Dean Zollman

Learning Chinese is More Than Learning a Language

By: Dean Zollman

My first experience with a second language was as a freshman in high school. I studied Latin. That indicates that I am somewhat older than the typical second language learner. How many schools offer Latin these days?

At University I studied German. From that experience, I discovered that learning a language was not just gaining pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The language was part of a culture and a way of thinking, all of which became part of my learning.

Until very recently non-Western languages were truly foreign. I visited China three times. I negotiated somewhat on my own and was hopelessly lost in Beijing only once. But, I did not really contemplate learning Chinese.

All of that changed in the Fall of 2017 when the Kansas State University Confucius Institute announced that it was offering Chinese classes. Why not, I thought. I was technically retired, quite busy but could rearrange my schedule to fit in a few classes. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

My teacher told me she knew physicists were smart, so she selected a relatively difficult book for my first introduction to Chinese. Little did she know that people become physicists because they have poor memories. They like to figure things out but not memorize them. Remembering characters has been a real challenge. Worse for me, unlike German, I cannot look at a character and know how to pronounce it.

The language was part of a culture and a way of thinking, all of which became part of my learning.

For the past 18 months, my teacher has helped me learn some Chinese and then has remained calm as I promptly forgot it. Gradually, I put together a few sentences and even read some simple paragraphs. But I am a long way from fluent. I am going to China in a couple of weeks. I worry that I know just enough to get me in trouble. I will say something simple like, “Wǒ jiào Zollman,” and someone will assume I can speak Chinese. Then, a torrent of words that I cannot understand will follow. Or, even worse my tones will be so bad that I will not be understood.

There is a good part to all of this. I do know some words and phrases. If I am patient, I can write some characters in the correct stroke order. I am also starting to see the logic of the language. At the beginning, it seemed like a bunch of random lines on a page. Now when doing my homework, I can sometimes figure out the correct answer by reasoning rather than memorization. It is not quite the reasoning of physics, but it is closer than I thought that it could be.

While my ability to converse and write in Chinese is very limited, I have learned a great deal. As with my earlier language studies, the grammar and vocabulary are not the most important aspects. I have learned bits and pieces of Chinese culture and a little history. I know, for example, why children can get excited when they are given a red envelope. I know that when I go to China next month, I should remember my Zodiac animal. I even think that I can begin to see how the language is an influence on the way our Chinese students think.

At the same time, it has not been a one-way street. Almost every lesson has some time during which we discuss some aspect of American culture. Sometimes the discussion is about something simple, such as the difference between a salon and a saloon. Sometimes, it is more profound and causes me to think seriously about the history and diversity of our culture and why things are the way that they are.

When I decided to try learning Chinese, I thought that maybe it would keep my brain active. Then, when I got into it, I feared that it would wear out whatever brain I had left. Instead, it has been an opportunity to see a different way of communicating and to begin to learn how language influences culture and to reflect on my own language, culture and history.

Dean Zollman
Confucius Institute at Kansas State University
Retired Professor of Physics
Manhattan, Kansas

Dean Zollman is a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Kansas State University. He also holds the title of Distinguished University Teaching Scholar Emeritus. From 2001 to 2011 he was William and Joan Porter Professor and Head of Physics. Dr. Zollman’s work in Physics Education Research has an international scope.

He served on the International Commission for Physics Education from 2002 to 2011. He has twice been a Fulbright Fellow in Germany, once each at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich (1989) and the Institute for Science and Mathematics Education at the University in Kiel (1998).

After attending three conferences in China, he began working with the K-State Confucius Institute in an attempt to learn Chinese. Most recently, under an agreement arranged by the K-State Confucius Institute, he taught a three-week course on quantum mechanics at Jilin University in Changchun.

Kiietti Walker-Parker

The Chronicles of Language: A Never to Repeat Failed Romance

By: Kiietti Walker-Parker

I had my first romance with language as a child. Growing up, language-wise, the only differences I encountered in Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta nestled between a big city and smaller ones, were the various drawls of the voices of my grandparents and parents. The many connotations they signified were based on the specific instances in which they spoke. I loved their voices, which was either them speaking city or country or in between. For those unaware of what country is, it is city or rural with a Southern twang. The Southern twang is at a slower than usual speed and sweet with a lift at the end as if to entice the shirt off your back or the last bite of your grandmama’s sweet potato pie or nothing-but-butter-pound cake. Its citified version is also slow and sweet, but the lift is slightly noticeable, almost delicate-like. Outside of these language distinctions, very little involved other cultures in my community other than city or country folks. Yes, we did have Chinese, Italian, and Mexican restaurants, enjoyed their food, and visited often; however, I learned later that what we liked was not authentic foreign food, just recipes Americanized to fit our palettes. My early romance with language never had a chance.

Americans can learn much from Chinese people: how to maintain a culture, a language for thousands of years? How to merge both the old and the new?

Many people fall in love with television, even more so at an early age. I was no different. I watched tv in between school, classes, family time, and other activities. Actually, family time would often consist of sitting around watching television together. So, what did we love on tv? We watched Chinese, Italian, Mexican, French, German, and African cultures depicted, once again, Americanized to fit our tastes. We loved eating with chopsticks and Kungfu (who doesn’t like Kungfu fighting with Bruce Lee, an American icon); spaghetti and meatballs and The Godfather, an American movie which depicted an Italian immigrant family turned mafia in order to find success on America’s shores; Mexicans introduced enchiladas and tacos and wore bright colors with sombrero hats and played fiesta music and sang. Also, who would ever forget Mexican siestas, 2-3-hour naps in the middle of the day? To me, that in itself was Mexico’s gift to the world; the French were reduced to romance, love, perfume, and the Eiffel Tower; Germans were supporters of Adolf Hitler, the Berlin Wall, and responsible for the extermination of six million or more Jews during the Jewish Holocaust; and African culture had its people worshipping masked and scary beings who were barbaric in nature and only worthy of enslavement and brought to America for a “better” life. It’s embarrassing that I didn’t realize my own ignorance and naivety; I grew up a participant of propaganda, stereotyping, and the total disregard of people who were different than me and those around me. This is especially troublesome because those of my race and culture, African American, have too been and still often are victims of profiling and belittlement, and here I was growing up and doing the same thing to other people.

I decided to finally have a relationship with language in high-school and take a Spanish course. One of my friends took the course with me. Surprisingly, we both loved it. Our relationship turned romance was alive and in full effect. We learned the Spanish alphabet, phonetics, customs, culture, foods, and history by a very proud instructor from Puerto Rico. I even learned to understand some of what one of my uncles used to say to us at dinner and then laugh because we didn’t understand. We flourished from her accent, tone, enthusiasm, patience, and love of her country. She was kind, strong, and a bit of a firecracker. The entire class was in love and thrived my first year, but by the second, I found that we were simply surviving.

An A student, I had to work to keep it my second year. The class’s enthusiasm waned, and eventually, mine blew out altogether, as Mrs. Rodriguez decided to stay home and raise her baby which resulted in our new Spanish teacher who wasn’t Spanish, Hispanic, LatinX, or even Mexican. Instead, she hailed from Ohio, an American who spoke with the same accent we all had although not Southern or citified Southern. I no longer heard a Spanish accent, or the passion Mrs. Rodriguez had. Quickly, learning became difficult and too the romance we had and held.

I did not sign up for a third year of Spanish or French. My fear was that another American would replace the French, French teacher, thus failing the authenticity of what I would believe is instrumental when learning a new language. It’s best and ideally taught not only by those fluent in the language but by people brought up to the life-force of the language – natives. I began to see then how American-influenced even other languages become from their native roots in America. So, I halted any thoughts to any new language romances my high school junior year.

However, true romance can never die or be denied for long. Traveling has always been a mainstay in my family. We’ve crossed the Americas and ventured to Jamaica and the Caribbean, romantically dancing and swaying with different cultures, customs, sights, and people. I’ve crossed borders into Mexico and Canada and stamped a passport throughout Europe. My husband’s travels are vast too, traversing from Australia to Malaysia. Even though English is spoken globally, we’ve found it fun to learn words from the people we visit. Even more, we have a son now and aim to stoke the international travel bug in him. So far, he’s been to Italy in my belly and Greece. He’s an important reason for me to again, renew a language romance.

Asia has always been my dream to one day visit. I’ve wondered what it would be like to learn Chinese, a language that seemed so picturesque and beautiful just like an impressionistic painting, so unlike English which is Germanic in origin with infusions of German, Celtic, and French. If it were not for calligraphy and cursive writing, which many young people don’t learn or practice much today, I would not refer to handwritten English as a thing of beauty. Chinese is so different. In addition, English is about 700 years young while Chinese is the oldest living, continuous language at 5000 years old and very akin to its origin. Even though I knew this, it took me decades to choose romance again over fear and failure. The Confucius Institute launched on the Alabama A&M University’s campus in 2015. In 2018, I chose me; I stepped out on faith, and romance was renewed as I expressed vocally my commitment to learning Chinese.

I’ve since been dedicated to the romance of learning what I wished I was aware of as a little girl growing up in the1970s in the South. As an African American wife, mother, writer, teacher, and life-long learner, it is important that I broaden my horizons beyond geography and demographic boundaries, as we are all connected intrinsically. Our world is a globe that revolves, and we are all evolving. No one person, gender, culture, or race is an island onto themselves as we are dependent on each other for knowledge, understanding, opportunity, happiness, and simply value. Americans can learn much from Chinese people: how to maintain a culture, a language for thousands of years? How to merge both the old and the new? How to respect both age in years (the filial virtue) as well as age in wonder (the young)? Each of us can learn from and, together, how to enhance what we already know for advancements in medicine, technology, environmental concerns, and just the uniqueness and ingenuity that each person, gender, custom, culture, community, nation, or continent brings.

I took Chinese initially to see if I liked it. I was amazed as I was challenged. With the newness of pinyin, tones, accent, characters, and the difference in direction of reading left to right, it was not only tough but fun and inspiring, how romantic! I knew that I would not give up. My professors encouraged me to join the Chinese club and take HSK tests I and II. Courses on Chinese writing, characters, and culture showed me the story of their humble beginnings, beliefs, and values. From Confucius, Mozi, Laozi, and Zhuangzi to Kungfu and Tai Chi, I learned how history is woven into the fabric of China today as well as respect and reverence the serving of tea is, familial relationships, and virtues they maintain with the young and elders. My newfound awareness is invaluable. The Confucius Institute showed me the spirit of Chinese culture and its people; they are more than chopsticks and Americanized Chinese food. In class, I finally found a relationship, love not failure.


Kiietti Walker-Parker
Confucius Institute at Alabama A&M University
Undergraduate Educator
Madison, Alabama

A Georgia (USA) native, Kiietti Walker-Parker has been teaching, instructing, and guiding students for 17+ years at Alabama A&M University. A former engineer and computer scientist, she has a Master of Arts in English and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Her teaching aims to encourage students to soar in English and writing and love it.

An avid reader, she loves to learn, research, and write. She has presented in Baton Rouge, LA, USA; Providence, RI, USA; and Birmingham, AL, USA and has read her creative works in Italy, France, Ireland, The Czech Republic, Germany, and Greece. She has been the recipient of the Association of College English Teachers of Alabama (ACETA) John Calvert and the James Woodall Awards for writing on pedagogy and research as well as an honorable mention of the same John Calvert Award.

Presently working on two novels, short stories, and poems inspired by her own ancestral heritage and life, she loves to travel and explore new and different cultures. She and her husband, Arbie, enjoy exploring through the eyes of their inquisitive and enthusiastic son Aiidin.

Arthur Stachowski

Better Late Than Never

By: Arthur Stachowski

Exposure to Chinese language, culture and people came to me later in life. Having retained employment with an international company of Chinese ownership, at 58 years of age, my education of all things Chinese began.

In 2010, my first steps on Chinese soil or in any other foreign country (Canada excluded) was in Shanghai, China. My traveling companion, Tony Wang, was waiting on the other side of the wall at the arrival terminal of the Shanghai airport. I had never been through immigration or customs screening before, but a friendly face was on the other side of that wall. There was no turning back.

Tony and I ate lunch at the airport, as we had spare time before boarding the subway to the train station. We were headed to Nanjing to visit suppliers. Tony attempted to explain that the people I am going to meet are going to look different (they will have a different physical appearance), they will speak a different language, the foods will be different and I may feel isolated at times, but the feeling will pass.

So, in the fall of 2010, my job took me to the company’s location there in China. I knew the product, the problems, the manufacturing, and how to read part drawings, but I was not prepared for this first trip to China. I lacked knowledge of the country’s history and culture and language; I did not know how to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” “thank you,” or ask where the bathroom was in Mandarin.

While the primary purpose of my trip to China was business, my hosts insisted this visit include an orientation to China. The physical structures, like The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, are breath taking (in the case of The Great Wall I mean more than visually). The local cuisine, Beijing Duck and Hot Pot, were very tasty; however, great meals are more dependent on whom they are shared with rather than the food served. One evening at a company sponsored dinner, seated around the table were people from China, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and the United States. That is something I would have never experienced had I not visited China. There was also shopping, the art of the haggle (negotiated pricing); my instructions were to not pay attention to the marked price. My guide did the negotiations, thoroughly enjoying the process.

Walking the streets, complete strangers would want to practice their English and take pictures with me. Tony was correct; the feeling of isolation did not last but was replaced with a feeling of inadequacy. All of my hosts could speak at least some English, and I could speak zero Chinese.

With the same spirit which I was welcomed with to China, the Confucius Institute received me.

Not liking the feeling of being unprepared, enter the Confucius Institute. With the same spirit which I was welcomed with to China, the Confucius Institute received me. The administrators and instructors demonstrated excellent knowledge of the subject matter and were eager to share that knowledge with myself and my classmates.

My classmates are a diverse group including a high school student, college professor, lawyer, business owner, preschool teacher, architect and retired individuals. You not only learn from the instructor but from your classmates as well, as they share their life experiences. Never a good student, my involvement with the Confucius Institute has made me want to be a better student.

I am now retired, and the advice given to retirees (or would be retirees) is this: stay active (travel, study a language), associate with people of all ages (if you only associate with old people, you will grow old), establish a routine where you are scheduled to be a certain place at a certain time and set goals of things to accomplish. My association with the Confucius Institute fills this prescription. To quote a Chinese proverb, “Xué wú zhǐjìng” (学无止境).

Arthur Stachowski
Confucius Institute at The University at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York

Arthur Stachowski resides in Buffalo, New York with his wife of 42 years, Patricia. He is the father of two daughters: Natalie of San Francisco, California and Alexis of Williamsville, New York. He is also a graduate of the State University College of New York at Buffalo holds a Master’s Degree in Industrial Technology.

He has traveled to China for the past ten years; the initial travels were work-related, as a Commodity Manager for the Supply Chain. He has visited the cities of Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Ningbo, Wuxi, and Xuzhou. In the summer of 2018 Arthur traveled to Beijing as part of the Summer Study Program at the Capital Normal University, a program facilitated by the Confucius Institute.

Through the University of Buffalo’s Confucius Institute, Arthur continues to develop his Chinese language skills, increase his knowledge of Chinese culture, and is enjoying the experience.

Olga Stein

Climbing the Steps Back to My Past

By: Olga Stein


My teacher Sun Laoshi is going through the new words. I am having trouble with the character “上”. How is it possible that one word has opposite meanings “to go up” and “past”? Aren’t we reaching for the future when we go up?

One morning my sister called from St. Petersburg, Russia. She sounded excited. “Listen, I have been invited to give lectures at a university in China next summer. The university is in the part of the country where our parents are from. I believe it is time for you to travel home, visit our parents’ birthplaces and meet our Chinese cousins. Start working on your Chinese,” she added and hung up.

It was still dark, but my night was over.

Home. What is home?

In the mid-1950s, both my parents taught at the Shanghai University. In 1959, they were sent to the Soviet Union to accompany a group of Chinese students to study at the Leningrad State University. They brought my sister with them. My parents started teaching at the Leningrad University and eventually were offered tenured positions there. They decided to stay in the Soviet Union, where I was born. Leningrad became home to me. When my parents talked about home, it was somewhere far away. Our mother and father tried to speak Chinese to my sister and me, but we were not interested. By the time I started talking, my sister was already at school learning other languages. Chinese became “a secret language” of our parents when they wanted to talk about something that was “not for the children’s ears.”

Sometimes, our mother or father would tell us stories about their home. I felt like I didn’t belong to either the Russian world or the Chinese one.

When I was born, my parents gave me the name 瑞雪. Unfortunately, the beautiful Chinese name sounded very strange in Russian “жуйся”, which in a loose translation means “chew yourself”. Can you blame a little girl for being unhappy with such a name? “No problem,” said my parents. Next day, I went to school as Olga. Around the same time, my sister became Tatiana.

And so was my childhood far away from my parents’ home. We with our new Russian names. we went to an English-Russian bilingual school. At home, we ate Chinese food, celebrated Chinese New Year, and made hundreds of dumplings sitting around the kitchen table. A family of four is perfect for a game of mahjong. Sometimes, our mother or father would tell us stories about their home. I felt like I didn’t belong to either the Russian world or the Chinese one. Who am I? “You are what you are,” my parents replied. That was not very helpful, but I didn’t push.

In college, my sister chose to focus on Chinese Studies. She is now one of the leading scholars in the field of the Manchu history and language. In this capacity she often travels to China. She has also kept up with our relatives there.

I, on the other hand, moved in a different direction. I came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in business. And this is when the magic happened: I found home in America! Later I learned there was no magic at all. It was a typical phenomenon of a third culture person, but it didn’t matter. I was home.

That is, until the morning my sister called.

I grew up in the family where the youngest child is loved and pampered but is also expected to respect and obey the wishes of the elders. In the morning, I did as my sister told me. I called all Chinese language schools in Manhattan listed on Google. The only school that answered the phone turned out to be the Confucius Institute (CI) at Pace University. A very friendly person on the phone invited me to stop by and meet the CI teachers. There was a staff meeting going on when I came to my CI the first time. The atmosphere was very warm and friendly. I instantly felt welcome. I loved that from the first moment everyone called me 庞瑞雪. Coincidently, my first teacher at the CI, Li Laoshi, was from Shenyang, the same city where my cousins live. We have become friends. I call her Yilin now. Yilin reminded me of my father. “Memory is the key to the knowledge,” my father used to say. We also had a lot of fun together. When Yilin’s mother visited her in New York, we spent hours playing mahjong. Shenyang rules, of course!

The texts I drilled with Yilin were very helpful on my first trip to China. Since then, I have traveled to China several times. My cousins took me to the Taoist temple built by our great grandfather and expanded by our grandfather. I felt at home.

I get it! Learning Chinese for me is like 上去, i.e., climbing the steps getting closer to my past. There is an old Chinese saying: 落叶归根 (Fallen leaves return to the roots).

Olga Pang Stein
Confucius Institute at Pace University
Business Consultant
New York, New York

Olga Pang Stein is a global executive coach and a trainer currently based in the United States. Olga has coached team leaders and managers at various levels, including C-level executives, as well as multicultural teams within organizations, such as Lufthansa Technik AG, Deutsche Telekom, UN Agencies, and the World Bank Group.

As a coach, Olga creates a safe space for personal discovery and building awareness for her clients. Olga’s special interest is bringing awareness and appreciation of diversity in an organization and supporting women business leaders.

Olga has served in a senior leadership position at Summit, a company that provided business liaison services for US companies operating in Russia. She has worked at the International Monetary Fund, as well as for Creditanstalt International Advisers. Before that, she was a chief negotiator for a logistical company with operations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Olga is fluent in English, Russian and German. She started learning Chinese in the fall of 2016.

Jerrad Solberg

Single Step to Continue a Legacy

By: Jerrad Solberg

Though China is a far-away place to many, it became close to me through an experience that challenged me and opened my eyes to new opportunities and perspectives. My initial interest in traveling abroad was motivated by a mentor of mine named Andrea, of Disability Services on campus at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). She encouraged me to take it on and break the barriers often placed on me with cerebral palsy. My strong interest in language and cultural studies had been exercised through school with French, so I felt encouraged to take on some Chinese, which is often regarded as the hardest language.

Another big influence in my life was my Grandma, who shared stories of visiting places like the Great Wall in 2013 at the age of 76. I had even seen some glass chopsticks at her house from China that she gifted me to keep as an heirloom to pass on. She sparked my desire to pursue adventures overseas as she did. However, financial concerns were hindering my capacity to travel. The solution to this problem was found when Andrea connected me with Kathy Johnson, director of the Confucius Institute at SCSU. She shared with me the potential to apply for a Hanban sponsored scholarship, which covered the gap and allowed me to realize my dream of going abroad to study in China for a two-week program in May of 2018.

Many cultural barriers surely existed, but the people I met helped me feel welcomed and were also interested in hearing my stories of life in America.

In preparing for my journey, I quickly found that some small, yet important, details still needed to be taken care of. Paperwork and packing are struggles we all have to face. The support of my father really helped with the passport information, but I gathered together all of my supplies myself. I was ready to take the jump, for as Laozi said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Leaving my father and mother at the airport was difficult, but they trusted the team of fellow students and faculty leaders I had with me, knowing that it would be a rewarding adventure to pay dividends in the future.

When I arrived in China, my senses were overwhelmed with an array of feelings in a place so different from home. For the first time, I was around so many people unlike me, with foods I had never tasted and speaking in a language truly foreign to my ears. I quickly found why so many say it is the hardest language to pick up. Many cultural barriers surely existed, but the people I met helped me feel welcomed and were also interested in hearing my stories of life in America. I genuinely felt like a celebrity and superstar, the many Chinese students we connected with also helping me get around and wanting to take pictures with me. There were a few particular challenges. The roads were sometimes rough to walk on with my walker and there were lots of steps everywhere we went, including on the University campuses, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven. However, these obstacles did not stop me, and it even brought me closer to the student group around me; they were always lending a helping hand.

The most influential relationship I developed during my time there was with my host brother, Zhiguo or “Ziggy”, which is the English name I gave him. We connected when we were at Jilin Normal University in Siping for a few days of cultural activities and connecting with students. He did not know a lot of English, which made for some difficulties in communication but also drew us closer in teaching one another patience in understanding differences. I used whatever means I could to build bridges, whether it be a digital translator or my own form of body language. I immediately felt welcomed into their home with an assortment of gifts presented, including a calligraphy set, a special ginseng present, and lots of Chinese candy. The best experience we had together was preparing dumplings for a big family dinner. They made me feel like a royal king, and I was truly honored. It was a wonderful feast of so many flavors, with seaweed noodles and “baozi” among the many dishes served with the dumplings. They were also very encouraging of my efforts with the language, teaching me fruit names like xiangjiao, xigua, juzi, and pingguo, along with the basic dialogue. I could see the joy in their faces when I would express appreciation afterward with a heartfelt “xiexie”. It was a fulfilling time with them and very hard to leave.

One evening, our group went together to a basketball game on campus that was planned for us, but we did not expect what we found. It was a packed gym of students who were there to watch a championship game for their season, and we were to be part of the halftime show. Their teams were very talented, including my host brother Zhiguo who towered over most of us. Though our group was not too athletically inclined, we gathered together to take them on in a short scrimmage. Towards the end, my good friend called a time-out and ushered me into the game for the last highlight shot. I missed a couple of times but persevered to put it. Great cheers from the whole stadium of Chinese students erupted, and the players on both sides gave each other big high-fives. It was a special moment that I will never forget, and the small gifts I presented Zhiguo afterward, though meaningful, could not fully express my gratitude towards his hospitality and friendship.

Towards the end of our time in Siping, we had a great feast of lamb together, which included some dancing led by Zhiguo, who really invested himself in us and sought to learn from our group. It was a great time of celebration to culminate our short stay. Leaving them the last morning was not easy, but I have been able to stay in touch thanks to WeChat. I hope I will be able to reconnect with them someday soon.

I went to China not knowing what to expect, but what I found there were true, meaningful friendships with people I never thought I would be able to connect with.

On our last day in China, we also had the opportunity to visit Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village (SFCV) in Langfang, a small development area in Hebei not far from Beijing. Seeing many children there with a variety of disabilities but expressing great joy in interacting with us was powerful. We sang and danced together, and we even were able to see them practice their performance for Children’s Day. One particular child I met, Jason, had the same condition as me. It was great to shake hands and walk along together for a bit near the playground, though we could not understand one another through spoken language. I was told as I left that he expressed simple thanks for playing with him, which I responded in turn and was emotionally moved.

I went to China not knowing what to expect, but what I found there were true, meaningful friendships with people I never thought I would be able to connect with. I was surprised how open they were to interact with me, as we taught one another bits of our respective cultures. It was also a nice surprise to see at the start of this year that two students we met in Beijing at the Beijing Institute of Petrochemical and Technology (BIPT) had come over to SCSU for study abroad. We are able to continue building our friendship in people-to-people exchanges with mutual cultural understanding here. In the future, I hope it is possible to return to China for continued study to further challenge myself. With my major in cybersecurity, there is much potential in this area in regards to US-China relations, particularly if I were to connect with a government position in collaboration with China. Also, although my Grandma passed away this year, I know she would be proud of me, as she expressed to me in her final moments how she loved that I am willing to take on new adventures. Her lasting impact will continue with me as I see what is next as my China story carries on.

Jerrad Solberg
Confucius Institute at St. Cloud State Univerity
Junior, St. Cloud State University
Burnsville, Minnesota

Jerrad Solberg has cerebral palsy and is currently attending St Cloud State University where he is earning a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity.

Frida Niebla

From Hello to Nihao 从“Hello” 到“你好”

By: Frida Niebla

As a young freshman, I was hesitant on my intended career path as an International Business major, as I had never been anywhere outside the USA or my hometown. I became very excited about the opportunity to travel outside the states to attend CISDSU’s two-week summer program at East China Normal University (ECNU), a long-time partner university with SDSU in Shanghai, China. My professors for the program included CISDSU Director Dr. Lilly Cheng and Marketing Professor at SDSU, Dr. Louis Olson. Upon meeting them, I was captivated by their vast knowledge of China and its culture, which inspired me to gain culture and language insight on my own. While in Shanghai, I was able to visit some of the top scenic spots within the city. I was captivated by The Bund cruise that highlighted the Shanghai skyline during the vibrant night-time. I was told Shanghai’s bund is known for its bright lights and vast skyline that was non-existent only a decade before.

In addition, I attended the Sichuan Face Changing Opera Show hosted by Dr. Lilly Cheng at the well-known BaGuo BuYi restaurant. It was the first time I had experienced culturally rich entertainment while enjoying an exquisite Sichuan style cuisine. The two-week program had us visit Hangzhou West Lake, Shanghai World Expo Center, YuYuan Garden, Shanghai Park Hyatt among other places. The cultural experiences were the highlights of my trip, as I felt fully immersed within the culture through special site visits, food and language.

The biggest connection I made from my first and second trip to China was the re-encounter I had with a woman who makes Chinese pancakes, also known as 手抓饼 shou zhua bing, in front of ECNU. I introduced myself to her with my poor Chinese when I first met her in 2014. After returning to China for a full semester, I couldn’t help but notice that she recognized me after three years. She was impressed by the vast difference in my Chinese language skills from our first encounter. She introduced me to her little friend (小朋友xiao peng you) who lived a few doors down from her shop and would often visit her. As the semester progressed, I asked her little friend how she was doing as I walked past the small store. I even went ahead and taught her a few words in English. This humbling personal experience reminds me that language barriers are only temporary, and it is up to oneself to be courageous enough to break the barrier.

As an IB major, I was able to gain cultural competence through the diverse program and utilize my beginner Chinese language skills to communicate with natives. I felt like the program was an awakening for me in terms of becoming culturally diverse and striving to achieve success. Going back to Shanghai after the summer program was a good decision, as I had obtained a knowledge base about Shanghai. It was the perfect opportunity to travel around China through domestic airlines and the world-famous bullet trains. As a future SDSU alumni, I look back on my years at SDSU and reflect on the importance of my first trip to China. It has helped me share my travel experience and cultural competence during job interviews with well-known international companies and inspired me to travel more. It allowed me to gain confidence in my ability to learn a third language. I hope future Shanghai Summer program attendees get the opportunity to challenge themselves and gain a vast understanding of different cultures around the world. Thank you CISDSU for playing a key role in my success at SDSU.

Frida Niebla
Confucius Institute at San Diego State University
Project Manager
San Diego, California

Frida Niebla is a Project Manager at a digital marketing agency in San Diego, CA.

Before graduating from San Diego State University in 2017, Frida had the unique opportunity to visit China twice. Her first experience in China was possible through SDSU’s Confucius Institute, where she was able to participate in a two-week faculty-led program in Shanghai.

Two years later, Frida set out on a 6-month journey to study in Shanghai, China through her university’s study abroad program. Frida’s semester abroad allowed her to experience China even further by traveling to cities such as Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou, Huangshan City and more.

Upon returning to the United States, Frida obtained a semester-long internship with CISDSU.

Over the years, Frida’s passion for travel and foreign languages has allowed her to pursue her trilingual abilities with Spanish, English and Mandarin Chinese. She has studied and passed HSK Level 3 and is currently pursuing HSK Level 4.

Carly O’Connell

Stoking the Fire

By: Carly O’Connell

Learning a language is hard enough, but maintaining it is another battle. Now that I no longer sit in class every day or live immersed in Chinese life, I feel my language ability shrinking like the dying embers of a fire left to burn itself out. Fortunately, the Confucius Institute has been there for me to stoke the fire and rekindle my love and knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

I have studied Chinese for 13 years, in five cities, and with supplemental help from three Confucius Institutes. My journey began in middle school, where my New Jersey public school amazingly offered Chinese as one of our six foreign language options. I chose Mandarin for the challenge it presented as the language most far-removed from my native English. I loved it from the first day, as each building block of new grammar or vocabulary opened more codes to crack and mysteries to explore. I continued through high school and carefully selected a university with a good Chinese program, The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The William & Mary Confucius Institute (WMCI) opened in the spring of my freshman year. The WMCI was almost like a college friend to me as we grew and supported each other over the course of four years. From the very beginning, I was involved. I still remember waving to the college president while holding up the rear end of the dragon dance prop during the opening ceremony. A house tutor provided by the institute lived with us in the Chinese language dorm, hosting cooking classes, tea ceremonies, and conversation hours. Sophomore year, I participated in an immersion program in Beijing. When I came back, I took and passed the HSK 5 test through WMCI. I volunteered with them at every opportunity, including acting as a bilingual emcee for their big Chinese New Year gala when I was a junior. Finally, I joined the institute in an official capacity as an intern my senior year.

As a Confucius Institute intern, I gained some of my first journalistic experience reporting for the WMCI newsletter. My proofreading skills were carefully honed as all English documents produced by staff passed through me on their way out the door. I now make a living using these writing and editing skills as a communications professional. The absolute coolest task that I had as an intern was to personally greet a contingent of Shaolin Monks, whom WMCI had arranged to perform at the college!

Upon graduation, I fulfilled the purpose that it seemed I had been training for all these years: I moved to Changzhou, China, for a year to teach English while fully immersing myself in the country I had studied for so long. When I returned to America, I was not quite sure what my next step was. I moved to Washington, D.C., and tried out a variety of jobs, some of which utilized my Chinese language skills and some of which did not.

As a temporary assistant in George Washington University’s International Services Office, I was asked to give a short speech in Chinese at the international student orientation to help the largest contingent of foreign students feel welcome. Next, at a small law office specializing in immigration and international matters, I translated emails in legalese back and forth between my English-speaking colleague and a Chinese client. Let me tell you, that kept my mind sharp!

Eventually, I realized my passion was for bringing people of different cultures together, to open minds and spread tolerance. I wanted others to have the same opportunities I had to see that the world is a bigger place than our own hometowns, but that even people who live across the world have more in common with us than differences. Those realizations led me to the field of international education.

I started work at a higher education organization that allowed me to use and learn a lot of great skills, unfortunately none of which was Chinese. I felt like something was missing. An aspect of my life that had been with me since that first day of sixth grade was now gone, but I couldn’t let those years of study go to waste, like a muscle atrophied from lack of use.

Luckily for me, there are two wonderful Confucius Institutes right in the heart of D.C. I began attending a Chinese language “salon” at the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, a semi-monthly meetup for advanced speakers to read and discuss news articles and contemporary issues. For Chinese New Year last year, I attended an event at the George Washington University Confucius Institute, where I saw a truly epic traditional Chinese dance to the Game of Thrones theme song. I now participate in a biweekly Chinese Corner conversation hour at that same institute. I even ran into an old classmate from my William & Mary days during the first session.

I am eternally grateful to the William & Mary Confucius Institute, the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, and the George Washington University Confucius Institute for catching me when I was falling out of the habit of practicing Chinese and putting me back on my feet. Whenever I step into one of these buildings, I know I am about to feel my passion for the subject resurge and to meet others who share that passion with me. These institutes and their staff have been such an amazing resource for me over the past seven years. Wherever I go, I know the Confucius Institute has my back. That’s why I wrote this essay to say: 非常感谢你们!

Carly O’Connell
Confucius Institue at George Washington University and the College of William & Mary
Public Affairs Associate
Arlington, Virginia

Carly is a young professional working in higher education. She began studying Chinese in sixth grade and has made it a major part of her life ever since.

Carly attended the College of William & Mary where she double-majored in Chinese and Linguistics. As a student, she participated in a language immersion study abroad program in Beijing and also interned at her campus’s Confucius Institute.

After graduation, she moved to Changzhou, China, for a year to teach English and fully immerse herself in Chinese life. She now lives in Washington, DC, where she attends Chinese conversation practice at George Washington University’s Confucius Institute to keep up her skills.

In the future, she hopes to work in the field of international education, where her Chinese language skills would come in handy when assisting international students or facilitating study abroad programs, and where she can encourage others to pursue eye-opening cross-cultural experiences like those that shaped her own life.

Sharon Dang


By: Sharon Dang

When you walked home from Kate Sessions Elementary School at the age of eight, kindergarteners half your size would spit at you and call you “Chink!” You would chase them around the bush, but your physically awkward self wasn’t fast enough to catch them. And even if you did, then what?

In middle school, you were called “rice eyes” and to that you defended, “hamburger eyes.” And although rewarding yourself for being clever, the response failed to deliver much of a defensive punch.

Our culture, our very identity, is slowly being erased, silenced and lost with every generation that “assimilates.”

In high school, you were enjoying a hot summer day relaxing in the backyard pool of your parents’ house when the neighborhood kid that lived in the house across the empty field, exposed from the lack of landscaping, would yell “Gook, go home!” Go home to where? Your dad immigrated to America via Canada via Taishan, China, with $50 to his name, worked hard supporting his family, juggled five jobs and designed and constructed this American dream house. At the time, he had already built three custom houses in this neighborhood. Home was here, so you thought?

In your adult life, college and beyond, you were often asked, “Where did you come from?” California. You were born and raised in San Diego, California to be exact. But somehow this answer never satisfied them, to which they would ask, “Where did you really come from?” You resisted replying with the answer they were seeking, but at the same time struggled with your identity as an Asian person living in America.

Identity is complex. Identity politics even more complex. You see, you were born in San Diego to the parents of two Chinese immigrants from Taishan, China, yet you could hardly speak the dialect. The quest for identity as a Chinese person living in America begins with a connection to language. Language is not only a means of communication, but the vital pathway to connecting people and finding common ground. It’s the secret weapon to disrupt the patterns of racism. It cultivates and nurtures cultural literacy.

Your parents had honest and valid intentions for their children to try to assimilate to America easier by speaking primarily English at home, but in hindsight this was such a missed opportunity and so shortsighted. The very rich fabric of our cultural history and sense of belonging lies in being able to speak our native tongue. Taishanese, a dialect of Cantonese, is already in flux of extinction as it is supplanted by mainstream Cantonese and increasingly by Mandarin in larger communities worldwide. Our culture, our very identity, is slowly being erased, silenced and lost with every generation that “assimilates.”

A sense of identity and empowerment. A sense of belonging. A means to be seen, heard and connected to history. Cultural literacy. For these reasons, I chose to enroll my daughter Ava into Barnard Mandarin Magnet Elementary School in San Diego, California, where she is taught Mandarin Chinese. For the past three years, she has also been exposed to the Six Ancient Arts of Confucianism, by means of a partnership with the Confucius Institute (CI), a non-profit educational organization in affiliation with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. The mission of the institute is to actively cultivate and facilitate the teaching of Chinese language and culture.

I am grateful for CI because my daughter has the chance to learn Mandarin Chinese at an early age. Her written and oral Chinese comprehension has already surpassed mine. Learning Chinese is no easy feat. I enrolled in Mandarin language classes when I attended UC Irvine as an undergraduate, pulling all-nighters and trying to cram for tests, only to receive grades that lowered my GPA. I enrolled in a Cantonese language class at a community college in San Francisco only to be belittled for my Taishanese accent. I spent the summer of 1995 in Beijing in an immersion language program, only to converse in English with the other participants as we were too distracted by all the tourist attractions and late-night drinking spots of bustling Beijing. Most recently, I was a student of CI at Barnard Elementary with other parents where I was overwhelmed by the difficult task of ever mastering such a hard language even on the most basic conversational level.

Four years ago, I took a trip to Beijing to visit my brother, his wife and their newborn baby. Gisa, my sister-in-law is German, but studied Chinese in college and lived and worked in China for many years. Her Chinese is as proficient as the locals in China. If it weren’t for Gisa, traveling with my daughter would have been limited and challenging. Signs were indiscernible to guide us to our destinations. Menus lacked pictures to give us clues as to what we could order. When we dined at local restaurants, the waitstaff looked at me to order, only to be taken by surprise when Gisa answered and spoke perfect Mandarin Chinese. Here, I was silenced by my English-only upbringing. As my daughter’s Chinese homework gets progressively more advanced, Gisa is often the one she calls for tutoring help. I tell this to my friend, and he laughs at the irony of it all. Ashamed, I make it a personal goal to try to learn Chinese once again.

On the flip side of that neighborhood kid who yelled “Gook, go home!” is my other neighbor Maurice Sasson, who is Baghdadi Jewish. He was born and grew up in Shanghai in the 1930s. Growing up in this neighborhood, trying to overcome feelings of defeat and subhuman self-worth from taking one too many verbal blows from the neighborhood kids, Maurice is one of the few people I connected with. He told me stories of how his father spoke 18 languages – four of which were different dialects of Chinese – and seamlessly traveled the world managing an import/export textile company. The stories were rich with detail, and I was inspired and jealous of his knowledge of languages, as it was his passport to transverse and connect with people from so many countries. Language is commerce. The opportunities are endless.

As Jeff Chang writes in his book “We Gon’ Be Alright”, that on matters of race, we live in a binary world. We are taught to think in binaries – zero or one, this or that. Black or White. There is no in-between. If you look Chinese, you surely must speak Chinese. So, walking down the street, surely you will respond to “Ni Hao?” Or you might be mistaken for Japanese and be greeted with “Konnichi Wa!” I can only hope to experience a future when the world of in-betweens gains more real estate, spanning continents and vast oceans of space where conversations happen because no one can assume what language you speak by the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes.

I recently heard NPR’s Invisiabilia podcast “A Very Offensive Rom-Com” and pondered upon my own shortcomings of stereotyping and unconsciously buying into our systemic binary world. In this episode, the journalist explores the complexity of racial preference hierarchies and their impact on the history and politics of Asian American sexuality. I am aware of my preference for Asian men partly because I made the assumption that there was commonality in our identity politics and shared upbringing with all the challenges of growing up Asian American. After far too many failed relationships – trying to cast and pigeon-hole them as comrades on the basis of their race – I have become part of the ruination. Today, I’m making a conscious effort to look beyond and open my mind to more authentic connections.

Language is not only a means of communication, but the vital pathway to connecting people and finding common ground.

Cultural illiteracy and monolingual education lead to racist actions. A case in point was a recent disconcerting incident that happened to Ava at the YMCA camp in San Diego. Another kid demanded that she “Go back to Japan!” Never mind the fact that she is actually half Chinese and half Korean. That was neither the point nor a means of defense and protest. I wished this girl had attended a school that exposed her to language and diversity like Barnard Elementary. Shortly after this exchange, Ava befriended two other Barnard Elementary students at this camp who quickly supported her during this incident. That day I was so grateful to be a part of the wonderful community of parents, staff and teachers at Barnard where families feel accepted and welcomed.

Language assumes no skin tone. Or at least it shouldn’t. Barnard Elementary has a diverse student population, comprising of different ethnicities and races. It’s a beautiful narrative to write that someday we will see all races and ethnicities speak perfect Chinese, spanning more real estate. We need more institutions like the Confucius Institute to help promote the learning of language – not just Chinese language – but languages in general. Language is connection and connections create a sense of belonging. Isn’t that what we all should be striving for?

Sharon Dang
Confucius Institute at San Diego State University
Real Estate Broker
San Diego, California

Sharon Dang is a Compass real estate broker who travels between California and New York, with her daughter Ava, who has been studying Chinese for the past seven years.

Jaivi Chandola

How the Confucius Institute Changed My Life

By Jaivi Chandola

I started to learn Mandarin in kindergarten. I loved learning Mandarin, so my parents found the Confucius Institute (CI). I have been learning Mandarin at the CI for about four years. I have so much fun and learn so much!

When I first started, I learned how to use Mandarin to say numbers, colors, food, clothes, and so much more! Then, I learned how to write characters and radicals. I watched LittleFox videos too, which are short video stories in Mandarin, to help me learn children’s songs, Chinese vocabulary, and characters. I studied in the summer and during spring and winter breaks, too. I went on to Level 2! Now I learned parts of the house, body parts, food items, family, school and so on. I could also converse in Mandarin. 你好, 我叫Jaivi! 你叫什么名字? 我是美国人, 你呢? (Hello, I am Jaivi! What is your name? I am American. How about you?) Then, when I was 8, I reached Level 3! My Mandarin was really improving.

Without the CI, I would never have had such an amazing and supportive teacher or this learning community.

Christmas came and my teacher (Guo laoshi) gave me a present — a calligraphy set! Inside the golden case with intricately embroidered patterns were a carved black stick (墨), a shiny white bowl with blue patterns to hold water, a white and blue calligraphy brush holder, a gray stone plate with a lid to mix the ink in (砚), and four calligraphy brushes (笔) with handles the color of polished rosewood. Guo laoshi taught me how to mix the ink by grinding it (墨) onto the ink stone (砚) and pouring a little water in. Next, she gave me a packet with some crinkly yellow rice paper (纸), a mat with spiral patterns on it, an accordion-folded paper with lots of characters on it, and a felt pad (毛毡). She helped me write some characters on the paper which we put on top of the felt pad so that the ink would not bleed on the table. I think calligraphy is very beautiful and I will keep practicing to make mine better.

I could have said 谢谢 (thanks) forever! But what’s the point of doing all this at the CI? Without the CI, I would never have had such an amazing and supportive teacher or this learning community. I would never have borrowed books from the towering bookshelves at the CI. Being part of this community has led me to sing at the annual CI day/Moon Festival celebration and participate in lots of Chinese festivals. I have gone to the Lantern Festival and learned about many different traditions. I made a lucky knot, played 古筝 (guzheng, a Chinese zither), listened to Chinese music, and puzzled over riddles.

Of all the activities, the Moon Festival was the best. I wore a special red dress (the Chinese color of happiness) and wore gold shoes (the Chinese color of wealth). I tried different foods, listened to instruments and saw dances. I also spun a handkerchief on one finger. I could do it pretty well! Then, I had to go on stage. The music came on, and I started to sing. I made everyone laugh with my movements, and at the end, there was lots of applause! It was a very special experience and I would never have experienced it without the CI’s help.

Some people think Chinese is hard, but it’s really not, if you try. Learning with the CI is very fun, too! I am glad that I go to the CI and get to experience many Chinese traditions and festivals.

I’m glad that the CI taught me Chinese, because this summer, I am going to China! I’m excited to visit 长城 (the Great Wall) because I made a model of it! I want to use my Chinese to talk with the people there too.

谢谢你 (thank you), CI!

Jaivi Chandola
Confucius Institute at The University at Buffalo
Fourth Grader
Williamsville, New York

Jaivi Chandola is a nine-year-old girl finishing third grade at Maple West Elementary School in Williamsville, New York.

She is in the middle of her 4th year of studying Mandarin Chinese with the Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo. She plans to become proficient in reading, speaking, and writing Mandarin and would like to collaborate with Chinese people to help make the world a better place. Also, she thinks it will help her when she becomes an astronaut and is doing a scientific collaboration with other astronauts who speak Chinese.

She likes writing poetry and this year her poem, “Colors”, was one of the winners of the annual Williamsville Poetry, Music, Art, and Dance Celebration. She also loves to read books as well as learning math, science, social studies, spelling, and writing.

Jaivi is a member of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) and won High Honors in the 2017-18 CTY Talent Search. In her school, she is in the gifted and talented program for both math and English Language Arts and is an outstanding student. She makes comprehensive presentations to help her class learn about concepts like weather, Aborigines, etc.

When she grows up, she plans to be an astronaut, writer, and aerospace engineer. She is also passionate about the environment and plans to raise money to send to a wildlife organization and adopt a whale!

Michael Briggs

China: The Burial Place of My Misconceptions

By Michael Briggs

I grew up in Northern Virginia with 3 brothers and 5 sisters. I was number 6 in my family. Life was crazy in our small house. I had to share a room with my two older brothers and my younger brother. We just had enough room for two bunk beds, two dressers, and a small pathway between them.

Dinner was an interesting time for our family. There was the paradox of the limited and overflowing food. You had to come to the table early and grab the food fast or you wouldn’t get anything. But at the same time, you always seemed to take a little too much food and not be able to finish it all. In an attempt to get us to eat our food, my mother would often tell us “There are starving kids in China!” I never understood how gorging myself could possibly help any kid in China, but I did feel sorry for them, so I stuffed my face anyway.

My second youngest sister, Beth, has Downs Syndrome. Downs Syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes developmental and intellectual delays. Beth would always keep us busy and on our toes. One time she wandered through our neighborhood alone and even walked into a neighbor’s house. While we were freaking out, wondering where Beth had gone, she was calmly eating cookies with Miss Dumphy. Though all my siblings have unique personalities and are a little strange, Beth was by far the most interesting. That is until Noah came…

Even though we came from very different backgrounds and had a language barrier between us, we were able to connect.

My parents decided to adopt Noah from China. This brought our family size to 12. Noah also had Downs Syndrome. He was full of energy and loved playing with guns, swords, but most importantly, animals. He had this amazing gift where he could change into any animal at will. We would be sitting at the dinner table and one moment Noah would be in human form and the next he would be a T-Rex trying to nibble my arm off. When Noah first came, he didn’t know any English and we didn’t know any Chinese, but we both learned the most important words fast. For us it was ‘bu yao’ and ‘guo lai’, for him it was ‘Brachiosaurus’ and ‘Siphonophora’.

Whenever my family went out to a restaurant together, we were quite a sight. Everyone seemed to be staring at us, especially Noah and Beth. I could tell that they pitied them. They simultaneously felt sorry and superior to them. I never understood why people thought this way. Yes, they had a disability. Yes, their intellectual and physical development was stunted, but most “normal” people are stressed all the time. Most normal people spend half their free time gossiping about people and the other half worrying what people are saying about them. Noah doesn’t have these problems. He does not hold grudges and he has pure joy over the simple things in life. Regardless, people kept their distance. Perhaps if they had actually talked with Noah and Beth, their misconceptions would not live for very long.

I was very close to Noah. When he first came, he could not pronounce my name well, so he called me “Mother”. The name stuck and till this day, he will often be found yelling “Mother!” whenever I come back from school.

As Noah’s ‘Mother’, I was determined to master the Chinese language and one day bring Noah back to his hometown to see his roots. I decided to study Chinese in college and enrolled in my first Chinese course as a freshman. I distinctly remember one of our first classes, the teacher was teaching us about tones and how one sound could have multiple meanings, depending on the tone used. We were given 4 ‘ma’s’ in 4 different tones. Our teacher asked us to read it and assured us that it made a sentence. What followed was a cacophony of young Americans yelling “ma!” at different times and in creative ways. Between tones and characters, I thought I would never be able to learn this language.

Despite my struggles, I pressed on. One day my Confucius Institute asked me to volunteer in the dragon dance for our school’s homecoming. I was stuck with the butt of the dragon and was tired from the running when it was all over. During this time I was given the opportunity to meet many Chinese students as well as the Chinese interns from the Confucius Institute. I became friends with the interns and was able to have conversation partners to improve my Chinese. This was the first step in overcoming the challenges of the Chinese language.

After increasing my connection with the Confucius Institute, by talking with the Chinese interns and attending events, I learned about the Chinese Bridge Speech Competition. I decided to apply and was accepted to give a speech and a cultural performance in Boston. The Confucius Institute paid for the trip and my hotel. This was my first time in Boston. After giving my speech and performing the song “Beijing huanying ni” I was offered a scholarship to study in Renmin University, a flight to China to attend a Social Work Conference at Beijing Normal University, and the opportunity to continue with the speech competition in China. Unfortunately, I could not do all three, so I decided to attend the conference and study for two months in China.

As I sat in the airplane waiting to take off and start my trip to China, I felt jittery. Whenever I fly, I am always amazed by the fact that a metal machine can float in the air and travel at such high speeds, but this time I had the added excitement of finally going to China. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew there were lots of starving kids who needed me to eat for them and that Chinese people made very good General Tso’s Chicken. I also knew that many older Chinese people were very traditional and not very accepting of foreigners. Besides those aspects, I didn’t know much else. When I arrived in China, I soon realized that what I “knew” about China was wrong.

I was met at the airport by a very bright graduate student from Beijing Normal University. She took me in a taxi to my dorm. On the way, I saw the huge skyscrapers and shopping malls. After arriving at the dorm, I was able to go shopping with some Chinese students. I saw tons of Chinese people not starving; in fact, they were buying designer clothing and famous brands, many of the same brands that I use. During lunch, I was amazed at what I could buy for just a few American dollars. I saw all the diversity in Chinese cuisine, none of which was what we typically see Chinese food as in America. I found out that most Chinese people don’t even know what General Tso’s Chicken is!

I like talking to people. I target the people that seem to have more time and aren’t running from one place to the next. I saw some older ladies playing cards in front of the apartment I was staying at. While I was nervous about joining a group of older women who were most likely more traditional, I decided to approach them and ask them how to play. Immediately, they asked me to sit down and attempted, as best they could, to explain the game to me. When they found out I was American, they mentioned Trump, and everyone laughed. Even though we came from very different backgrounds and had a language barrier between us, we were able to connect. Being able to connect and be accepted by these traditional, old grandmas made me change my views on traditional Chinese people. I saw them as loving and caring as opposed to hard and unaccepting of others.

While I was at Renmin University, I met an old grandpa who swept the streets of the University. It was hard for us to communicate because he spoke a dialect and was missing a few teeth. I felt sorry for him and would try to talk to him whenever I could. One day I was heading out of my dorm to grab lunch and he asked if I had eaten yet. I said no. He then, without hesitation, proceeded to take out all the money he had and extended it to me. This old man was watching out for me. He did not want a young student to go hungry in a faraway foreign land. I was touched by his gesture and instantly realized my fault. I was just like those people who stared at my family at the restaurants. I pitied him; I simultaneously felt sorry and superior to him. Sure, I had more teeth than him. Sure, I had more money than him. But did I have more love than him? Was I willing to offer all my money to make sure someone I barely knew would not go hungry?

I brought many misconceptions to China, but I did not bring them back.

I learned a lot while I was in China. I learned about the wide array of dishes and the diversity of people. I learned not to judge people groups by stereotypes and to experience cultures firsthand before making conclusions about them. I learned to not judge people by their outer condition but by their inner character. I brought many misconceptions to China, but I did not bring them back.

Near the end of my trip, I stood on the Great Wall. I looked across the mountains over China. My heart was filled with love for this country and its people. Just as when I came, I felt jittery with excitement about my future with China. I was not the same man as when I came to China. While most people treasure the Great Wall as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, I treasure the Great Wall as the place where my misconceptions are buried.

Michael Briggs
Confucius Institute at the College of William & Mary
Senior, College of William & Mary
Fairfax, Virginia

Michael Briggs is a rising Senior at the College of William and Mary, where he studies Mathematics and Data Science.

Michael is active on campus and involved in a variety of clubs on campus. This past year he was the Vice President of the Residence Hall Association, Service Chair for an anti-trafficking club on campus, a small group leader for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and a Resident Assistant for a freshman hall.

Michael is interested in almost everything, but he particularly likes people, long walks, and challenges.

He also likes to travel. Last summer, he studied at both Beijing Normal University and Renmin University. Two summers before, he biked 200 miles from Osaka to Hiroshima in Japan.

His family is huge. He has 5 sisters and 4 brothers, one of which is adopted from China.

Michael has been studying Chinese for two years and plans to study business in China after graduation.