about China’s unique cultural and historical heritage along with the fascinating modern development process they described. As my passion for international relations began to take shape alongside my burgeoning curiosity about China, I looked for ways to combine and explore these interests together.

A Taste of China

My first opportunity to begin my China journey came in the summer of 2013, between high school and college, with an acceptance letter to the National Security Languages Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) summer program - an intensive language and culture immersion program for U.S. high school students to study critical languages abroad on full scholarship from the U.S. Department of State.

Through NSLI-Y, I traveled to Shanghai for six weeks with a group of fourteen other young Americans.  I lived with a Chinese host family, attended my first-ever Mandarin classes, participated in cultural activities, and soaked in all of the very foreign-seeming sights, sounds and sensations of China.

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For a complete Chinese language beginner, even things as simple as reading the public bus stop schedule, ordering without the 老外 (lǎowài, “foreigner”) picture menu cheat sheet at restaurants, bargaining my way out of enterprising shop keepers’ rip-off attempts, or conversing beyond scripted textbook question-and-response patterns were all difficult and exhausting. Some days, I had no energy for anything except heading straight home to recuperate in my room, retreating from my new confusing environment into my own private safety bubble to review phrases and prepare myself to re-engage the next day.

Yet despite the initial discomfort and feelings of cultural alienation, I was surprised how quickly I was able to adapt and come to appreciate the challenges of living in China, which went from troublesome and tiring in my eyes to exciting, insightful and invigorating compared to life in the US. Although the challenges were significant, every little victory of navigating an unfamiliar environment was that much more meaningful in China. The Chinese people’s endless patience and understanding while laughing along with me at my blunders further encouraged me to persist with my efforts to understand and connect with them in return.

The seemingly ordinary connections that I was able to make while living in China, with the people and the culture, were rewarding in ways I hadn’t experienced simply by staying in the comfortable box of Western cultures that my life had been until then. In many ways, it felt “right” to live and study in China, and I gradually got more comfortable feeling uncomfortable and operating outside my comfort zone.

Opening My Eyes

The start of my quest to keep discovering and re-discovering China from new perspectives – from the Mainland to Hong Kong, Taiwan, East Asia and beyond.

If I had to describe my experience in China with NSLI-Y in only one phrase, it would be most accurate to call those six weeks a “process of discovery,” in both myself and my awareness of the world.

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Once the initial culture shock and overwhelming “newness” of China started to wear off, I gradually began to notice differences and similarities between the China I was seeing and the China I heard about in the news back in the U.S.. I was intrigued to continue reconciling these different viewpoints by learning more about this dynamic and colorful nation, which I count myself extremely lucky to have experienced in recent times at a fascinating point of national transformation and expanding influence in the world.

The most striking thing to me was the abundance of contrasts that I found everywhere: tradition and modernity, old and new, wealth and poverty, order and chaos and many other seemingly binary opposites coexisted comfortably in Shanghai as I had never seen before.

China: A country of contrasts, connecting familiar past with future possibility.

On the drive into the city center, a glance outside the bus window revealed a sea of construction cranes and empty high-rise apartment complexes towering abruptly over tiny run-down farm houses where workers hunched over tending vegetables in their fields next door. In the city, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the landscaped Yu gardens from the Ming Dynasty nestled among busy market streets and office buildings, a tranquil oasis of tradition. The jumble of illuminated glass store fronts and glaring neon signs around the entrances to the otherwise - picturesque ancient water towns of Qibao and Zhujiajiao further reinforced the feeling of haphazardly super imposed development in the wake of China’s economic reform and opening just three decades prior.

It was clear that China was changing all around me, and now that I found myself in the middle of this change, I knew I wanted to be a part of it too.

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Digging Deeper

From the small snippets of China that I was able to observe in those six weeks, it appeared impossible to categorize China with just one set of adjectives or box it into just one national identity as Western writers and broadcasters often attempt to do. It became apparent to me that nothing can be taken at face value with China and that true understanding requires further digging below the surface, a compelling complexity that drew me to China even more.

My time in China with NSLI-Y was also the perfect introduction to Chinese language study, as well as my first opportunity to truly communicate and connect with native speakers in a foreign language. In ever ceased to find these interactions immensely exciting and rewarding, and every conversation – no matter how small – gave me a thrilling sense of joy and accomplishment at working around the challenges of the language barrier.

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I was always met with the most sincere warmth, interest and understanding from the Chinese people I talked to, but I still felt constrained by my limited language skills and was often frustrated by not being to properly express myself in Chinese. It became obvious to me that I could not really engage with China and Chinese people to better understand them, as I really wanted to do, without first improving my language skills.

Continuing with Chinese

I came back from NSLI-Y with new perspectives, an understanding of a new country, and a deep-seated determination that I just had to keep learning Chinese. Six semesters of university language courses later, learning Chinese had quickly become one of my passions, and after declaring a Chinese Studies major in my second year of university, I knew I wanted to – needed to – improve my Chinese beyond the progress I could make in the U.S.. So, I set my sights on going back to China to study abroad.

Fortunately, I was able to pursue my interests in U.S.-China relations and China itself by returning four times for different study, research and internship programs totaling two and a half years in Guangzhou, Beijing, Harbin, and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Each of these experiences allowed me a unique opportunity to gain new insights by learning or working at the intersection of China studies, U.S.-China relations, and international affairs, cementing and strengthening my passion for engaging with China at the interpersonal and intergovernmental levels.

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My next four China experiences: the U.S. Consulate-General in Guangzhou, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Harbin Institute of Technology, and Yanbian University. 

A Journey in Progress

 My time in China has undeniably reinforced my goals to continue learning more about China and studying Chinese well into the future, with the hope that I will one day qualify as “fluent” and can truly call myself a “China expert”. After all, I have discovered that it is only through language and informed communication that I can effectively break down barriers to intercultural understanding, as I aspire to do professionally as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.

From studying Politics and International Relations at the Yenching Academy these next two years to whatever further China-related opportunities may come next, I am eager to continue my China journey by deepening my knowledge and strengthening my connections to the culture and language that have meant so much to me.