Damon Woods (top row, third from left) with colleagues (Courtesy of Damon Woods)

When Zuri Patterson, a second-grader, entered her new classroom the first day of school, butterflies traveled the length of her stomach right before she made formal introductions to her new classmates.

"We say Ni Hao [pronounced "nee-how"], which means "hello" in Chinese," said the 7-year-old attending the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Mandarin-immersion school in the northeast quadrant of the nation's capital.

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The second-grader's mother, Qwanda Patterson, an international traveler, told The Root, "We plan to take her to China on her 10th birthday. When I travel to Europe or Africa, everyone speaks at least two languages. Why can't we?"

In today's economic climate, in which black unemployment is in the double digits, one way to give the next generation of black graduates a competitive edge is to think outside one's borders — more globally — and learn Mandarin Chinese. Today's black graduates aren't competing only with their white American counterparts anymore. The landscape has changed radically in a relatively short span of time. Black graduates must now compete with their cohorts from places like China.

The past few decades have made Zuri's first day of school a familiar scene across the nation for many students of color living in urban areas like the District of Columbia, where black students make up about half of the children enrolled in the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School.

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Earlier this year, Michelle Obama gave a speech at Howard University urging students to take advantage of study-abroad programs as part of President Obama's "100,000 Strong" Initiative, which seeks to increase and diversify the number of U.S. students studying in China.

Chinese-language immersion programs have been on the rise for more than a decade. The Yu Ying immersion school is the first of its kind in the District, but compared with cities like New York and Chicago, D.C. is lagging behind the national trend.  

Interest in Chinese has risen in the past several years. According to a USA Today report, Chinese-language programs are in demand and now available "in more than 550 elementary, junior high and senior high schools, a 100 percent increase in two years [across the nation]."

Why China Matters

So why the emphasis on Chinese? Let's start with China's status as an up-and-coming superpower, and the fact that it's the world's most populous country (more than 1 billion people, 20 percent of the world's population), with a steadily growing middle class.

At the moment China is the biggest importer of oil. It is also one of the biggest business partners of the U.S., if not the biggest. And China holds around $1 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds.

With China's growing profile as a world leader, opportunities for those who study Asian culture will undoubtedly be in demand in the future workforce. A recent European Union study found that half of European citizens speak two languages, compared with only 9 percent of U.S. citizens.

Damon Woods, a State Department officer who lives in the Chinatown section of the District of Columbia, set his sights on China early on, beginning with a high school exchange program back in 1992.

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"Ten to 15 years ago, hardly any African Americans were in China," he told The Root. "We all basically knew each other. The experience literally changed the trajectory of my life."

Lynette Clemetson, founding managing editor of The Root, shared how the second language enhanced her journalism credentials: "I was able to cover the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997 for Newsweek magazine," said Clemetson of Silver Spring, Md., who is now director of digital strategy at the Pew Center on the States. "Had I simply been a journalist who wanted to go to Asia, I would not have gotten that job," she says. "It was my ability to speak Mandarin that helped me get the job."

Growing Pains

China's expansion has not always been welcomed by black people. In fact, on the African continent it has caused some resentment, given the proliferation of Chinese entrepreneurs in some African countries. An article in the Guardian, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, describes a Chinese "invasion" of Africa, detailing how Chinese entrepreneurs — some of whom have remained in African countries illegally beyond their tourist visas — have bought large plots of land, started import businesses, opened sprawling restaurants and established other ventures.

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That resentment may ring familiar to many black Americans living in urban areas who have experienced strained relationships with Asian Americans. That some Asians have set up shop to profit from — but not support — their communities might explain why more black Americans haven't fully embraced Asian culture. Add to this the fact that Asian Americans, on average, are wealthier and outperform black Americans on standardized tests, and are what some refer to as "the model minority," benefiting from affirmative action programs that were historically in place to level the playing field for African Americans.

Being Proactive

That being said, with unemployment for African Americans  still disproportionately higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States, it's clear that the opportunities available for the workforce's next generation are limited. If black employment prospects are to improve in what will arguably be the most competitive job market in U.S. history, preparation must begin now (or yesterday) to compete on a global scale.

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Ashley Brady knows firsthand the rewards of learning about other cultures. The 28-year-old MBA student at Columbia University studied and worked abroad before becoming a U.S. diplomat to China, then Canada.

"Globalization isn't a buzz word," she said. "It's a reality, and so is the need to gain a global perspective."

Abdul Ali frequently writes about culture for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.