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When I left China six and a half years ago, I embraced my new life as a 16-year-old Seattle girl. I drank way too much Starbucks coffee, jogged around Greenlake Park, ate teriyaki and kayaked on Lake Washington. Then like my American stepfather, I proudly joined the ranks of my Husky forebears, graduating from the University of Washington in the summer of 2011.
I never imagined my life as an American would lead me to the humidity of what used to be a West Georgia swamp, sharing a joke with Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, former commanding general of Fort Benning, and being part of a quartet May 9 saluting an airplane filled with the highest-ranking officers of the Peoples Liberation Army of China, including Chinas Minister of Defense.
Confused? Let me explain.
A product of Chinas one-child policy, I havent lived with my biological father since childhood. While working in Seattle, my mother fell in love and I immigrated shortly thereafter. As an awkward teen with minimal communication skills, I studied hard and my stepfather patiently spent hours allowing me to practice my Eng-rish on him.
Luckily my new family traditions of Christmas decorating, Thanksgiving meals and car maintenance Americanized me very quickly. My Hawaiian-shirt-loving stepdads robust collection of old movies and music albums dramatically increased my English vocabulary and I quickly caught on to Beatle-mania.
My other favorite times were with my now deceased grandpa Jones. He was an Army paratrooper during World War II and painted vivid pictures of his experiences fighting in the Pacific and the Philippines. He taught me what it was to be a true American. It wasnt until my third year at college that I realized the significance of my grandpas sacrifice. His service and my stepdads love and acceptance allowed me to become an American, and I wanted to return the favor.
I graduated early and entered the U.S. Armys Officer Training Program. I spent nine grueling weeks at Fort Jackson, S.C., for Basic Combat Training, and then entered Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. After I earn a commission, I plan to eventually become a Military Foreign Area Officer to China.
But I digress.
To create healthy bilateral military ties between the U.S. and China, the Chinese government sent their Minister of Defense, Gen. Liang Guanglie, to speak with the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to open communication between the two countries. This marked the first diplomatic mission in over a decade by Chinas minister of defense to America. After speaking in Washington, D.C., Liang toured a major military base of each of our armed forces, with Fort Benning, home of the Infantry and Armor, being a natural choice to represent the U.S. Army.
When Fort Benning officials discovered I grew up in Chinas coastal city of Dalian, I was invited to attend this monumental meeting. You can imagine my feeling of pride and nervous anticipation.
So today we are going to demonstrate live-fire exercises, Brown said. You probably think its to show off, but when I went to China, the Chinese did the same thing.
With the firepower Brown had at his disposal, the visiting dignitaries couldnt help but be impressed.
Brown, who started his military career playing basketball at West Point under NCAA Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, quickly won the Chinese generals over with a genuine confidence and articulate manner gained from years of leading troops in combat. The U.S. Secretary of Defense had given him the challenging and delicate task of using soft power diplomacy to showcase hard power tools of destruction.
Brown is decisive, humble and gets the job done. Like previous military ambassadors, the general quickly broke the ice, then provided a full days worth of fun activities: riding in tanks, shooting machine guns, playing with GPS guided mortars and observing BCT trainees compete on challenging obstacle courses.
Did you have to do this? one PLA Chinese officer asked. The standard is the same for both males and females?
Thus, my tentative concern was quickly dispelled as I was bombarded with personal questions from the Chinese generals. In contrast to the rigid, stern impression I had of military men growing up in China, our guests were humorous and relieved to have a native Chinese speaker to answer their nonstop questions.
As prior enlisted soldiers, the PLA generals rose through the ranks with an average of 40 years of service. They were eager to learn and teach me their rank structure and responsibilities as commanders. They enjoyed teasing me, asking how much my salary was and joking that it was so low I would be better off getting married.
Are you working on that? PLA Maj. Gen. Jiang Moxiang asked. Youve got a beau, right?
Some of the more delicate conversations hinged around why I had joined the military instead of returning to join the PLA, and on the relationship between Taiwan, the U.S. and China.
Being a very touchy subject, I listened attentively and was careful to stay neutral. I enjoyed his honesty and perspective on the subject.
While at the National Infantry Museum, Maj. Gen. Gao Jin wanted to lecture me on military history.
Americas history is short and easy, he said. It all boils down to expansion, from 13 colonies to what American is today. Easy.
A fair statement, considering his country first united around 221BC.
The PLA officers were keen to know the cost of our commodities, equipment and training. Also, I was asked multiple times what it was like being an Asian in the U.S. military, and if I was discriminated against.
It seemed an odd question to me at first, considering I have never felt anything close to racial discrimination since coming to the U.S. I guess its hard to understand our countrys unique status as an ethnic melting pot until you are a part of it.
Proud to share their own successes with me, the PLA generals described their new education policy similar to our ROTC program. The exception being that after two years of service, soldiers can return to college and choose any major without entrance exams.
The entire experience felt much more natural than I expected. Characteristic of elderly males in Chinese culture, many of the visiting generals seemed to enjoy fawning over me with fatherly concern.
Brown went out of his way to present me as a future officer and include me in his discussions, providing me a valuable mentoring experience.
With the growing prominence of Chinas cyberwarfare capabilities, coupled with their $107 billion defense budget, second only to America, the emergence of China as a military superpower seems inevitable.
This new military relationship between the giant and the titan may have the potential to drastically change the worlds geopolitical and military climate in a non-confrontational direction.
With leaders like Brown at the helm, I am confident great things will come from future China-U.S. military relations, and I hope to be a part of them as a future Army officer.
Editors note: Austin Cusak contributed to the composition and editing of this commentary for publication.