Angela Hicks has been active as promoter of Chinese culture and exchange ever since her time as a graduate student at North Carolina State.
MF: A lot of people may be surprised to find out that someone who is such an avid promoter of Chinese culture and learning the Chinese language happens to be African-American. In fact, you probably have a much deeper connection to China than I do, as a third generation Chinese-American who never learned to speak Chinese. How did this start for you?
AH: I came to North Carolina State in the late nineties to get my doctorate in adult education and I moved to graduate student housing at the E.S. King Village. At the time, about 80% of the residents there were Chinese. I was chosen to be president or mayor of the village, the one who had direct contact with the University about things involving our needs there. My then husband was a professor at Eastern Michigan University and my son, Emeka, was still a baby. I was basically a single parent there.
One of the big things for these Chinese families was to have garden plots where they would grow vegetables. They’d come out every morning in their conical hats with their hoes. Other times they’d be outside doing Tai Chi. I learned to say “Ni how” as I was walking by with my baby; they would smile and applaud.
I started noticing that they were outside every day except on Saturday, so I asked them where they were going. They told me to come with them and to bring my son. It turned out to be a school where they were teaching Chinese. I started bringing Emeka to the school.
MF: And that’s how you got to know one another?
AH: Before that, I needed a babysitter. The Chinese graduate students there told me, “As long as you’re at school, our parents will babysit for free. We’ll open our community to you.”
When I needed a babysitter, I’d knock on doors and give them my baby. Often, they didn’t speak any English. After a while, we’d eat dinner together. I’d grown up in Annapolis, Maryland. I had no exposure to China or Chinese before that.
MF: That’s an amazing act of trust on both sides.
AH: They were very precise about it. I had to be doing school things, for them to babysit. I didn’t
have the money for daycare. I wouldn’t have gotten through my program without them. I developed a sense of sisterhood with many of the women at E.S. King.
MF: How did that work?
AH: I met a teacher at the Chinese school, Peng. The classes were completely in Chinese. Peng spoke English, so after class she would translate for us. After that, I found out that Peng had been a doctor in China and was trying to become a nurse here. One day, she came to me and said, “I need your help; I don’t know how to relate to American patients.”
We exchanged. She taught Emeka Chinese and I role played with her to help her do her nursing. The exchange went on for two years until she graduated. Again, we never exchanged money. We’re still good friends. Peng lives in Cary now and is working as a nurse.
MF: When did you first visit China?
AH: My friends from E.S. King offered to help me find a job teaching English in China. There were some were some weird questions in the interviews: I was a PHD and they would ask if I dressed and talked properly. On the phone, they would talk to me and be excited, but once they saw my passport photo, things would suddenly change and there’d be no offer. It took me over two years to get a position.
MF: What changed things?
AH: One of my friends, Kamau Ali, who had worked for the State Department advised me to make a point of disclosing my race as early in the process as possible. The minute I did that, I got a job in Changping, a fifth ring suburb of Beijing, teaching English at a college. The lady I dealt with told me she had to check with her manager. She was so excited about my getting approval, she called me at midnight my time.
MF: So, Emeka was still very young at the time?
AH: He was ten. About seven months in, we were about to go into the city and several policemen appeared. All the western adults were with us and none of us spoke Chinese well. The policeman looks at my son and starts speaking to him in Chinese. Emeka answers. He tells me, “They’re saying you need permission to take me off campus.”
I realized then that he understood Chinese fluently seven months in. We just had to go to the gate to sign him out.
We stayed for a year.
MF: Then you came back here?
AH: After we returned to North Carolina, I developed a relationship with NCSU, so we could have a Chinese scholar stay with us each year for four to five months. That way my son could keep up the language. My Chinese started when I was forty-five. I understand the culture, can travel alone there, and can order in a restaurant, but I’ve never crossed over into being fluent. When Chinese people hear Emeka, they’re mostly shocked. He’s currently a student at North Carolina State University, majoring in economics and minoring in Chinese.
MF: Have you been back to China since?
AH: When I came back, I wanted to return to China once a year, so we started Global Link, a tour group that takes a group of up to twenty non-Chinese speakers to China each summer, so they can learn the language and the culture.
When I meet young people, I try to get them to consider a career in Chinese. I also adopted Stough Magnet Elementary School , the full immersion Mandarin school in Raleigh.
MF: At first, they must have been a little surprised to see you as the person helping students learn about Chinese culture.
AH: Our involvement with the schools has been a very conscious thing. When Emeka was young and when we were at E.S. King, I used to visit the public schools in the area and I noticed there was a very marked difference between classrooms even in the same school. You could walk down a corridor and see classrooms that were primarily African-American and Latino and classrooms that were primarily white and Asian. I also noticed there was a difference in what the kids were learning and who was teaching the class. The African-American and Latino classrooms were frequently getting teachers who were less experienced. In many ways, I believe our connection to Chinese language and culture saved our family’s life. It started with that seed of kindness at E.S. King when the Chinese families there offered to look after my child for free, so I could go to class.
MF: You’ve also been active with Asian Focus.
AH: Yes, I’m on the board as the VIP outreach coordinator and grant writer.
MF: You’re also a board member, who’s directly participated in the Dragon Boat races.
AH: I grew up around boats in Annapolis, but I had no experience boating. I’d seen Dragon Boat races in China and I thought it was really cool. Last year was my first year as a participant. I e-mailed fifty of my friends and I got eleven to join me.
MF: Doesn’t it take 20 to fill out a Dragon Boat?
AH: That turned out to be very easy. The Raleigh Dragon Boat club helped us to fill out our boat.
We were all newbies. It works out to $37.50/person to enter. As part of the fee, the Raleigh Dragon Boat Club offers free training sessions before the race. I wound up making friends through the club and even a business contact or two.
The club lets anyone who needs practice to come Wednesdays-Thursdays every other week and Saturdays-Sundays. There’s a practice for newcomers and one for veterans.
MF: So your involvement now goes beyond the Festival itself.
AH: Yes, it’s become a part of my own fitness regime. The dragon boat racers are pretty fascinating people. Some participate in these races all over the world. A lot of us go to other Dragon Boat Festivals in places like Charlotte and Orlando. The racers do cross fit, weight lifting, healthy eating; they’re very serious about it. They’re all ages and ethnicities.
MF: So what do you like best about it?
AH: There’s this big adrenaline rush in a 300-500 meter race. It’s a great thing, because you’re putting in everything you’ve learned. In practice at sunset, it’s really beautiful and quiet. There are 20 people on the boat, yet it’s so quiet and peaceful.
MF: So, how did your boat do?
AH: Our Grand Asia boat got a second place. One of the interesting things is that it’s not about strength as much as it is about rowing together. Pan Am Dragon Boats does a really good job of helping to put on the races.
MF: Your connection to Chinese language and culture is quite amazing. I keep thinking– this woman is more Chinese than I am.
AH: It is amazing the way it’s spread across my life and become a focus for so much of what I do. I always think back to that seed of kindness that started with the Chinese families I met at E.S. King twenty years ago. So much grew from that.
Do you have a story to tell? We’re looking for personal stories and family stories for any Asians with ties to the Triangle. If you have a story to tell, contact us!