Alumni Highlight

Cross-cultural Relationships: An Interview with Derek Chuah

May 25, 2021

Derek Chuah participated in the Chinese Overseas Flagship Program where he studied with Nanjing University students in Nanjing, China and later interned full-time as a content producer with Tencent Holdings, a major Chinese player in the world of technology, internet, and media. While recalling the pleasure of simple daily treats, such as bubble tea and pork belly over rice, Derek shares how his Asian American identity helped him jump start cross cultural conversations and learning experiences within the local Chinese community. Derek is a graduate student at the John’s Hopkins School of International Studies and is a China watcher at The China Guys, a start-up dedicated to providing insightful analysis and fresh perspectives on everything related to China.

Comment on the relationships made while on the overseas internship program with your peer group, internship colleagues, Nanjing University, or community. What relationship had the biggest impact on your experience?

During my time in Nanjing, I forged many relationships with people who would eventually become lifelong friends. Whether it was professors, classmates, or members of my community I interacted with during my everyday life, each person I met became an integral part of my year abroad and contributed in some way to my experience abroad.

As a Flagship student attending classes alongside local Nanjing University students, I was afforded a unique educational experience that starkly contrasted from my undergraduate studies back home. As an American, the culture I was raised in was fundamentally different from that of my Nanjing University counterparts, but as a student of Asian descent I shared many customs and traditions that my classmates could relate to. Being able to live and learn alongside these classmates allowed us to share our understandings of the differences between our cultures and bond over these differences.

My time interning at Tencent brought about a similar story. As the only international employee at our office, I had the unique experience of bringing my American background to the office culture. Whenever my group had a meeting, I would be able to participate the same as any other employee, but my colleagues appreciated my perspective from a different lens. To them, my background as an American student with exposure to Asian culture allowed me to bring a unique type of contribution to the team, which in turn helped me feel like I was valued as a member of the team.

Perhaps the most important relationships that I built during my time in China were those with the members of my community. Whether it was with my landlord or the bubble tea lady down the street, my time with members of my community in Nanjing really enriched my experience and introduced me to the lifestyles of those around me. Through daily excursions through my neighborhood, I was able to make friends with people of various backgrounds and exchange my culture with theirs. One particularly memorable relationship that I built was with a couple that owned a restaurant I frequented during my time at the university. After a semester of weekly visits to chow down on their delicious pork belly over rice, I had become good friends with both of them and they offered to teach me how to make my favorite dish. After each lesson, we would sit down and share the freshly-cooked food while sharing stories about our backgrounds. 

While my questions for them mainly revolved around their lives in Nanjing and how they started their business, they were particularly interested in my background as an Asian American student at the nexus of our cultures. They would ask me about my life in New York, how I came to learn Chinese, and how I felt that Chinese culture in America was different from what I observed in China. We had many insightful conversations over good food, and despite my entire year of academic studies at Nanjing University, I fondly remember my time with this couple as one of the more educational experiences of my Capstone year abroad.