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  • Click to view calbear14's profile
    Posted March 15, 2014 by
    Berkeley, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Why study abroad? Ask Michelle Obama

    Empowering LGBT Students: Building Solidarity in China


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     calbear14 had studied abroad in Shanghai, China last semester. His question for Michelle Obama: ' In light of the recent controversies surrounding homosexuality in various parts of the world, what advice can you give to LGBT youth who may feel reluctant to study abroad due to safety concerns?'
    - Jareen, CNN iReport producer

    My name is Joel Yap and I'm an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Last semester, I had the privilege of studying abroad at Fudan University in Shanghai, China as a Benjamin A. Gilman Scholar.

    Last year I attended a social justice panel at my school hosted by the Asian American community. They spoke of the new progressive movement building momentum across mainland China on issues such as women's rights, land, environmental issues and LGBT issues. As the next world superpower, I believed that the way in which China deals with these issues can have a major influence on the rest of the world. I was inspired to learn more about this dialogue and figured studying abroad would be the best avenue for it.

    Being raised in a very liberal and diverse city like San Francisco, I seldom felt pressured to hide my sexuality. When making the decision to study in China - a more conservative country - I knew this worldview would be challenged. The fact that there are currently no protection laws in place for homosexuals in China was a little unsettling. However, it was my goal to step out of my comfort zone and that's exactly what I did.

    My experience turned out to be life changing. For four months, I immersed myself in Chinese culture as a full-time student taking Mandarin, business and sociology, teaching English at a migrant school in a rural part of Shanghai, exploring the dynamic and bustling city streets that never seemed to sleep, trying street foods of all sorts, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and taking weekend trips to Suzhou ("Venice of the East"), Huangshan Mountains (which was used as inspiration for scenes in Avatar), the Great Wall, and Beijing with students from all over the world, some of which I am still good friends with to this day.

    The most significant moment for me was the interactions I had with local LGBT students on campus. I made a friend named Zhang. He was a grad student in Chemistry and spoke very good English. He gave me tours around campus and took me to cool cafes where we'd talk about life. He shared the struggles he faces dealing with his sexuality, the pressure from his parents to get married, have kids, and continue the family lineage, the pressure to succeed, and the strong notion of "shame" attached to homosexuality. After sharing my own stories of struggle, I realized how similar we were and felt a deep connection that bridged the gap between our cultural differences.

    From this experience, I've learned that when we open our minds, we allow each other to see the world from another perspective. Simply engaging in dialogue over personal stories of struggle made me realize how powerful my exchange with Zhang was in creating positive social change, in liberating the voices of those who oftentimes feel silenced. I have learned that all stereotypes and misunderstandings can be crushed through mutual understanding. This is why studying abroad is crucial in changing the world because peace between countries can only start from the small exchanges between our people. Even though I am oceans apart from China, the solidarity I've built with Zhang and the LGBT community at Fudan will never be divided.

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