Outside a Cafe in Guilin
By: Cassia Charles
Nelson Mandela is often misquoted as saying ““If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Although that is not exactly what he said, the sentiment is important. By choosing to learn another language you are shrinking the world and touching the hearts of many. I have watched many reaction videos of people hearing someone unexpected speak in their languages. The joy that they felt came through the screen. That was one of the impetus for me learning the Chinese language.
As a history lover I was always drawn to China. China has had more than 5000 years of continuous history and a fascinating culture. While the country is modernizing it still pays homage to its past. Chengyu is still commonplace in today’s vernacular.
In college I had to take Sociology. During the class we had to watch some foreign films in order to get a sense of the culture during a particular time period. I randomly picked the movie “Raise the Red Lantern”. The cinematography was excellent and the acting very well done. Although the movie touched on very sensitive topics, I fell in love with Chinese film and as a result Chinese culture. To this day I love historical Chinese dramas. I am using Chinese dramas and shows to get a grasp of the language and the idiosyncrasies that you cannot get from a text book. Although the language in most historical dramas are HSK level 5, I am in love with the grandeur and beautiful costumes.
A few years ago II had the privilege of visiting the People’s Republic of China. I booked my trip through intrepid Travel. Their goal is to have travelers experience authentic day to day life. They believe in sustainable travel and that the money that is spent is put into the local economy. They set up specific cultural activities for travelers to get to know more about the country they are visiting. I flew into Hong Kong a few days early and experienced the hustle and bustle of this international city. I walked around the city and took it all in. I even took the ferry to Macau. However, when we crossed into the mainland I got to experience the beauty of the most populous country on earth. Our first stop was Guilin. Guilin has breathtaking scenery. In Guilin we rode bikes around the area. I took a cooking class at a local school. One of the dishes Guilin is famous for is Beer Fish. However, I am a vegetarian and I was taught to make beer tofu instead. We had lunch with a local family and experienced their everyday life. I also took a calligraphy class. Our teacher taught us a few characters and the significance of each stroke. It was much harder than I thought it would be. Most outsiders look at Chinese characters as random strokes or outlines for a tattoo but they have greater significance. There are specific stroke orders and it takes years to truly master.
While sitting outside of a cafe in Guilin, a young girl saw me and gasped and pointed at me. I was not offended because I knew I was probably one of the first black people she had seen in person in her young life. I smiled and waved and she did the same. At the end of the day we are all part of the same human family.
From Guilin we flew to Shanghai. I thought New York was big and busy but it was no match to Shanghai. From Shanghai we took the train to Xi’an. That was my first experience with overnight train travel. The ride was very comfortable and we reached Xian in no time. In Xi’an we went to visit the tomb and the adjourning museum of the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. The terracotta warriors were amazing to see in person. I sat in awe of the history that I was observing.
From there we took the train to our last stop in Beijing. I have visited many cities like Sydney, London, Paris, Cape Town. Beijing joined the list of one of my favorite cities. While visiting the Forbidden City, I sat and imagined the people that have lived and walked there. I had the same experience while walking across the Great Wall. My 3 weeks in China was one of the best and most enriching experiences of my life. Once the pandemic is over I cannot wait to go back.
One of the major regrets of my trip is that I did not speak the language. I could not communicate with the average person. Towards the end of 2020 I decided it was time to learn the Chinese language. I took Chinese this semester and it has been one of the best experiences of my life. I am learning how to think in a whole new language and it’s even reducing my risk of dementia. Ultimately I’d like to work in conjunction with the Chinese CDC. Like Mandela’s misquote, I want to touch hearts, bring down walls and build bridges.
My name is Cassia Charles. I was born on the island of the Commonwealth of Dominica. My family and I immigrated to the United States when I was 4 years old. I have lived most of my life in New York City. I am a graduate of Cornell University and currently work at New York Presbyterian Hospital. In the summer of 2019 I made the decision to go back to school to obtain my Master’s Degree in Public Health as well as become a Physician’s Assistant. I have been taking post-baccalaureate classes at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York. I eventually want to work with the US CDC and the Chinese CDC. Once the pandemic is over I plan to return to one of my favorite activities – traveling.