The banquet hall had no shortage of delicacies – heaps of barbecued cicadas and sea cucumber soup – but the Chinese university directors were paying more attention to LaVianna Davis than the food. One even paused mid-speech to praise Davis’ beauty.
“I don’t think my color or complexion stopped the blush that came shortly after,” Davis said in her family’s Washington home last week. Davis, a Washington High School alumna, certainly stood out as a young African-American woman in China.
Yet, even more than her appearance, what captivated the locals was her ability to speak Mandarin and her insatiable drive to learn more.
Davis made such a splash during her first trip to China last May that a university in Shandong Province made an offer she couldn’t refuse. In just a couple of weeks, Davis will return to China for three years to teach English language courses, conduct scientific research and serve as a liaison for Chinese students who want to study in the United States.
Davis graduated from Edinboro University in December with degrees in criminal justice and chemistry, but she said her studies were mostly “a means to an end.” As she learned after going to China – her first trip abroad, aside from Canada – traveling is her passion.
“My main love is travel and cultures and language,” Davis said. “After the first trip to China, I felt like I belonged there.”
Davis first went to China for a class on Chinese geography, and she also was an ambassador on Edinboro’s international exchange committee. Davis and two other students visited several universities to improve the Chinese exchange program at Edinboro.
Before leaving for China, Davis started teaching herself Mandarin, the predominant language in China and also one of the most difficult for native English speakers to learn. She used Rosetta Stone software, podcasts and books until she was proficient enough to carry on a conversation.
“I poured myself into it with a passion,” Davis said. “I was not going to go to China and not know any Chinese. I feel you should learn a lot about a culture before you are immersed in that culture.”
Davis also speaks French and said her vocal background helped her quickly pick up Mandarin, which heavily relies on intonation to distinguish between similar-sounding words. She has a penchant for international music and has learned to sing in a dozen languages.
While she prepares for her next trip to China, Davis joked she has been brushing up on Mandarin by eavesdropping at Chinese restaurants.
“I can have a conversation with the best of ’em,” said Davis, who is preparing to take a Mandarin proficiency exam in China. However, she is more concerned about the written exam, because she said she knows between 250 and 500 Chinese characters, and the number of characters stretches into the thousands.
On her first trip to China, Davis sharpened her language skills while traveling to Beijing, Zibo, Qingdao and Jinan. She walked along the Great Wall – “a rite of passage” – and saw Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Confucius’ mansion.
The 22-year-old has a bubbly personality and infectious laugh to match, excitedly jumping from one story to the next as if she were reliving the moment.
There was the time in China she was asked to pose for a photograph with someone’s baby. And the many requests for her to sing American pop songs. She also received a few marriage proposals, and dozens of Chinese people approached her and said, without introduction, “I like Obama.”
Davis said she did not encounter discrimination, although locals often didn’t believe she was American due to her complexion and ability to speak Mandarin. She said the Chinese are genuine and patient, but also have a different outlook.
“There’s a cultural barrier,” Davis said. “It is a true statement they are not like Americans. A lot of places, you don’t realize the big difference that will be there just simply because of culture, and, boy, is there a difference.”
By the way, the barbecued cicadas were “tasty,” almost like grilled chicken, Davis said. The seaweed-filled dumplings, not so much.
While completing scientific research and teaching thousands of students at the Shandong University of Technology, Davis also hopes to earn a master’s degree in international business and relations. As an employee, she would not pay for tuition. Ultimately, she hopes to attend the University of California-Los Angeles for biochemistry.
“She is very ambitious,” said her father, Edwin Davis, “and I knew that she desired to see the world. And one thing about LaVianna is she’s a go-getter. She will sacrifice things to achieve her goals and still make time for fun. Ever since she was a child, she had a determination to be successful, to complete tasks … just her personality and her character alone, she draws.”
Davis said she developed her sense of wonder as a young girl while reading her father’s science books. She said she also drew inspiration from her mother, Tanya, and her grandparents.
“I am very proud of what I did accomplish, and I hope to accomplish so much more,” Davis said. “Not to make it about a race thing, but a lot of black people don’t think they are capable of doing something like that … Coming out of college, a lot of people want to find that high-paying job where they can be secure and settled. I actually don’t want to be settled. I want to move around and experience things.”
While Davis’ parents and three siblings will undoubtedly miss her while she is away, her family is already thinking about visiting. Perhaps invigorated with his daughter’s sense of adventure, Edwin Davis said with a smile, “China will have to make room for us.”