How Chinese Changed My Life
Before I tell a story about the present, I should start by explaining what happened in the past. I have what the doctors and scientists call “dyslexia.” It makes it hard for me to learn, and it makes it hard to memorize basic everyday words and numbers. I know this does not sound like it fits into a story about Chinese, but just stay with me. I have two siblings; one of them is my older brother, Mark. He excels in everything he does no matter how new or complicated it is to him. Now, I also have a younger sister; she is a national volleyball player who is getting scouted by all kinds of different teams. After hearing all of that, I hope you can see the story is going to be a little emotional from here on out.
Dyslexia makes it hard for me to learn, and it makes it hard to memorize basic everyday words and numbers.
It was my first day of freshmen year, and I was walking to my second-hour class, Chinese. For most schools, their teachers would be there to greet the students on the first day of school. However, in our school, that was not the case. We walked into class to find a television sitting in the middle of the room. We all sat down with a look of curiosity and deliberated over what was going to happen. Five minutes after the bell rang, the teacher got up and told us our teacher was now ready for us and went down to take the remote. We were all looking around at each other and trying to figure out what was going on. When he turned on the television, a face popped up like it does in the movies. There was a girl on the other side facing us with a straight face who said, “Today I am going to give you all new names for this class.” We were all excited to find out what our names were going to be, and she went through the list one by one telling us what our names were and what they meant. When she got to me, she told me my name was TiNe and went on to say that my name had no meaning; it was just the way my name would sound in Chinese. We went through the school year learning only the pinyin of Chinese and never really seeing the characters to the words we were learning. We played all sorts of games to try and learn the language, but it never really connected to us as time went by. It was like we weren’t seeing the real China, and we were just there to get our class credit and go, even though some of us really wanted to learn Chinese.
The school year was closing to an end, and our teacher told us that she would not be coming back next year. She said our new teacher was coming from China! For me, this was a shock because I did not join Chinese to just learn some pinyin and receive class credit. I was there because I knew I was never going to understand English, even if it was my own language. I had a chance with Chinese to really understand a language and thrive. I was told I was good at grammar and sentence structure, I was so happy to get commended for it. I had never been told in any of my English classes, or other classes, that I was good at English. Though in my Chinese classes, my teacher was so surprised at how well I was getting the language. I was starting to regain hope for myself that I had lost way back in elementary school and this hope I found in Chinese.
Now, let us fast forward to my sophomore year, I walked into my new Chinese class thinking that we were going to have another teacher through the television but was startled to see a teacher come out and say 你好 to me. I was so startled she laughed at me and said, “Hello? I said hello just now.” I could feel from that point on we were going to have a great year. After the first month, we started to ask her questions about how she got here and why she wanted to come. She said, “I came through the Confucius Institute, and I wanted to learn better English.” We asked her more and more questions, overwhelming her to the point she had to tell us to give her a break. For me, it is and was hard to trust teachers because of how badly I have been treated by them. I had a teacher in fourth grade try to bid me off to a kindergarten teacher because she didn’t want to teach me any longer. I get told by teachers now that everything I am and everything I can do is not because of my own effort, it’s because of my parents. My mom works at my school, so the teachers here think that I just use her to get away with whatever they think I could do. I have been told by my teachers that they wish I was a little more like my brother in my grades and outstanding ability. This teacher, however, has never treated me with any distance and never thought that I only got here because of my mom. She gave me a new Chinese name that she thought really fits me in my life 李锐 lǐ ruì.
I knew I was never going to understand English, even if it was my own language. I had a chance with Chinese…
The next day I went in and asked her whether we could get pen pals from China. She did not know what they were at first, but when we explained it to her, she said, “Maybe,” which in any kid’s head means “No” more than it will ever mean “Yes.” I am very hard to turn away though, I asked her, again and again, every day until one day she said, “I will talk about it today in class.” We were all so excited to find out that we were going to get a pen pal and we could not wait to get our first letter from them. It was about five days after she told us about the letters that she came into our class and said, “I have your pen pal letters.” At the time, we were not assigned a person, and we were given a person as we walked in. My teacher stopped me as I was walking in; she said, “I know you are very excited about pen pals, so I wanted to give you two of them.” I was so happy; I jumped and hugged her and asked, “Who are my pen pals?” She gave me two people, explaining, “You get a girl and a boy to write to, so you get two different points of views on China.” I wanted more pen pals because I love talking to people and I wanted to know more about a country that I had only heard speculations about before I entered the class. When I received the letters and opened them I was surprised at how sloppy their writing was. When I showed my teacher, she looked at them, laughed and said, “They wrote in cursive, I guess they forgot that you are a second-year Chinese student.” We then went through them and I realized these students were living lives so much like mine. Moreover, they were having fun at school all day. I had heard that in China people were not happy and were suffering because of the President there, but in these letters, they seemed to be living full and happy lives without a care in the world.
They gave me hope that I can learn this language and go there to have a great time and a great life. The people who are teaching me Chinese never told me that I was just lucky to get my grade in their class. Here, I have people who think I am so much more than just a dyslexic person. I now want to come to school more because of how I am getting treated by them. Chinese changed my life because it gave me hope that I had lost so long ago. People from China that are teaching me Chinese are so much more than teachers – they are friends that I will always remember my adventures, as I grow and learn more in my life.
Confucius Institute at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln
High School Junior | Omaha, Nebraska
Trinity Lewis, 16 years old, attends Omaha Northwest High Magnet School.
She has studied and admired Chinese culture for most of her life and seeks to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese before her scheduled trip to China next year with the Confucius Institute at The University of Nebraska. Trinity is a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, practicing the art since she was 6 years old. She is also an accomplished clarinet player, performing with many honor bands and receiving multiple All-City awards. Trinity is president of her high school DECA club and is a candidate for state leadership. She is a member of the student council as we as a member of the National Honor Society. Recently, Trinity was accepted into the world-recognized Henry Dorley Zoo Academy, where she will attend classes and work hand-in-hand with zoo officials to protect and preserve endangered wildlife. She plans to use the years of wildlife training to assist Chinese zoos and wildlife preserves in finding a way to save species, such as the Leaf Turtle, from extinction.