Byron Rivers

Rasaan Liddell, executive director of the newly founded Afro-Sino Chamber of Commerce, jokes that if someone were to run their fingers over the Chamber’s articles, their hand would come away smudged with ink. The Chamber’s headquarters on South Wabash Street were only completed last December, and consist of a multipurpose room and a medium-sized table where Liddell’s young son sometimes does his homework after school. 

Although the nonprofit organization is just starting, its goals are big. The Afro-Sino Chamber of Commerce aspires to acquaint two cultures and communities with each other: the African-American and the Chinese. One of the Chamber’s programs, the Chinese Cultural Initiative, is designed to reinforce African-American students’ knowledge of the Chinese language while educating them about the modern Chinese community. Personally, Liddell describes a need to “do justice” in representing two communities that he identifies with closely. On a pragmatic level, too, the Chinese market is growing quickly and reaching to America for business, and African-American youth need jobs.

As Liddell explained at the Chamber’s Chinese Cultural Initiative Open House on January 24, the program aims to teach Mandarin. While language programs like the Chinese Cultural Initiative are fairly standard, the wider ambitions of the Afro-Sino Chamber of Commerce are a bit more creative. In 2014, the nationwide unemployment rate for the African-American population hovered around ten or eleven percent, compared to the national average of five or six percent. Liddell argues that the Chinese Cultural Initiative is a step toward closing this gap.

The initiative is split into three modules. The first module is called “#BridgetheDivide,” which aims to teach participants about China, and foster an understanding of global citizenship through interaction with fellow Chinese-studying peers and the local Chinese community.

In the second module, “Confucius Says,” Liddell hopes to send twenty high-school students to Beijing and the Sichuan Province, providing a cultural immersion experience and, Liddell hopes, increasing their marketability to colleges by demonstrating their interest in global affairs.

But the most interesting part of the initiative is the third module, the Chinese Corner. Based on the “English Corners” of China, the Chinese Corner would allow students who are currently studying Chinese to converse with native speakers, discuss Chinese current events, and could lead, with enough participation, to the opening of the Chamber’s Putonghua Academy, which would offer Chinese reinforcement every day after school. For members of the Chamber, the Chinese Corner is free. For non-members, a donation of twenty dollars is suggested.

Liddell stresses the importance of learning the language of an employer or business partner. “That’s how we gain employment in our communities,” he says. “We really need to focus on ourselves and the way we present ourselves, and comport ourselves, and educate ourselves, and take care of ourselves.” Liddell hopes that allowing African-American youth to hone their Chinese language skills will make them more competitive candidates for jobs with Chinese businesses or American businesses looking to extend their reach.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese dialects combined) is the second most commonly spoken non-English language in the U.S., closely behind Spanish. Chinese is being taught in schools across Chicago, but Liddell wants students to engage with the language as something more than a required course. “Let’s switch this around,” he says. “We’re not looking at this like a laborious task, we’re looking at it like an opportunity.”

Liddell hopes that getting students who have already been exposed to Chinese to converse with native speakers about Chinese current events will engage other young people and spark their interest in global affairs, while giving them the tools they need to find work in the international market.

By increasing interest in—and understanding of—Chinese culture among African-American youth, Liddell wishes to eradicate the misconceptions that he says sometimes discourage African-American-Chinese partnerships. A native Chicagoan, Liddell is concerned with neighborhood polarization. “Several years ago,” he explains, “Chinatown bordered an area—an African-American community—that was extremely impoverished. Here,” he says, outlining a square with his hands, “there was Chinatown, and then right across the street we had this public housing complex. They got a bad experience.”

Abroad, Liddell taught in Sichuan Province for over a decade, and he was struck by the lack of African-American peers. “Unfortunately, since we’re not there being represented, the only information the Chinese have about African Americans (specifically and particularly African-American males) is what gets displayed in the media. And what I’ve come to find out is that more often than not, the negative stuff gets propagated and expounded upon more so than ‘local guy graduates with straight A’s.’”

Liddell is not alone in his goals. Two months ago, the Chamber was asked to participate in the decennial celebration for Walter Payton College Preparatory High School’s Confucius Institute. Liddell has also been a guest lecturer at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. And the open house attracted a number of passionate parents and students who are eager to connect with other cultures. Two young native Chinese women made an appearance, communicating solely in Chinese—they’ll be teachers in the potential Putonghua Academy.

Also in attendance were curious community members such as Joseph Greene, a language enthusiast who heard about the event from a friend on the Eventbrite website. Greene cites his previous travels abroad as inspiration for his love of languages. Like Liddell, Greene sees similarities between the African-American and the Chinese experience, especially in how the two cultures are portrayed to each other. “In both cultures,” he says, “there are more similarities than differences. Just push yourself to go outside your own box and environment and expand yourself.”

Despite the excitement at the open house, the informal atmosphere was a reminder of the newness of the Chamber. In the context of African-American underemployment, learning Chinese seems to represent, at most, a niche solution. But the Afro-Sino Chamber of Commerce’s Chinese Cultural Initiative is pushing forward in its idealism. The very first Chinese Corner was held on January 31, and Liddell was pleasantly surprised by its success. Besides a group of adults eager to discuss China and foreign policy, the program attracted a few students from St. Ignatius High School and six primary school students, ages four through eight. Soon, the chamber may need a bigger room.

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