Hollywood. Guns. Obesity.

These were just a few of the terms that came immediately to the minds of Chinese officials when they thought of the United States. For first-year students at Duke, some of the terms associated with China included “communism,” “gunpowder” and even “pandas.”

It was these kinds of labels that faculty and staff at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) hoped to explore during their Evening of China-U.S. Public Diplomacy, held at the Bassett Residence Hall on Duke’s East Campus on Thursday, Sept. 24.

During the event, Duke students from diverse countries met with 14 mid- and senior-level Chinese officials participating in the four-month public policy and management program for China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The students and officials broke into small groups for two rounds of 10-minute discussions on politics, culture and family life.

Catherine Admay, visiting professor at DCID and faculty-in-residence at Bassett, organized the event to give all the conversants a taste of public diplomacy.

“When you have a chance to talk with people from other countries and cultures and learn from them, it’s easier to do it again,” she said. “I teach my students about ‘cultural competency,’ and here was a wonderful opportunity to start down that road with intentional and interesting conversations.” 

What is the relationship between “public diplomacy” and “cultural competency”?

“Public diplomacy is often called ‘people-to-people diplomacy,’ where people learn about each other’s ways of thinking and being as the essential first step to finding reasons and pathways to cooperate with each other,” Admay said.

Dean Storelli, program coordinator and instructor of writing and communication at DCID, said that the exercise was designed to help the participants engage in “the three L’s”: listening, laughing and learning. He said he hoped it was a small step in building U.S.-China relations.

“Governments depend on their citizens getting to know citizens from other countries,” he said. “Many people believe that this kind of public diplomacy makes the high-level processes and decisions easier.”  

The event gave Chinese officials the chance to share their perspectives with first-year students not only from the U.S., but also India, Swaziland, South Korea, France, Kenya, England, Togo and other countries. Xu Wei, SAFEA participant and director of China’s National Copyright Office, said he was delighted to meet a student whose family was from his hometown.  

“[The students] are energetic, dynamic and have so much imagination,” he said. “We’re only here for four months; events like this are so helpful for our studies because we can communicate with people of different ages and backgrounds. We can get to know each other more and establish trust.”

Duke first-year Cara Leigh Downey said she came away from the event with a broader perspective.

“Sometimes I think it’s very easy to distance ourselves from other cultures,” she said. “I feel like this closed that gap.” 

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