Le'Priya White '19:
In The Life of The "Mayor"
Le'Priya White is the 2019-2021 Shansi Fellow at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her first year narrative.
While in Vietnam, I had the privilege to share a dinner with Candice, Director and Faculty in Residence of the Africana Studies Department at Oberlin. During my time as a student, she was one of the many faculty members I became close with. In fact, I was the first student she met at Oberlin. As we walked to the Africana Heritage House during our first conversation, I shared my thoughts about Oberlin, student life, student struggle, and my own experiences. I also discussed the change I wanted to see happen. Now, years later, I was able to see her in my new world in Asia, outside of my Oberlin comfort zone. We talked, and what stuck to me was that she said I was like the “mayor of Oberlin” because of the impact I had on campus. In my head, I thought “The mayor?! Do I have the amount of confidence, power, and influence a mayor has? No way could that be me.” Being a part of several community-based organizations, a dance group, many musical ensembles, and student research initiatives, you would think public speaking, performing, and having general confidence came naturally to me. It didn’t; while I may have looked calm on the outside, I would be extremely nervous and anxious. However, in my time living and traveling in Asia, I’ve been reflecting and working on the person I want to be. Prior to moving to China, I taught for two weeks in the Dominican Republic as a teaching assistant. In Taigu, I have my own classroom and make my own agendas. While rural China has its own challenges and the language barrier is real, I never felt more confident in my ability to live and travel abroad. I have the confidence to influence and motivate my students to keep pushing to learn because I knew what it was like to be discouraged from trying. But just like me, I never want them to give up.
Le’Priya and Candice Raynor, Oberlin staff, in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Teaching is no easy feat. It’s hard to manage big class sizes, especially since I have never talked in front of that many people that often, but I am getting the hang of it. I am very excited to see what the next semester brings, and I can’t wait to see my growth. In my classes, I like to focus on a different cultural topic every week. I save space for my students to ask me any questions I haven’t addressed in class. These questions address many subjects, like food, music, family, or education/ college culture.
Every week I also learn something different between our cultures, even beyond customs and cultural mannerisms. An example of this is class participation. When a student talks in class, other students often have side conversations in the background. Some say it is a way to take the pressure off the student who is addressing the class. The extra noise can make them less nervous to speak. Others say they engage in side conversations because they’ve never been told that it’s not okay. As you know, in Western culture, that type of behavior can come off as disrespectful, and I’m not sure how much truth is behind these explanations. I hope that, if this extra chatter is related to a speaker’s confidence, I can work more in the future to ensure that my students can be proud of themselves when addressing a group of people.
Le’Priya giving directions to her graduate student class during a game of charades.
Le’Priya with one of her graduate classes (animal science majors).
Since starting the Fellowship, I have explored my confidence beyond the classroom. Faith in yourself is key when traveling as well. During my winter break, I have traveled to many places: Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and Indonesia. In Vietnam, my partner and I dealt with my first pickpocket. You can imagine how discouraging I felt. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the solo trip I had planned right after or even how I was going to survive living in China until the summer. It was then that I realized that being abroad was more than just teaching English, but it was being able to adapt to different situations, learning how to ask for help when you really needed it (something that I rarely do), and figuring out how to communicate your needs in a language you have never heard before. I learned more about myself then than in any other space I have occupied or any obstacle that I have faced. I didn’t know how I was going to pull a solo trip off with little to no resources or with no background in the languages spoken. I had people telling me I should go back to China even though at that time, I didn’t have enough money to go back to China or home. I just had to make do with what I had with the help from my partner. Though I have studied abroad before, this was the first time that I was alone and needed to plan my own activities, prepare my own food, find my own housing, navigate through language barriers, make friends on my own, and so on.
Le’Priya and her partner, Sara, at a elephant sanctuary in Bangkok, Thailand
I officially traveled for a month by myself. Not with a study abroad group, not with a host family, not with faculty, but by myself. This is a form of independence I thought I would never see or be able to say I achieved. I not only went to a foreign place to teach and work across the world but I was able to travel and see the world. I never felt so proud in my life and I was able to do things I love. I went on food tours and I saw people perform their passions. I also was able to see, learn, and play Javanese Gamelan music. This was incredibly special to me as I spent two years of my Oberlin College career playing this music, so being able to see it in not only in real life but in its place of origin, in Indonesia, made it so much special. These moments of joy reminded me that though being in Asia is hard, it is worth it. The experiences I am gaining and the things that I am seeing are worth the challenges. In Indonesia, I was able to combine my worlds of music, of Oberlin, of traveling together. It made me feel that what I did and my involvement in music made sense.
Growing up, I would have never thought that I would have had a chance to do something like this because no one around me did this before. I was the first in my family to think about and successfully do something as big and brave as this. This solo trip alone and teaching/learning has made me more confident and helped me have more faith in myself. Being a researcher/presenter, musician, and dancer in college, I always had to perform and present myself. I had to hide my fears long enough and pretend to be confident to get the job done. But being in a different environment, facing different challenges, I actually feel confident and the work I am doing feels natural. I’m excited to keep traveling and meeting people from different countries and to learn more about myself.
Le’Priya leaving from her last solo trip flght in Yogyakarta
Besides teaching and seeing as much of the world as I can, I am still exploring what brings me joy. I often talk to people back at home and look for opportunities that could help me achieve my goals after I leave Taigu. Music is still a passion I have, so I am grateful that I was able to buy a violin during my first shopping spree on 11.11. Outside of teaching, I am also learning. I’m not only learning music, but I am learning how to ride a motorbike, which has been one of the greatest challenges of all. I would say learning balance goes beyond the bike for me as I am learning ways to balance my US and Asia life, balancing how much time I spend working on class work and having fun outside the job, balancing my introvertedness with my occasional extrovertedness. However, I do hope to make more local friends and practice more Chinese. I also hope to find a way to learn the Chinese square dancing I see at parks or open areas. These dance sessions appear in many parts of China and I would love to learn more dancing styles. When I see them dance, I often dance with them from afar, I think I have what it takes.
Le’Priya playing the rebab during a Javanese Gamelan class in Yogyakarta
I can’t wait to see what this experience has in store for me. While this Fellowship has given me the greatest opportunity to learn more about myself and who I am, I am very blessed to be able to not only have the chance to get to know my students but learn from students I don’t see often or work with. One of the events that had a huge impact was being a judge of an English speech contest. This past semester, I taught English to Masters and Ph.D. students, mostly animal science and fungi majors. This was my first chance to see what type of work English language learners do at an agricultural school. I saw the passion and drive in each of their faces. I was able to hear their dreams and hope for China, for their future, and generations to come. They told me how important learning English and teaching it to others is to them while some hoped that Chinese will be considered an official language for more countries, such as English. No matter what their dreams were, you could see the confidence, even if they stumbled, and dedication. It was very inspiring to me to want to push my students into keep trying and being okay with making mistakes. There are some who want to learn English and maybe some who only want to learn about American culture, but I knew from then that I just wanted to try and help them achieve their goals. So if I help them in office hours or invite them to a holiday party to introduce a little American culture to them, I want to ensure that I am here for them and that we are all learning together because I am learning, too.
I’m not sure if the Oberlin me believed I had the confidence and power as a “mayor”, or any other qualities that title has, but the Shansi me does and I am working towards that one step at a time! I have seen and felt more confidence than I have for years. So cheers to growth, learning, and “being all of that and a bag of chips.”