Phillips Ambassadors Spotlight: Clay Hackney ’15

Clay Hackney (center) in China.
Clay Hackney (center) in China.

This article originally appeared in the Carolina Asia Center Spring 2016 newsletter. Read the entire newsletter here.

“What brings you to China?”

The question I get most often is sometimes the most difficult to answer. I always want to respond, “Well, how much time do you have?”

The short answer is that I’m in China for a job–a fellowship as a research assistant at Beijing University’s China Center for Health Economics Research. What else is there to do when you studied Economics, Math, and Chinese at UNC and you’re a poor compromiser?

But why China? Why not New York? Why not Barcelona? Why not a consulting firm? Why not my parents’ basement? Excluding the last one, these are all valid questions–questions I ask myself often. When people want to know why I live in Beijing, they actually want to understand how a kid from Gastonia, North Carolina, a suburban town of 50,000, ended up in a Chinese city of more than 11 million people.

Maybe I’m in Beijing because opportunities to study Asia in grade school privileged Eurocentric narratives, because I needed to learn that countries are more than the political rhetoric we use to discuss their imports and exports. Maybe I’m in Beijing because I had to take language classes and happened to enjoy the Asian Studies Department too much.

Maybe I just really like dumplings.

The answer, I believe, is somewhere between these. If you asked me in high school what I was going to be when I grew up, I could present you with a flow-chart analysis of my life more complex than China’s Five-Year Plan. It was easy: major in chemistry, attend medical school, complete clinical rotations and pick up a spouse somewhere along the way. I realize now that eighteen-year-old me believed life was as easy to set up as a Twitter account.

Carolina changed that for me, thankfully. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with knowing you want to be a doctor when you’re little and then actually becoming a doctor when you grow up. The key is to be challenged, and Carolina certainly forced deep introspection on me more than once. I’m thankful to have been pushed into territory I never thought I would enjoy so much.

Above all, the people I met at Carolina tested and guided me. I had to take a language course to graduate, but I only took Chinese 101 because a senior convinced me to try it. I had to take a humanities course, but the professor I met through that class inspired me with stories about her integral role in the movie production of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I loved studying abroad, but the alumni who sponsored me–like the Phillips and Weir families–directed me again toward China.
These experiences were terrible for my aspirations of becoming a doctor (then again, so was Chem 101), but they pried my white-knuckle grip off my childhood plans finger-by-finger, opening my eyes to a completely different set of experiences.

I’ll never forget the frustration of studying in China with a Mandarin-only language pledge, when I realized that I would make a mistake every single time I opened my mouth. Speaking at an elementary-school level was difficult for a perfectionist with lofty ambitions and watertight plans. But those countless days I struggled to pay my phone bill or buy toothpaste actually developed in me the confidence to accept a job that required intense discussions on statistics and math in Mandarin. More importantly, I found that, unburdened by the fear of failure, I could speak with more passion in both Mandarin and English. I still make many mistakes now, but I’m convinced that the words I use are never as important as the ideas behind them.

Chapel Hill taught me to explore and embrace seemingly disjointed sides of myself I’ve always struggled to define. And in this way, Carolina challenged me to view the world from the tallest peaks and through the strongest magnifying glasses; to connect these disparate viewpoints in creative ways. To be terrified, and to enjoy it.

So, why am I in Beijing? I don’t know, really. But I’m learning and I’m growing, and I’m coming to understand that’s all the Carolina Way requires.

By Clay Hackney ’15. Hackney, a Morehead-Cain Scholar, received the Chancellor’s Award for Economics in 2015, the prize for best economics thesis. He studied abroad in Beijing in 2013 as a Phillips Ambassador, and was awarded a U. S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship in 2015 for advanced Mandarin in Suzhou, China.