By Kayla Raden
The one thing that all humans on this planet have in common is an innate longing to communicate with others. From the moment of birth, we are eager to tell the world “I am here, and I am ready to know you!” Communicating with others and describing things as simple as a blue sky or how you like your morning coffee are things that we do every single day without a second thought. Now, imagine for a second that the letters and words in English that we have grown to love so much have now turned into characters and strokes; imagine a language that not only has characters but is also full of colloquialisms, metaphors, and tones that—as an English speaker—you’ve never had to speak before. I had this experience.
Looking at this seemingly massive collection of characters left me in complete amazement and with a bit of fear.
In the late summer of 2016, I landed in Shanghai, China. I found myself sitting in the back of a taxi in awe, staring at the signs posted for passengers to read. There was not a single word of English. Looking at this seemingly massive collection of characters left me in complete amazement and, to be quite honest, with a bit of fear. My mind began to race, and worries started swirling in my head. How was I to get around if I can’t read street signs? How will I be able to pay my bills? How will I find a bathroom? Will anyone ever be able to understand me?
After a few moments, I caught myself and came back to reality. Staring ahead once again at the sign for taxi passengers, I noticed that some characters looked simpler than others. With my fear beginning to subside, I thought to myself that perhaps 一,二 , and 三 may just be the characters for 1, 2, and 3. I shyly smiled and wrote these characters down in my journal. “Well,” I thought to myself, “Three down, thousands to go!”
Learning Chinese was not much of a necessity during my stay in China. I imagine that I could have gotten by using translating apps and asking my friends for help, but this was not the life I wanted for myself. By not understanding the people around me and not being able to laugh with everyone else in the movie theaters, I felt that I would be missing out on wonderful human interactions.
Studying Chinese with my friends who are native speakers allowed me to understand the language’s beautiful complexity and its historical richness. Slowly, Chinese changed from my second language to something more special – it became another way for me to communicate and express myself. Upon returning to the United States, I felt a longing for all the things I missed about China. I missed the food, the traveling, but most of all I missed the friendships I made with people I met during my travels.
Walking into the Confucius Institute at SUNY College of Optometry felt like I was back with my old friends in China. I was greeted with a warm 你好 and a smile. I knew that I had found my piece of Shanghai here at home. Over the course of several months, I studied both independently and with the help of teachers at the Confucius Institute. Looking forward to each visit, I always had new words and phrases that I wanted to practice speaking. Knowing that there was a place where I would always be welcome to practice my Chinese gave me the motivation I needed to really push myself to study harder and go beyond my comfort zone.
A relative asked me why I loved studying Chinese so much. It took me a moment to really think about my answer. “It’s humbling,” I said, “it’s a language completely rooted in its own history and to understand even just a piece of the language is to understand an entire part of world history.” With each character, there is a story and the use of these characters in new and modern ways shows how both versatile and flexible such an ancient language can be.
Learning Chinese has not only taught me about history, but it has taught me about empathy and humility.
Learning Chinese has not only taught me about history, but it has taught me about empathy and humility. Recently, I have also begun to learn Chinese calligraphy and character writing. Painstakingly, I look over each stroke, and I feel like a child learning language for the first time. I am learning how to write my name all over again. Once I was satisfied with the look of my characters, I took a picture of the worksheet and sent it to one of my friends in China. The caption below my large, proud, and hand-written characters said, “How will I ever learn to write all of these?” Without pause, he simply replied, “One by one.”