Amelia AiYan Engstrom

My Mandarin Journey

By Amelia AiYan Engstrom

I was born in Fuling, China. Chinese was the only language I knew. Twelve months after I was born, I was adopted by two Americans who spoke a language that was foreign. They brought me back to America where their language became familiar to me.

Four years later, I was a timid kindergartener sitting at a small desk waiting patiently for class to start. I was unaware that the class I was about to attend would be life-changing. As the teacher began to speak, I started to hear words that were alien, but beautiful. It was like hearing spoken music. I soon found out that those strange words are part of a language called Mandarin Chinese. That was the spark that ignited the blazing passion I have for Chinese. As time went on, I learned more about the language itself as well as Chinese culture.

I vividly remember my first Moon Festival. I sat on a blanket on the wet grass in my mother’s lap surrounded by my family and many school friends. The erhu was being played in the background as we all ate mooncakes, watched the moon rise, and enjoyed each other’s presence. Children danced around with glow sticks and waved homemade lanterns. The night would have been pitch black if not for the shining beacon that was the moon. My kindergarten class had just finished performing a song about the Moon Festival that was composed by our teacher. That night was not just about lanterns and festivities, but about the importance of family.

Since I attended a Mandarin immersion program in a Confucius Classroom, I had the opportunity to increase my skills and knowledge every day. I looked forward to learning more about Chinese culture. My favorite parts were baking mooncakes, making dumplings, and folding origami.

When I was in third grade, our class wanted to do something big for Chinese New Year. We decided to do a presentation in front of the whole school. It would have music, dancing, and, most importantly, dragons! There would be two different dragons, one for each side of the auditorium. They would start in the very back row and snake their way through the aisles up onto the stage. I was a shy, quiet kid, but I was chosen to be the head of the dragon. The head of the dragon needs to be exciting; the performer shakes the head in people’s faces and moves up and down. The head leads the rest of the body. This was an experience of a lifetime. I had a blast learning how to move the dragon around. Not only did I have fun and learn more about Chinese culture, but it also forced me to leave my comfort zone and be a leader.

I switched to a different school for junior high and with the new school came a new Confucius Classroom. My new teacher took us to Chinatown in San Francisco for the annual New Year’s Parade. It was amazing to experience the culture in person instead of from a textbook. We were sent into Chinatown with a list of things to find for a scavenger hunt. This gave us a reason to talk to the street shop owners and use our language skills. The town was decorated festively with lanterns and even a statue of Monkey King (孙悟空). I especially liked throwing poppers on the ground and surprising everyone around me. We also toured the Asian Art Museum and expanded our knowledge of Chinese art. When it came time for the parade, my classmates and I sat enthusiastically on the edge of the sidewalk munching on goodies we had just bought in Chinatown. The parade was great! All the floats were lavishly adorned, the bands played fun songs, and the firecrackers were a bundle of exhilaration. Not only has Chinese class been my passion, but it has also opened doors to new adventures.

As time went on, my Chinese journey began to feel like a roller coaster. Sometimes I would be at the peak, fully immersed in the culture and loving life. I would race to class ready to learn about the culture of my past. Other times I would be at the bottom of a hill. I would be mad at my parents for making me take such a difficult language. But, at the end of the day, I have always come back around. Mandarin has been a part of my life for so long that I am not sure what I would do without it. It has not only taught me about other cultures but also about core values like perseverance, hard work, and leadership. Mandarin Chinese has connected me with my past, improved my present, and paved the way for my future.