Grace Nwankwo

How My Journey with Chinese Has Changed Me 

By: Grace Nwankwo

Suyin-ah​! You’ll come back to us next time, right?” Mrs. Sun, or Sun 奶奶 (Granny Sun), called out to me as my classmates and I prepared to leave the Chinese American Service League (CASL) building in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown. I turned around at the sound of her voice to see her beaming face. She always requested that I called her 奶奶 since she considered me to be one of her grandchildren—we clicked instantly when I met her for the first time. 

Tears pricked in my eyes as Sun 奶奶 asked me again, her youthful eyes glistening as she noticed my wet ones. She was 84 with a heart of gold, explaining her endless compassion towards me. She came up to me, nudged me, and said, “Stop crying, or I won’t bring any more guava candy.” We both giggled as I said my goodbyes for the year. On the bus ride back, many questions lingered in my heart: What if I didn’t take Chinese and chose Arabic instead? Would I be the Grace I am today if I hadn’t taken Chinese? 

Since my first ever class, Chinese language and culture has changed and continues to change me. Chinese has made me a stronger, more open-minded, more communicable, and eager student and person overall. Chinese introduced me to a culturally vivid world and enabled me to share my experiences with other people, which is not often easy to do living in a segregated city

Chinese was a match that lit a burning flame in me to learn about our world. My life-changing journey all began in 2015, at my new school had which only offered 2 languages for students to choose, Arabic or Chinese. I chose the latter, but I was apprehensive about taking it. First, I learned French & Spanish in elementary school and was raised in an Igbo** speaking household. None of those languages were remotely similar to Chinese. On top of that, I was aware of Chinese being infamously known as the “language with no alphabet”. I remember thinking to myself, How in the world am I going to learn a language that doesn’t have an alphabet? However, this fear dissipated when Hu Laoshi pushed us hard to embrace Chinese culture. Our class thought she was quite the teacher. She banned us from speaking English during class and would move our desks to the front of the classroom if she heard a mere whisper of English from any of us. 

 Nonetheless, it all came from the heart: she truly wanted us to get better at Chinese. She happily showed us videos about  (Chinese New Year), discussed the importance of 高考 (Gaokao) in Chinese society, helped us select Chinese names, and taught us the history of  (Chinese writing system). The realization that I was falling in love with Chinese hit me as we were practicing calligraphy one afternoon. I found my heart beating in admiration as I looked at the character  that I wrote. Hu Laoshi’s fiery passion to teach her students Chinese had worked its magic on me. I realized that I could speak Chinese to my younger siblings (who would just smile and nod as if they understood). I realized that Chinatown slowly became my favorite place, 珍珠奶茶 (bubble tea) became my new favorite drink,  (xiao long bao) became my new favorite food, and Period 4 Chinese became my new favorite class. Chinese had my life under its thumb, but I did not complain not one bit. I loved it.

Therefore, I wanted to pursue my interest in Chinese and other cultures even further. Learning about cultures became one of my biggest passions because I saw how it shapes people’s views, actions, and traditions. Soon, I found myself enrolling in Chinese 2, then Chinese 3 the following year. Now, I have taken five years of Chinese instead of stopping at my school’s requirement of just two years. I plan to make it six as I’ll take Advanced Placement Chinese senior year. I also want to take the HSK exam soon, earn a Mandarin biliteracy seal, and study Chinese in college. Once I entered 9th grade, I enrolled in the Chinese Culture & Service class held on our colloquium days, where we have a 3-hour class. In those 3 hours, we immersed ourselves in Chinese culture via discussions, movies, and volunteered at the CASL. There, we met and talked with elderly members of Chinese and Cantonese communities, taught them English, made crafts, sang Christmas carols and Chinese ballads, and performed skits. One of my favorite memories from CASL was when one 奶奶 called me her 外国女儿 (foreign daughter)” after I introduced myself in Chinese. She insisted I was Chinese “in my blood” but that I just looked different. I’ll never forget how much our stomachs hurt from laughing.

I loved that not only did we learn about life in China and what values the Chinese hold dear to them, but as black & Latinx high schoolers, we also got to share bits of our culture, ideas, and values (like when we taught them about the Black Lives Matter movement) and other (sometimes shared) struggles that we faced in America.

It was so warming to connect—mending a generational and cultural gap—and teach one another about our differing worlds. 

Chinese also made me push myself to seek more opportunities to learn. I didn’t just stop when I left the classroom. I religiously watched Chinese movies at home without subtitles, quickly jotting down any slang I heard. I would listen to Chinese-speaking artists like Jolin Tsai, G.E.M, and 7SENSES. A bigger example was when I competed in a Chinese speech contest as a freshman among juniors and seniors from across Illinois. I earned second place (silver award) and wowed the judges, who acclaimed me for my fluency. The impact Chinese had on my life was simply amazing: I never thought I would be performing or speaking in front of people, let alone in a completely new language. Chinese had created a NEW me and also became a big part of me. Most importantly, I believe that Chinese enabled me to develop amazing skills, like diligence and perseverance, earned from being a Chinese student. Using these skills, I work actively in my school and outside to spread awareness about China and its rich culture.

Lots of people are uneducated about the diverse beauty of Chinese culture. Most have a fixed, disgusting mindset that Chinese people “look the same” and always wear Asian comical hats and eat rice. And now with the COVID-19 pandemic, whose epicenter was in Wuhan, China, these racist attitudes have further solidified and manifested themselves in physical attacks against those of Chinese or East Asian descent. We’ve even had our president—the leader of our country—go out of his way to call COVID-19 a “Chinese virus”. I’ve seen this attitude harbored in some of my classmates in Chinese. They didn’t even try to learn Chinese. They insisted that it was useless and ignorantly mocked the language, even in front of teachers. 

A myriad of examples exists of my work to promote Chinese culture to others. For example, I serve as the secretary of my school’s National Chinese Honor Society chapter. I’m always willing to help in class when my classmates need it and have gotten close to a Chinese exchange student named Diana. I also help 25 students develop their passions for cultures by being a teacher’s assistant for Chinese 1. Since 9th grade, I have been in the Chinese Culture and Service colloquium and have participated in planning and executing my school’s annual Chinese Cultural Festival, full of cultural performances performed by students. I’ve organized stations that taught visitors different aspects of Chinese culture. This year, I was an MC and choreographed a fan dance for my students to perform! The guests enjoyed it, including the Director of the Education Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Chicago. After taking a photo with us, he commended our teachers and the planning board team for a successful Chinese Cultural Festival. 

 I’m grateful that 12-year-old me made the right choice of picking Chinese. Because of Chinese, I have blossomed into a new me: I found a new passion, became a persevering student, connected with people—young and old—from across the globe and exchanged our cultural values. Now one day, I wish to walk on the frayed cobblestone of the Great Wall, slurp on Sichuan dan dan noodles, and admire Beijing’s bustling nightlife. I have been touched by the stories and experiences of native Chinese friends and fellow Chinese students and have enjoyed sharing my experiences too. Chinese has given me so much joy, an amazing learning environment, and other benefits that I couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else. As I eventually grow up, move cities, have a family, and grow old, Chinese will always be in my heart. Chinese made me into the Grace I am today, and who I will forever be. 


五年前我开始了一段奇妙的旅程 means in English “5 years ago, I started an amazing journey.” 

** Igbo – one of the primary languages spoken in Nigeria, I come from Nigeria (我的妈妈来自尼日利

Grace Nwankwo

Grace Nwankwo is a rising senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, IL. By the time she graduates high school, she will have taken all six years of Chinese, including AP Chinese. At her school, she’s involved in a diverse list of extracurriculars and interests: policy debate, badminton, student voice, community service through NHS, and more. Since her first Chinese class in 7th grade, she was hooked onto the language. Because of this, She’s heavily involved in her school’s Chinese learning community. She serves as secretary of the National Chinese Honors Society, is a teacher’s assistant to first-year Chinese students, long-term member of the Chinese Culture and Service Colloquium (Club), and organized and participated in numerous Chinese Cultural Days at school. 

Juliet Petrus

The International Language: Using Song to Connect China and the West

By: Juliet Petrus

As a child growing up in Farmington, Michigan, I never would have believed that my life’s work would become about using classical music to connect China and the Western world.  When I was a girl, the extent of my exposure to Chinese culture was books about feng shui, “Buddhism for Dummies,” and learning how to use chopsticks at the only Chinese restaurant in my townI had always had a curiosity for other cultures and languages. I first traveled to Europe when I was thirteen singing with an international choir. I came home “changed,” according to my parents, and profoundly interested in learning how to communicate in foreign languages. That next school year, I began studying French, later adding German and Italian in my university years. 

My degrees, however, are not in linguistics. I am, by study and profession, an opera singerI made it well into my adult life before finally meeting the subject that would capture my full interest and drive my professional life for nearly a decade: China.

In 2011, I applied for and was accepted into an innovative program for young, Western opera singers. iSING Beijing was the first program of its kind to bring Western, classical singers to China, teaching them about Chinese language, culture and music. For five weeks, we took Chinese language classes for four hours a day. It was there that I learned how to speak and to write in pīnyīn. I heard fascinating lectures by Peking opera singers, professors of Chinese language, and a variety of other specialists, sparking my enthusiasmI saw places like Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, and The Great Wall. remember feeling so alive, so overcome with joy for everything that I was experiencing for the first time. But, none of that could prepare me for what was about to come. 

The finale of our five weeks was to be a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. My career to that point had been singing opera in the United States and Europe. While there are many enthusiastic lovers of opera there, nothing compared to the palpable energy buzzing in the hall that day in Beijing. When I stepped onstage and sang the opening lines to “I Love You, China,” the audience erupted in deafening applause and enthusiastic exclamations of “Hǎo! Hǎo!” in the middle of my solo. I had suddenly been transformed from opera singer to rock star.  

What made it all the more meaningful was that, after the concert when a wave of people rushed onto the stage for photos, I had gained the knowledge to have even the most basic of conversations with them: “Rèn shi nǐ hěn gāo xìng! I could communicate in music and in Chinese. 

I went back to Beijing in December 2011 for another concert with iSING. The Beijing winter was brutally coldbut looking down at the street from the hotel, I still saw the swarms of motorbikes and bicycles zigging and zagging on the street below. I related to and understood the tenacitywork ethic and determination of the Chinese people. The languageculture and music provided endless inspiration to me. As I looked out that window, I declared to myself “I need to come here every year for the rest of my life.”  

Perhaps it was saying it out loud that caused it, but the following nine years opened door after door, all of which led me back to China. In 2012, I returned to iSING Beijing for another five weeks, where my language skills and cultural understanding deepened, as well as my enthusiasm for living in China. At the end of that program, I was publicly invited by a representative of Hanban to come and study Chinese in China as a Confucius scholar. I was thrilled — but almost immediately dismissed the idea. I was a married 33-year-old woman with a toddler at home. I could not see how it would be possible to make longer-term study abroad and family happen at the same time. Luckily, thanks to the endless support of my husband and family, as well as the gracious leadership at Tongji University in Shanghai, I was able to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. In 2014, my son and I lived in the dorms at Tongji, while I took classes at the International School and he enrolled at the yòuéryuánI learned an incredible amount about Chinese language in that one semester. It was in Shanghai, however, where I began truly combining my career as a singer with my desire to communicate between cultures. 

During my time at Tongji, I gave my first solo concert singing Chinese repertoire. I was once again struck by the connection with the audience. I knew that it was the music that allowed me to speak with the people watching, and I knew that it was a conversation I wanted to start back home. In 2015, I recorded my first CD of Chinese and American art song. A Great Distance was a love letter to the music that I had grown up loving as a young classical singer and to the music which had captured my heartI believed then, as I do now, that Chinese vocal music deserved to be known internationally.  

After that, my time in China increased to nearly six months out of every year. I began receiving invitations from Chinese conservatories to perform and give masterclasses. In 2018-2019, I completed a ten-city, solo recital tour of China, a recital aptly named “Juliet: The ‘I Love You China’ Tour.” I could not imagine a truer title.  

After Tongji, my desire to continue improving my language skills never ended. While the ability to go and spend an entire semester became more difficult with professional and familial obligations, I continued to study online, sometimes coming to China when I could to study privately. In 2017, I passed the HSK4 exam. These days, I am actively studying to pass the HSK5 before the end of the year. 

Perhaps my proudest accomplishment comes in the form of an idea that I had back in my first summer in China. During that time, spoke with one my mentors, Katherine Chu, a director of the iSING Beijing program, who I knew shared my passion for education.  

“Katherine, I want to write a Chinese diction book.”  

A diction book is a book used in many Western music conservatories to teach singers how to pronounce a language, even if they cannot speak it fluently. It is an acute analysis of sounds, application of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and systemization of teaching.  

“That’s nice,” she replied smiling. “Why don’t you learn more Chinese, spend more time in China to get to know the people and the culture and then come back to me.” 

She knew that, back in 2011, I had no business saying this despite my enthusiasm. So, I spent the next eight years gaining that knowledge. 

In early 2019, Katherine and I signed a contract to co-author Singing in Mandarin: A Guide to Chinese Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire to be released by the publisher Rowman and Littlefield in July 2020. Finally, the classical singing world will have a guide to Chinese vocal music. I hope that this book will help begin the conversation of bringing Mandarin forward as a new ‘lyrical language,’ a language used in singing much like Italian or German. Likewise, I hope that it will allow for the printed music, much of which is currently only available in China, to be made available in the West using the transliteration guidelines introduced in the book. This music may finally be made accessible for a worldwide audience. 

It was initially the rush of being on stage that drew me into Chinese music, language and culture. But as the years have passed, as my relationship with China, its music, language and people has grown, it has become about how I can use my first language — music — to connect my first and second home. When words and circumstances create division, it is still my hope that song can span continents to connect hearts.   

Juliet Petrus

Juliet Petrus is an American and Italian professional opera singer born and raised in Michigan and currently based in London, UK. Since completing her degrees in voice performance at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, she began working professionally as a coloratura soprano across the US and Europe. In Western music, she frequently performs roles in baroque and Mozart repertoire, including The Queen of the Night, The Magic Flute (Hamburger Kammeroper, Germany)and is frequently the soloist for Carmina Burana (Alabama, St. Louis and Colorado symphonies). Next season, she sings with Florentine Opera in Milwaukee and with Bühne Baden in Baden, Austria. 

In 2011, she was invited to participate in the program iSING! Beijing (now iSING! International Young Artists Program), which was her first exposure to Chinese language, culture and music. After being the recipient of a Confucius Institute Scholarship in 2014 to attend Tongji University in Shanghai, she began to specialize in contemporary Chinese vocal literature. Her performances in China have taken her to more than twenty cities, and include performances for CCTV, at the Great Hall of People in Tiananmen Square, the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, with the Shanghai Symphony, and solo recital performances across the Dongbei region. In the US, she has sung in Mandarin at Lincoln Center in New York, Chicago Symphony Hall, and Shubert Theater in San Francisco. In 2015, she was the first Westerner to release a CD of Chinese art song, entitled A Great Distance千里之外  on MSR Classics, which can be found on Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes.  

Juliet is likewise a passionate educator. In addition to being a teaching artist for Lyric Opera of Chicago for over seven seasons, Juliet was an associate professor of voice, piano and viola for the City Colleges of Chicago. Across China, she is a welcomed lecturer and masterclass teacher, having worked with students at conservatories in Harbin, Shenyang, Beijing, Nanjing, Jinan, Chengdu, among others. Since the beautiful world of Chinese music was opened to her, she has become particularly interested in making Chinese music accessible for Western singers. Her book with co-writer Katherine Chu, Singing in Mandarin: A Guide to Chinese Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire (Rowman and Littlefield, 2020) will be released later this year. 

Juliet is fluent in English, German, Italian, French and Mandarin, and she currently maintains an online studio of music and language learners across three continents. When not performing, teaching, or studying, Juliet loves exploring new cultures through cooking, watching movies, and traveling with her husband and son. She truly believes in the power of music to unite people and cultures around the world. 

Alana Barry

The Transcending Power of Cultural Exchange

By: Alana Barry

Though China and the United States lie on opposite ends of the globe, separated by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, there are more opportunities for us to breach that distance than ever before. 

Looking back on my own experiences with cultural exchange, I realize just how much I gained from them— those experiences hold the potential for us to change and enrich each other’s lives, simply by being and learning together. 

My cultural exchange journey began in 2015, my junior year of high school, when I traveled to China to represent the U.S. in the Chinese Bridge Language Proficiency Competition. Upon landing in Kunming, each competing team was assigned a college-aged volunteer to help with preparations. Our volunteer’s name was Zhang Tingyu, a tall, patient, and funny Thai language major with a love of foreign TV dramas. She took us to visit some of Kunming’s famous tourist sites, and joined us in sampling some delicious local food. We hit it off immediately, and to this day, she’s still my first and best friend from China. After five intensive knockout rounds, my partner and I won first place in the Americas and third place in the world. In the airport, while in line to check our bags for the flight home, Tingyu gave me a postcard she’d written the night before. Even after everything I’d learned in the competition, I could barely recognize any of the characters, especially the Chinese proverb she’d written at the bottom of the card. I looked to her, disappointed, but she told me she knew I’d be able to read it one day. I couldn’t wait to prove her right.  

Over the next two years, I continued to work on my Chinese, graduated high school, and packed two suitcases full of my worldly belongings to prepare for my next adventure. Thanks to the year-long scholarship awarded to me by Chinese Bridge as well as my teachers’ assistance, I was on track to spend my gap year at Fudan University in Shanghai in the fall of 2018I knew that studying at Fudan would give me the opportunity to understand China on a deeper level, but I was pleasantly surprised when it opened the doors to the rest of the world as well. Before the start of the semester, each student was assigned to a class based on the results of their placement test. The International Cultural Exchange School at Fudan had students from all over the world— Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Austria, union, many places I’d never been to and some I’d barely even heard of. Early on, my classmates and I bonded over late-night games of mahjong, group lunches in the cafeteria, and naps on the lawn between classesFew of them spoke English, so Chinese was our common thread. We shared the frustrations and joys of learning a second language, of having to pull out your dictionary in the middle of a conversation, of finally getting your point across after struggling to find the right words. Because we were all learning, we understood the importance of being patient with one another, and took the time to really listen.  

In addition to my academic experience, my time at Fudan also allowed me to explore a series of extracurricular activities and clubsThe first club to catch my eye was Echo, a chamber choir affiliated with the university. I’d sung in choirs since I was old enough to carry a tune, and a poster outside my classroom advertising one of their concerts piqued my interest. I signed up to audition, and soon enough, I joined the communityAt first, as the only foreign member of the choir, I felt like a complete outsider. I remember my first day walking into practice, knowing no one, afraid I’d be stumped by a rehearsal conducted entirely in Chinese. But when the conductor picked up his baton, when we fell into the familiar routine of warmups and sight-read the first few bars of our new piece, I knew I was at home. Echo attracted both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as some who had joined the workforce. Many of the members belonged to several different choirs, and a few were professional singers. Although we were all from different walks of life, we were connected by our passion for creating beautiful music. Through Echo, we sang in Hebrew with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in their concert hall, sang sacred music in Latin at St. Peter’s Church to an audience so quiet you could hear a pin drop. After each concert, we always celebrated together, singing old favorites and toasting to the group’s hard work.

 I also joined the crosstalk club: crosstalk, or xiangsheng, is a traditional Chinese performing art, a sort of stand-up comedy steeped in centuries of history and cultural references. The club met weekly to rehearse their skits, workshopping each other’s performances and encouraging the newcomers (like me) to learn tongue-twisters and beginners’ routines. Since we communicated solely in Chinese, practicing crosstalk was both frustrating and exhilarating, much like learning a language. Even the most basic of routines would inevitably contain some number of ancient stories, proverbs, or references that I’d never heard of and didn’t understand. My fellow club members took the time to walk me through each of those trouble spots, explaining them at length not just because they had to but because they genuinely wanted me to understand more about Chinese culture. By the end of the year, my partner and I had a skit prepared for their spring showcase— the first time the club had had international students perform in a show. We’d practiced the script until we were practically reciting it in our sleep. The show went off without a hitch, and we celebrated our success in typical crosstalk club fashion: copious amounts of late-night barbecue skewers. Both of these clubs allowed me to use my Chinese skills, albeit in very different ways. With Echo, I found a community that felt familiar. I was able to meet people with similar musical backgrounds to mine, and share in one of a kind experiences with them. It was thanks to my study of Chinese that I could make it through the audition, understand cues in rehearsal, and connect with my fellow singers. With the crosstalk club, I was able to build upon my existing knowledge of Chinese to explore a new art form that I knew almost nothing about. Beyond just the recitation and the performance itself, I learned more about the history of the art as well as folktales and proverbs. Without the basic foundations of the language, I would have no way to approach this multi-layered challenge.  

 In June of 2019, Tingyu took a few days off work to visit me in Shanghai. She designed an itinerary and took us to places I’d never been, even after living in the city for a whole year. After an adventure to an internet-famous bookstore, we sat on a bench outside, looking through photos from the day. I suddenly remembered I’d brought something, and dug around in my bag for a minute before pulling it out: the postcard she’d given me almost three years ago. We laughed about how discouraged I’d felt when I could barely read any of it, especially the proverb she’d told me was the most important: hai nei cun zhi ji, tian ya ruo bi lin. “As long as one has a close friend in this world, the ends of the earth seem like next door.” 

The distance from my hometown of Washington, D.C. to Shanghai is just under 7,500 miles, and at times the gap in understanding between our two countries can seem vast. But in that moment, I thought about Tingyu and all the other wonderful people I’d met during my time in China. I thought about all the incredible experiences I’d had, all because I was able to study Chinese. I thought about the friendships I knew I’d take with me no matter where I goand the world really did feel a little smaller. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have had these opportunities. If I could, I’d put everyone in the world on a plane to China.

But in the meantime, I’ll say it once more: cultural exchange changed my life, just as it’s changed the lives of many others. As long as we continue to value and cherish it, it will continue to make the world a better place, one experience at a time. 

Alana Barry

Alana Barry is a junior double majoring in International Studies and East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Her interest in China began early on, when she chose to take Mandarin as a language elective in the seventh grade. Throughout high school, she had several opportunities to travel to China, both through the government-sponsored Chinese Bridge language competition and her school’s China Fieldwork Semester program in Yunnan province. After graduation, she spent her gap year studying Chinese language, culture, and society at Fudan University’s International Cultural Exchange School. This experience intensified her passion, allowed her to explore, join student organizations, and become highly proficient in Mandarin.

In her free time, Alana enjoys listening to, playing, and writing music of all kinds. She loves to travel and is a major foodie.

After graduation, Alana hopes to apply her passion for Chinese culture, history, and language to a career in U.S.-China relations. She knows that no matter what she ends up doing, she’ll be sure to take the knowledge she gained from her experiences with cultural exchange with her into the future. 

David Fuller

Effort, Passion, and Guzheng 

By: David Fuller

My name is David Fuller, I am a senior at Alfred University and have been involved with the Confucius Institute at Alfred University (CIAU) for about 2 years. My experience with the CIAU has been extremely influential not only for me, but for my Mother as well. I have been playing Guzheng for 2 years now, under the instruction of CI Director Wu Zhongbei (Daisy Wu). I can honestly say that I have never felt more like I belonged than when I was learning with the Confucius Institute, be it Guzheng, Tai-chi, or just stopping by to say hello. 

I first started playing Guzheng in the Fall Semester of my Sophomore year. I had met Daisy at a retirement party for an administrative assistant at the College of Business. There was no tension or unease, simply jubilance as she spoke, and this overwhelming positivity was largely what led me to join the Guzheng class.  

I fell in love with Guzheng from the first day I played. It is an instrument responsive to any emotion or experience you tell it. Every time I played it was like colors flooding out of it, I had never experienced anything like it.

The College had one practice room for Guzheng, and I spent a great deal of time there. Beginning with Blossom and The Rainbow Sisters, I got to play to my heart’s content.

Through the CIAUI had access to not only the practice room, but also a great deal of tape, picks, and music scores which made the learning process so much easier. But Daisy in particular was responsible for my growth. She did not push me to grow as much as she made me want to push myself. For every ounce of effort I put in, she put in a liter. I remember once when we first got the sheet music for Cheerful Clouds Chasing the Moon, she played it for us at the end of class and I instantly fell in love with it. Although to be honest, everything Daisy plays is magnificent.  

At this point I had gotten a habit of whenever I was feeling down on my luck, I would go to the Guzheng practice room and play until I felt better. That night, at around midnight, I went to the practice room and practiced Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon until dawn, trying as best I could to emulate Daisy’s performance the day before. I remember at 7:30 am, despite being exhausted and my fingers sore, I was so joyful and proud that I had, for the most part, learned the whole piece. In my excitement fueled by sleep deprivation, I sent Daisy an email: 

“Dear Professor Wu, I’ve been practicing the piece: Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon and I think I’ve mostly got it. Is there a time we could meet this week to clear up any mistakes?” 

I had expected, at most, a list of times she would be available in response and I certainly never expected her to respond so early in the morning. But as I was picking up my things to return to my dorm for a power nap before class, I got a response. Not a list of times she was available. Not an admonishment for my impatience. But instead: 

“Are you still in Miller (the music building)? If so, I will meet you there at 8:00 and we can go over the piece” 

It was incredible, that a professor would, at a moment’s notice, come to help me practice so early in the morning. We went through the piece, going over any rough spots and some unfamiliar notations in the score, and by the end of that session, I had learned the piece. Of course, this effort on her part only spurred me to push myself harder. When the semester had ended, I had found a new hobby, passion, mentor and self-professed “China Mom”, and two particularly wonderful new friends named Sheng Lin and Tan Yang. 

Looking back, if the Confucius Institute and the student exchange program had one resounding characteristic which made it special, it would be the overwhelming positivity spread by the staff, faculty, and students. I have never felt more welcome or cared about than when I work with them. And that’s because they don’t care about my looks or my wealth or any of that. They are all hardworking, passionate individuals, and that’s all that they asked of me.

And with that rallied support, effort, and passion, I came to learn the piece Evening Songs on a Fishing Boat. Now, I never expected anything long-term to come of my Guzheng class. It was a wonderful experience, but I never thought it would be more than a class once a week. That is, until Daisy offered me the opportunity to go to the 2019 New York Chinese Instruments International Competition in NYC. There I got to play in my first ever instrumental competition and won gold in my age group and bronze overall with a score in the high 90s.  

Of course, Daisy, being the amazing mentor she is, had no intention of only giving me one amazing opportunity. That Fall, two other students and I went to Washington, DC to perform with Daisy at the National Press Club for the Confucius Institute Gala. It turned out to be one of the greatest moments of my life. In a room of individuals representing the highest echelons of society I felt incredibly out of place. I was just a kid from the middle of nowhere, and now I had to perform at an event where they had cheese wrapped in spinach? Which tastes amazing by the way, but nevertheless I was terrified.  

The piece came to an end and there was a moment of deafening silence. Then one person started clapping, and then another. Soon the whole room was on its feet. To this day I can’t describe how I felt at that moment. Shocked? Elated? Fulfilled? Whatever it was, it was incredible and without Daisy and the CIAU, it never would have happened.  

But it still wasn’t over. The Alfred Tai-chi group which is sponsored by CIAU had been invited to China for the Tai-Chi festival. I had planned to go and bring my Mother as my plus 1. Unfortunately, I ended up getting mono and having to miss the trip, but my Mother was still allowed to go. I’m still not sure what happened in China, but my Mother came back as a changed woman. She changed her diet, became more motivated, and now, less than a year later, she has lost 40 pounds, is writing a novel, and according to her, she feels better than she has in decades.  

The CIAU didn’t only change my life for the better, it changed my Mother’s. As I’m looking towards graduation in less than a month, I will certainly miss everyone and everything I have come to know through the CIAU. Over this last year I’ve continued playing and have even written my own piece for Guzheng. I have no intention of stopping either. I have decided to buy a Guzheng of my own. I want to continue playing, learning, and someday I hope to teach it to others. 

As someone with autism, I went to college not so much for the higher education aspects, but to learn how to be a person. To learn how to communicate, how to interact with others, and to grow into my own person. While I have made progress in those areas, I’ve found that Guzheng lets me communicate more clearly than any sentence, phrasing, or facial expression I can conjure. To the CIAU and all the wonderful friends I’ve made through it, I can only say thank you, you’ve given me so much and I’ll never forget you. 

David Fuller
Confucius Institute at Alfred University

David Fuller is a recent graduate from Alfred University. He enjoys reading and has played Guzheng since College where he learned the instrument under the tutelage of Professor Wu Zhongbei (Daisy Wu). Right now, he’s working on starting his own tutoring business in Tennessee but is considering moving to China or Russia someday.

Lorna Bergner

This Granny Went to China 

By: Lorna Bergner

The music was blaring, people of all ages and backgrounds were dancing.  I said to my new Chinese friend, “Let’s go closer.”  We joined the huge crowd of people who had gathered in a large circle to watch the hundreds of dancers—in one section many couples were dancing, and right next to that group were lines and lines of people following a leader doing exercises to the same music.  I was fascinated and started tapping my toes to the lively tunes.  My friend said, “Do you want to dance?”  “I would love to,” I said, “but I don’t know how.  She called to one of the ladies and asked her if she would teach me.  Fortunately, I was able to follow her lead.   

There I was, 65 years youngwithin a week after arriving in Chongqingdancing in the public square in Yangjiaping, a major commercial center in that huge metropolis. Prior to my arrival there, I had visited several cities, such as Beijing, ShenzhenZhuhai, Kunming, Chengdu and finally, Chongqing.  All along the way, I had been accompanied by someone who could speak both English and Chinese.  Normally, I would try to master a few basic phrases of the local language; however, I landed in mainland China during Spring Festival 2008 on a whim.  The only words I knew were “ hǎo” (hello), and soon understood that most people greeted me by saying “Nǐ chī fàn le ma (Have you eaten?).   

During my brief visits to the homes of Chinese families in the cities just mentioned, my heart was completely won over by their sincerity, respect, generosity, intelligence, and desire to be of service.  I decided to stay in Chongqing for an indefinite time so that I could immerse myself in the language and culture of the people.  No longer accompanied by a bilingual friend, I realized that my first priority, after getting a place to stay, was to learn Chinese.  Meanwhile, a local family unofficially “adopted” me, and included me in all their family gatherings and holiday trips to their hometown and nearby tourist sites.  It was Chinese New Year Festival—the Year of the Rat—twelve years ago.  None of the family spoke English, except for the 15 year-old daughter who tried to talk to me using her few words of English.  We managed to convey our ideas through gestures, dictionaries, and mainly heart-to-heart.  On those road trips, I learned Cè suǒ zài  ?  (Where is the toilet?) 

 With the help of this family and so many other Chinese friends, who I feel honored to call sister, brother, auntie, uncle, daughter, son, granddaughter, grandson, I stayed in Chongqing.  I worked as a teacher of English at a private language school.  I knew I would not become wealthy by working as a part-time English teacher, and I received no perks, such as free housing or travel allowances.  However, because I worked part-time, I had a lot of free time.  I made lots of new friends outside the school environment, friends of all ages and all backgrounds, all Chinese.  Although I met a few Western foreigners in Chongqing, I did not seek their company.  I was in China, and I was immersing myself in that glorious culture and language.  The language being spoken all around me was “Chongqinghua”, a local dialect that I was slowly beginning to learn.  My first phrases included 21 lóu dào le” (arrived 21st floor) when the elevator speaker announced the floor where I lived; the names of the bus stops near my school and near my home; and enough phrases and numbers so that I could bargain effectively when buying food or clothes—one of the most important being, Tài guì le!  biàn   diǎn’r.” (Too expensive! Please lower the price.)  

 After a few years of smiling a lot and just getting by with my baby-talk style of communication in Chongqinghua I enrolled as a student at Sichuan International Studies University, otherwise known as Chuanwai”, which is the abbreviated version of its Chinese name, Sìchuān Wàiguóyǔ Dàxué.  From 7:00 a.m. to 12 noon, five days a week, I diligently studied Chinese with the expert assistance of my highly qualified professors, one each for Listening, Speaking, Writing and Reading.  At noon, I rushed to catch the bus in order to make it to my school on time to teach English for the next four to six hours.  My evenings and weekends were devoted to meeting up with various groups of Chinese friends, eating out, hiking, walking in the parks.  I practiced speaking Mandarin with them, but they preferred to practice their English with me.  As a student I failed my Writing and Reading classes, and left Chuanwai after one year, having obtained minimal but useful proficiency in pinyin.  I could speak a little Mandarin but with a Chongqing accent, according to one of my friends from Beijing. 

What was my life like in the mountain city of Chongqing?  I commuted to work on the ever-expanding network of metro lines that link every neighborhood Some trains follow tracks buried deep beneath the crowded streets and skyscrapers blocking out the sky above Most trains seemingly fly through the air along the above-ground monorail lines crisscrossing the city like a giant spider web The scenes were reminiscent of images I had seen as a child reading sci-fi cartoons depicting futuristic cities.  I loved my Tai Chi classes in the center of the shopping area near my home, but I didn’t like getting up at 5 a.m. every morning.  I ate out with friends several times a week.  No, I did not go to “western” restaurants, and no, I did not learn the names of the endless varieties of delicious Chinese food.  Suí biàn   I would say to my companions, “Whatever you eat I will eat.”   On the weekends, during a leisurely stroll along one of the main avenues heading to the park beside the Yangtze River not far from the bustling commercial center where I lived, we would stop at a quaint tea shop, sip fragrant green tea, chat with the tea server and other guests, and feel that time had stood still.   

searched the Internet and made a list of about 50 mountain areas open to the public, which were easily accessible by public transportation—all within a half-hour or up to two-hour travel time from my home.  I called my Chinese friends,  “Are you free this weekend?”  At least once a month for the next several years I climbed about 25 mountains in or near Chongqing.  The other 25 still beckon to me.  What do I mean “climb”?  I followed the lead of the Chinese people around me.  Wear comfortable clothes.  Women can choose practical shoes, such as sneakers, or high heels—both are acceptable.  Wear a hat on sunny days?  Maybe, but using a parasol is preferred by many women, including me.  Walking up and down and over those majestic mountains was invigorating.  We were merely minutes from one of the biggest cities in the world, but were surrounded by trees; we breathed in fresh air, sometimes saw blue skies over our heads, heard rushing waterfalls and gurgling streams.  It was not uncommon to arrive at a temple, some big and impressive, some just an icon set into the rock.  One day, I was having difficulty ascending the steep incline.  I had been climbing for some time, and although there were steps carved out of the rocky slope, I was beginning to doubt whether I would make it to the top.  I stopped to catch my breath.  I glanced up and was face to face with a small statue and burning incense.  I prayed, “Oh God, help me get to the top of this mountain.”  Old men and women, young people and children, passed me on their way up the mountain.  J yóu!” they cheered me on, “Keep going!”  

 I went to China on a whim, without any plan as to how long I would stay.  With each passing year I fell more in love with the people and their culture.  Last Spring, after more than 11 memorable years of living and learning with my Chinese friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, it was time for me to return to Buffalo.  Fortunately, I found the UB Confucius Institute—University at Buffalo.  I immediately enrolled as a student to improve my Chinese language skills.  Learning Chinese is still very challenging to me, especially reading and writing, but deeply rewarding.   I am sincerely grateful to the Confucius Institute for the opportunity to continue following my passion to learn the Chinese language and also to meet the kind and hospitable group of people who serve the Institute, with special thanks to my teacherGuō lǎo shī. 

 Many Chinese friends told me that they dedicate a good portion of their lives in order to become proficient in their own language.  Indeed, learning the Chinese language is a lifelong process.  

Even though I began late in life and am now 77, I still strive to learn.  Why?  Because I believe that language holds the key to understanding not just words, but also to understanding what’s in each other’s minds and hearts. 

Learning a language goes beyond the mechanics of vocabulary and grammar; rather it provides us with the means to explore and appreciate our humanness.  As one of my favorite Chinese authors, Lin Yutang, wrote in his book, My Country and My People, “Indeed, the business of trying to understand a foreign nation with a foreign culture, especially one so different from one’s own as China’s, is usually not for the mortal man.  For this work there is need for broad, brotherly feeling, for the feeling of the common bond of humanity and the cheer of good fellowship.  One must feel with the pulse of the heart as well as see with the eyes of the mind.” 

Even now, I struggle in vain to express in my own language my profound gratitude for all the Chinese people who have been a part of my life during the past 12 years, and who, by their kind-hearted offers of friendship, helped me to feel with the pulse of my heart and see with my mind’s eye that we are members of one family, the human family.  

Lorna Bergner
Confucius Institute at Buffalo University

Lorna Bergner is a retired schoolteacher and business manager. She has travelled and lived in many countries, always with the aim of doing her small part to build bridges of unity and harmony with all those she meets. At 65 years of age, she visited China, became enchanted with its people and culture. Weeks turned into months, turned into years, until 11 years later she reluctantly left Chongqing…

Ryan Hale

Is It Not a Pleasure to Meet With Friends From Afar? 

By: Ryan Hale

Last year, on a chilly February morning, I sat at a desk in my university’s library, working on writing some Chinese characters. Though I tried my best to stay focused on the strokes of each character, my mind continually wandered, and I couldn’t exactly figure out why. Perhaps the cold, snowy, bitter climate of Upstate New York had imbued me with feelings of wanderlust. Up until then, my grandest adventure was a three-hour trip north to Canada for a few days.

I desired to experience more of what this world had to offer. I desired to travel to places far away and learn new things, all while experiencing a new way of life.  

Suddenly, I heard a faint buzzing noise from the pocket of my bookbag. Thrust out of my dream world and back into reality, I lazily grabbed for my phone, expecting to see an email regarding homework or some other enthralling topic. To my surprise, I had received a very different email. The email discussed an opportunity through The Confucius Institute at the University at Albany (my home university) and Southwest University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, China. Upon reading through the email, I learned that these two universities were offering an opportunity for students to travel to SWUFE in Chengdu in summer 2019 for a short study abroad experience. Without a second thought, I immediately began the registration process for the program. 

Fast forward to a month or so later, after receiving my acceptance email for the program, I went and shared the news with the friends I had met at the Confucius Institute. I was so incredibly excited to experience what the nation of China had to offer. I received mixed reactions from my friends and family. Many were supportive of my decision while others reacted with looks of bewilderment and confusion. Despite the mixed reactions, I was not the slightest bit dissuaded. I had heard a one-sided story of China while living in the US, but I knew deep down there was much more to China, and it’s incredibly long and complex history and culture. 

For the month of March following my acceptance, I worked diligently to make sure everything on my travel itinerary was perfect – acquiring my visa, passport, plane ticket, and such. In the meantime, I also admittedly watched an unhealthy amount of YouTube videos about the best destinations and food in Chengdu. I prepared gifts for my friend from the University at Albany Confucius Institute, who graciously offered a place to stay my first night in Chengdu, the day before the program started, and as the days passed, the magic date of July 11th moved closer and closer. I envisioned myself boarding the plane that would make the long journey to Chengdu (my first ever plane ride!) and about a week before my departure, I could barely contain my enthusiasm. After many nights of questionable sleep, the day had arrived to board the plane and begin my grand journey. The ride with my parents to Newark International Airport was one I will never forget, though the threehour drive felt like minutes. My airport experience was relatively stress-free, and I tried quite hard to make it seem like I wasn’t a total newbie navigating the hundreds of airport gates. Upon reaching the security checkpoint, I gave my mom and dad hugs for what felt like an eternity, said my goodbyes, and left my teary-eyed mom with my dad. My adventure had finally begun. Not so long after passing through security, I boarded the Air China flight and began my long trek.  

After a 24-hour voyage with a connecting flight in Beijing, I had finally arrived in Shuangliu Airport. I spotted my friend shortly after grabbing my bags, and in my excitement, I ran to embrace my friend and her boyfriend. We exchanged greetings and gifts, and then promptly left. I fell asleep almost immediately upon reaching my friend’s house. After a long slumber, it was already time to head to my next destination – the hotel all the international students would be staying at near SWUFE. I mustered up the courage to ask a boy who appeared to be my age on the subway if I was going to the correct location. Without a second thought, he told me to follow him in Chinese. I was blown away at the courtesy of this young man! After going out of his way to make sure I arrived at my proper stop, I did what any thankful person would do, I tried to give him money for helping me. He politely declined and disappeared into the subway crowd. What a kind soul! Once I arrived at the hotel and settled into my hotel room, I went to the lobby and memany new international friendsDue to my Chinese studies, I had also been asked to help host the commencement ceremony, which I gladly accepted. I had a blast working with the Chinese volunteer students of SWUFE, who worked tirelessly with the coordinator throughout the entire trip to make sure our experience was the best possible. Of course, we went on many adventures together, such as visiting the Panda Base and going to Du Fu Thatched Cottage. It is incredibly meaningful to me that I got to go on these adventures in Chengdu with my friends from afar.  

On my adventures, I found that my decision to study Chinese as a minor was one of the best decisions I could have made, due to how much it improved my experience on this trip. I think one of my biggest takeaways from my trip can be summed up by a quote from Nelson Mandela, which is “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

I often wondered why I chose to study Chinese, or a language in general. Through this trip, I had finally realized my reason for doing so.

Upon surprising people in Chengdu with my Chinese, their faces instantly lit up with great, dazzling smiles. This was a reaction worth more than gold in my eyes. I also learned much of how a language can help you better understand the culture of a country. For example, one of my experiences wandering through a night market in the Wenjiang District of Chengdu. Upon ordering some tasty snack from a vendor in Chinese, my eyes locked with a family who stared at me in wonder. I greeted them in Chinese, and we promptly began chatting. After chatting for about two or three minutes, the man told the vendor he would cover the cost of my snack. Shocked, I stood there silently, utterly dumbfounded by the kindness and generosity of this man I had just met. After many a “thank you” in Chinese. We parted ways. No sooner than thirty minutes later, I came along a small shop on a side street of the district. Sure enough, there was the family, relaxing and eating, enjoying their time together. They invited me inside and we shared a multitude of homemade Chinese dishes, which were delicious. After many, many hours of chatting in Chinese, we came to realize our lives were quite similar, despite our upbringings on opposite sides of the globe. My view of our world, in that moment, shifted completely. 

I consider the memories I made in Chengdu to be some of the most influential and important moments in my life. Through these moments, I realized how similar we all are as humans, despite geographical boundaries, language, or culture. Though my story tells just a small part of my travels in China, my trip to Chengdand my study of Chinese language quite literally changed my viewpoint of the world for the better. And for that, I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to embark on this journeyI am also thankful for The Confucius Institute at the University at Albany and to Southwest University of Finance and Economics for covering much of the cost of this trip. I will carry the experiences I had in Chengdu with me for the rest of my life. 

Ryan Hale
Confucius Institute at the University of Albany

Ryan Hale is a rising Senior at the University at Albany, where he studies Finance and Business Analytics. On the University at Albany campus, Ryan is heavily involved in assisting with events held by the UAlbany Confucius Institute. In addition to this, Ryan enjoys attending various Business and Finance seminars hosted by the School of Business at the University at Albany. 

Ryan has a few hobbies he is very passionate about, one of which is language learning. In addition to Chinese, Ryan also speaks French, as well as basic Korean and Hindi. A few other hobbies include playing the pianoinvesting in the stock market, and building computers.  

Ryan greatly enjoys exploring the world and meeting new people. In the past two years alone, Ryan has traveled to both Chengdu and Shanghai in China, as well as Seoul in South Korea. Ryan has been studying Chinese for two years and hopes to utilize his Chinese in conjunction with Finance for work in the future.  

Raven Witherspoon

Twelve Hours Apart but Never Alone: The Story of Pen Pals in a Pandemic 

By: Raven Witherspoon

Each day there is a brief window of time, a small overlap in waking hours, when I catch a glimpse of the other side of the world. 

If you told me in January that I would soon regularly converse with someone in Hebei, China I would have laughed. I hadn’t taken a Chinese class in more than six years and I had never participated in a language exchange. I had no idea that course at my local Northern Virginia Community College would expand my world so meaningfully.  

 I fell in love with Mandarin when I began learning it in middle school. Though it was challenging, I was enamored with the class and crestfallen when circumstances forced me to end my studies prematurely. My high school did not offer upper level Chinese and the classes never fit into my college schedule. Tired of waiting, this semester I enrolled in a community college Chinese course in addition to a full schedule at my home school. 

 This class reignited my fascination with Chinese history and culture. I was paired with two pen pals with whom I completed assignments and practiced conversation.Our arrangement was enriching, but my most impactful interactions with a Chinese student came about by pure chance. One of my pen pals mentioned his friend wanted to speak with an American student but was unable to find a partner. I offered to text him and we struck up a friendship beyond the classroom, completely independent of assignments 

 Correspondence was difficult at first. We struggled to find time to talk since I was often beginning my day as he was heading to bed. Fortunately, I am a night owl, so we fell into a routine of texting around 9 P.M. and saying goodnight sometime before 2 A.M. Our dissimilar sleep habits were one of our earliest discovered cultural differences, and something we still laugh about. After weeks of urging me to sleep earlier, he explained that Chinese parents are very conscious of the health benefits of sleep and often remind their children to sleep before midnight. We have a running joke that he is like the mature parent though I am three years older. 

Our conversations began with similar lighthearted exchanges, just getting to know each other. We spoke about our classes, our families, and our interests. Sometimes we shared seemingly mundane facets of our day: a candy we loved as a child, the biscuits we baked that morning, etc. One day when I was stressed he asked if I liked pandas and proceeded to send me funny panda videos for the rest of the afternoon. He mentioned the rarity of wildlife in his province and how little he had traveled, so I began sending videos of scenic farmland and fauna from travels with my family. In this way we began trading bits and pieces of our lives. 

“Have you seen this show? I don’t know if it’s available in your country.” “I found it! I love season one so far.” “Do you know how to play Chinese Chess?” “No, but I can find the rules and we can play online together.” We spoke about popular music, sending our favorite songs back and forth until one day he asked me to sing for him. I was hesitant, but then he agreed to send a voice recording of his favorite ancient Chinese poem if I sang a verse of the popular song “可不可以We came to know each other by these small gestures, and funnily enough, we have never sent pictures of ourselves. I think we both appreciate learning the subtleties of a person – their musical tastes, their free-time joys –  that can’t be seen in a selfie.  

 Slowly we ventured into new territory. As he shared his passion for history, I was struck by the depth of our mutual desire to learn from it. We both marveled at the juxtaposition of our nations: while his history extends for millennia, my country has existed for less than three hundred years. As a native Virginian, I was stunned when he sent pictures of book he was reading and I noticed my state’s capitol building—it was about the Civil War. In one of my favorite conversations, weeks later, I shared Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again. I explained the context of American white supremacy after the war, and how it still impacts my life as the child of an interracial coupleHe listened intently, and shared with me his knowledge of the Chinese Civil War, including the poem “Nostalgia” by Yu Guangzhong. 

As our conversations grew more nuanced and personal, we broached topics that we had not discussed even with friends in our own country. He shared with me the academic pressure he has felt since childhood, the ever-present mandate to perform well on standardized tests and their power to define so much of his life. In turn, I expressed frustration with my country’s growing wealth gap and the lack of federally directed help for those in need. In this tentative but vulnerable way, we have spent hours comparing Chinese and American life.  

Unsurprisingly, we have not had to look farther than current events to note the differences. We understand that our relationship is unique; it is being forged in the fire of an international pandemic that ravaged his home and is accelerating in mine. As a result, we have spoken at length about the relationship between China and America, the trade war, and the woeful state of diplomacy.

However, despite the rising tensions between our countries, our conversations are always tender. 

Halways asks about the COVID-19 cases in my state and if my family is well-supplied. I have cheered as schools reopen in his province and he has mourned as the death toll rises while Americans protest protective measures. These moments have humanized us to each other, and modeled on a small scale the potential for deeply impactful relationships across borders.   

It is because of these interactions that we also speak of great hope, of the power of cross-cultural connection and of leaders who prioritize the wellbeing of all people above their own political power. Together we dream of a brighter future for both countries and the ways we can make those dreams a reality. 

This language exchange has encouraged me to apply for the Schwarzman Scholars Program, an international leadership program at Tsinghua University that will equip me to continue building powerful intercultural relationships. Ultimately I hope that this journey will culminate not only in a lifelong friendship, but also in a lifelong career dedicated to uniting amid differences rather than dividing across borders.  

Raven Witherspoon

Raven Witherspoon is a rising senior at Virginia Commonwealth University where she is majoring in Physics with minors in International Social Justice, Political Science, and Mathematics. She began learning Chinese in sixth grade but circumstances ended her studies in high school. Raven was overjoyed to renew her Chinese studies as a junior in college at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). The opportunity to participate in a penpal program between students at NOVA and Xingtai Polytechnical College in Hebei, China has been among Raven’s most meaningful Chinese language experiences.

Shadasia Diaz Baez

A Tale of Two Cities: New York/Shanghai 

By: Shadasia Diaz Baez

My name is Shadasia Diaz Baez, born to parents whom I still do not know today. I was adopted at age one and I live with my adoptive parents and siblings in Brooklyn, East New York. The only thing I know about my biological parents is that they are African American. My adoptive parents are from the Dominican Republic so as a child, I grew up learning both Spanish and English at the same time. This linguistic background afforded me the opportunity to love languages so when I learned about a China program at Medgar Evers College, where I am an international business major, I jumped at the opportunity. After a qualification application process, I was selected as one of about twenty students from across the United States to travel to China in July 2019. This experience changed my life.  

 As a black girl in a Spanish heritage family, I constantly had to ask myself, who I am?’ I guess this is natural for a child adopted into a different culture.

Like me, many Chinese children were adopted by American parents and I understand that they have similar concerns about their identity. Such anxiety stayed with me until the time when I was transported to a completely different culture on China trip. When I decided to study abroad in China, I had no idea how it would impact the way I viewed the world.

My concerns about going to a different country focused on how they were going to view me, a black girl from Brooklyn. On top of this concern, I was confronted by many of my peers and neighbors who questioned my choice of going to China as some of them indicated that the Chinese do not really like Blacks.  

When the plane landed in China, I was excited and scared. This was the beginning of how I would learn to view the world for myselfnot just through information in American schools. While living on campus for the month in Shanghai, I decided to explore with a couple of colleagues from the program. We visited car factories, restaurant chains, and other business organizations where I started to see a difference between the Chinese management style and the American one. Every organization seems to work as a team and every time we pose questions, the answers were mostly “we” not “I” achieved this or that. Through these sojourns, I also started to gain a sense of belonging within my new group of students who were from diverse backgrounds.

I started to shed my concerns about who I was and felt confident just being me.


The combined confidence allowed me to venture into learning more about who the Chinese people are and what they represent. Are they really racists against Blacks as I was told?  

Each day before bed when I jotted down my thoughts, I realized that race was never an issue in this country or in my group. Having the chance to immerse myself in the Chinese language gave me the need to understand and learn about China and her people in person. I had the opportunity to understand the Chinese culture and history. I was able to come back as an ambassador to share my first-hand experience in China with my community, in which many have misinformed notions about other cultures.

This knowledge gained through my China trip has better prepared mas an international businesswoman in my future career and allowed me to tell my story about China with authenticity.  

Shadasia Diaz Baez

Shadasia Diaz Baez is a senior at CUNY Medgar Evers College, pursuing a CUNY BA degree in International Business and Asian Studies. She is a CUNY BA candidate at the host college of Medgar Evers College. 

Shadasia is involved in the Study Abroad club and SEEK program. In the last two years Shadasia has been active in advocating for and mentoring incoming freshmen students in the college, to help them stay the course and give them available resources that would benefit their academic year. She has been advocating for and informing college students the importance of studying abroad and having intercultural experiences and competence that will help them in the future. 

Shadasia also had the opportunity to travel to and study in Shanghai, China at East China Normal University, where she studied international business and law and Communicative Chinese. Shadasia has been studying the Chinese language for one year and she will be completing her second year of Chinese language studies in the fall of 2020 with the assistance of the Confucius Institute at Medgar Evers College. She plans to go to China on a Fellowship grant and pursue her Master’s Degree there once COVID is over.  

Ellen Saksena

The Great Wall: A Cultural Divide of Two Worlds 

By: Ellen Saksena

A lot of teens are trying to figure out who they will be and find their niche in the world. I am biracial. My mom is Chinese Australian, and my dad is white, neither can speak Chinese. Growing up in a high Asian population, I longed to fit in with either group. Many of my friends were Asian as a result of many of my classes in Newton, MA being majority Asian. I felt white in a sea of Asians. 

 When I drove in the car with my friends, their moms would often speak in Chinese and ask me simple questions in Chinese to test my language capabilities. “Do you understand what I just said?” some would ask. I would reply in broken Chinese; quick fragments which I learned in Chinese class and I was praised. “Wow, your Chinese is good!” 

In middle school, I desired to learn more about the other half of my culture. Among my majority Asian friends, I felt too white but among my white friends, I was too Asian.“Why are you putting sunscreen on? Are you scared of getting a tan?” they asked.  In the lunchroom, the ethnic races seemed to segregate themselves. The Indians all at one table, a few tables for the Chinese guys, and a table for the Korean and Chinese girls. These were the people who I shared the most interests with and the most classes with–the Asians. I didn’t understand why people separated themselves. Why must ethnic groups each have their own table?  

 I wanted to understand my friends and the constant stream of Chinese immigrants who were coming to my school and joining my “Chinese” lunch table. Over the next three summers in middle school, I enrolled in a one-month Chinese immersion camp run by STARTALK to better understand my family origins and friends. There, I met others who also wanted to learn more about Chinese language and culture. The Chinese teachers played Jianzi with us and tried to teach students chants and songs to help us memorize the rules of the classroom.  I bonded with my friends over learning Chinese and brought my improved Chinese skills into my classrooms and community back at school.   

 More Chinese students were migrating to my school and knowing a bit of Chinese, I wanted to help them settle in. My increased knowledge of Chinese culture and language allowed me to connect with them and help make them feel a bit more comfortable moving to America. We played badminton in PE together and they taught me Chinese phrases, their values, and interests. In the warmer months in PE class, they nagged me to put on sunscreen before going outside and taught me KPOP dances in 2016, before it became popular in AmericaMy effort to understand their unique values and interests made them feel appreciated and helped me discover a new appreciation for Asian culture. These interactions also caused me to imagine how interconnected the world could become. My friends from China were not “evil communists,” as the media portrayed, they were people with interests and character.  I wanted to become fluent and visit China to expand my knowledge of language and culture, and to grasp an understanding of political conflicts around the world.

At the end of eighth grade, I placed into honors Chinese 3 for freshman year, but everything seemed to come crashing down when my parents announced the family was moving to Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Chinese culture became part of my Identity. Knowing the Asian population in Lincoln would not be as prominent as in Newton, I braced myself for the change in diversity coming from a school which was twenty percent to new school with a mere four percent Asian population. Let’s just say, I had never seen so many blondes in one room at a time. My questions went from: “Where is Chinatown?” and “Where will we buy our frozen bao?” to “How will I continue my journey to visit China and become fluent?” Without longing to fit in, I wanted to continue the journey for myself.  

 My parents and I managed to find a high school that offered a few Chinese classes. I wanted to make the best of my situation and take advantage of all of the learning opportunities. I was grateful there even was a Chinese class I could take. On my first day of high school, I walked into my level 3/4 Chinese class. My teacher stood by the door to look out for the incoming students and led me into the empty classroom. All of a sudden she started speaking Chinese to me. This was not AP Chinese, right? 你好来来来!(hello, come in!) I would tell you what she said after that, but I didn’t understand her myself. Her words were unrecognizable to me. I stumbled back and had to cut her off. “I’m so sorry, I’m not fluent yet.” This was the first time someone assumed I was fluent in Chinese because I look Asian. She kindly explained her directions in English.  

 Through the next couple of years, I sought out extracurricular speaking competitions to challenge myself and found a program to support students who wanted to study abroad in China. 

Discovering there was a community of people who had a passion for Chinese culture and knowing there were resources available to keep learning allowed me to feel at ease. I began to understand the phrase, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  

 I guess I never really understood what it meant to be a minority. Sure I’m half Chinese but I don’t really look Chinese. Back in Newton, even if someone categorized me as Chinese, the large Asian presence sheltered me from feeling all alone as a minority, but here, having black hair stands out. Some people began labeling me as “Asian” and so in the eyes of the majority, I was a minority. Stereotypes were placed on me; I must be smart because I am Asian, I must speak Chinese well because I am Asian, et cetera. In my school, there are so few Asians that every so often, someone will confuse me with another Asian.  

 I realized that there was a difference between knowing and understanding. While in Boston, I mustered up as much knowledge as I could to learn about minority culture but in Nebraska, I began to understand and experienced the frustrations minorities were having in a majority white culture.  We seek to connect with those who share similar interests and experiences. Knowing about both American and Chinese cultures gives me a unique insight. While America is diverse, various disputes between different cultures and nations are prominent. Some people do not recognize or accept other cultures, leaving too much room for misjudgment in America. 

Moving to Lincoln was the point when I realized it was my responsibility to not only be in charge of my learning but also take advantage of my potential to teach those around me about Chinese culture as an ambassador. In a world that seems to be divided by “us” and “them”, I strive to use my skills and cultural understandings to connect people to people.  

Ellen Sakasen
Confucius Institute at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Ellen Saksena is a Junior at Lincoln East High School, Nebraska, where she is active in debate team, cross country, track, and orchestra. This past year, Ellen played cello for the Lincoln Youth Symphony, competed in the nationals debate tournament, and was elected to be a member of Key club’s Iowa-Nebraska district board. 

In her free time, Ellen enjoys long walks with her dog, stargazing, and seeking out her next challenge. Ellen has been studying Chinese for five years, starting in sixth grade. She was born in Boston, MA, and moved to Lincoln, NE for high school. She loves testing her language capabilities and enjoys conversing with her native Chinese speaking peers.

Ellen hopes to continue studying Chinese at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this fall. Ellen hopes to use the Chinese language and her cultural understanding to increase collaboration and to bring the world together.  

Carly Beth Hand

Creating a Music Bridge to China 

By: Carly Beth Hand

One rainy evening in London, I was playing and singing my original songs alone in a university practice room. Out of nowhere, I heard a loud knock on the metal door. It was a Chinese acquaintance that I had spoken to briefly before. She must have heard my music through the walls and asked to come in and listen. After hearing my songs, she was really excited, but I never expected what she would ask next. 

“Would you like to livestream to China?” she asked. At this point I knew no Chinese, not even  hǎo.’ “What do you mean?” I questioned. She explained, “We can livestream you playing the piano and singing. I’m sure the Chinese audience would love you.” 

Although hesitant at first, I decided to give it a tryDuring that first livestream, I was behind a battered grand piano in a dark practice room, without a microphone, singing and chiming in,  hǎo as many times as possible. I expected the livestream to go terribly, but by day three, we already had ten thousand live viewers! The comments were going crazy, showering me with positive words and compliments. I felt so grateful for this audience who loved my music, I promised myself I would come up with a way to thank them and to communicate with them – and the first step was to learn Chinese. 

The following nights I went home and stayed up until four in the morning, teaching myself as many Chinese words as I could stuff into my brain. I was filled with exhilaration with the thought of communicating my gratefulness to them. I spent every afternoon live streaming with my Chinese friend. But when summer arrived, I needed to fly back home to New York. That meant I would now have to livestream without her. The problem was, if I could only speak a few sentences, how could I communicate with them? Well, I found out that week. The answer? Singing in Chinese! 

My friend recommended I sing a very famous song in Chinese, 《后来》。The second I listened to it, I had tears running down my face. I knew I had to learn this song.  Within two weeks after learning how to say  hǎo (你好), I learned how to sing the song by listening to it in slow motion and practicing my mouth gestures to get my pronunciation right. I even filmed the whole music video for the song right afterwards. When I sang the song and posted it to my fans, they were shocked and stunned. 

Although my pronunciation was not perfect, they were so happy to hear me, a foreigner, singing their language and showing love to their culture.  

Learning Chinese wasn’t the only thing I stayed up until 4am for. I continued live streaming every day, often until 3 AM New York time so that it was a convenient hour for viewers in China. I kept learning new Chinese songs and expanding my repertoire. Two months later, I had up to 110,000 viewers at once. My profile picture was on the front page of the app, and I was number one out of millions of broadcasters. The manager of the app contacted me sharing how much he loved my broadcast, and viewers revealed that my broadcasts helped them to feel happy again. I felt elated and so powerful that I was able to spread positivity to viewers. Then a crazy thing happened – an avid viewer virtually gifted me thousands of dollars over several months for singing her favorite songs and to support my career in China. I was stunned and forever grateful. I used the money to invest in my song production. 

Later on, I started posting all of my videos to the app DouYin (抖音), the Chinese version of Tik Tok. Although it started off slow, in a few months, my videos started going viral with millions of views on 抖音.  Even Chinese acquaintances who barely knew me from my university in London started contacting me, telling me they found my videos on 抖音. Chinese people living in America, Canada, and Australia also found me. It was like the whole world was coming together, because of music, sending me such positive messages that encouraged me to continue my Chinese music journey.

My avid viewer eventually found me on this app too.  As we became good friends, she invited me to China. I hadn’t been to China before, and this whole time I had only been connecting with Chinese people virtually. She wanted to help me get started with my career in China and invited me to stay with her. Of course I said yes! My mom and I flew the long magical trip to the other side of the earth. The minute I arrived I was immersed in Chinese culture. My friend taught me all about Chinese habits and eating styles, and I adapted immediately. It was so enlightening. 

By now, while still posting on 抖音, I decided I wanted to release my own Chinese songs to my audience, something that had more of me in them. That’s when a little bit of magic happened from 抖音  – it led me to a Chinese composer. He was looking for someone to sing his pop songs, and I was looking to sing them, (as I can’t write lyrics in Chinese yet). We met up and immediately hit it off musically. The Chinese composer and I decided to post some of his Chinese songs together – and all of the Chinese fans loved them – and begged us to create an album.

Throughout my journey, I often volunteered to sing and perform at the local Chinese community’s spring festivals and events. At one autumn concert in particular, I was told about the Confucius Institute, and how great it is to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture with them. Up until this point, I had only been teaching myself Chinese, so I thought this would be a great idea – I’ll take two classes at once! 

I was more than delighted to meet all of the amazing teachers at the Confucius Institute, including Mark Yin/尹老 and 郭老/Wen Guo, and experience an amazing community. Equipped with my new knowledge from the classes, I set off on my second trip to China. The purpose of this trip was to enhance my understanding of Chinese culture to help me prepare for the album I am working on. I visited Beijing, Xi’an, and Yinchuan. I met with a lot of inspiring people. We even met up with Annie, 唐伯虎, a famous British-American singer who lives in China and sings in Chinese, and took a trip to GuYuan to watch her performance.

This past March, we released a song called  “江城旅人“ (Jiāng Chéng  Rén) also known as “River City Traveler” in response to the recent world pandemic. It highlights the city of Wuhan’s great qualities, and shedlight on all of the beautiful places there. “The lyric: “春天就要来了,我想去找你看樱花” describes looking forward to the spring’s beauty, to represent a bright future, instead of the dark past. 

Now that I am creating an album with the composer, my aim is to show my love for Chinese culture through music. Because there are a lot of Chinese people living in the US, Canada, and all parts of the world, I really feel that this album can connect all people globally. 

As a foreigner singing in Chinese, I believe I can help spread the beauty of Chinese culture, language and music to the world’s ears. “独乐乐不如众乐乐 yuè    zhòng yuè ). I’ll sing for you. 


Carly Beth Hand
Confucius Institute at University of Buffalo

Carly Beth is a pianist, songwriter, and singer from New York. She began the piano at age five, and released an album of piano solos at age 15 called Taking Flight, which won her the opportunity to perform on stage with Jim Brickman during his winter tour.  

While in college, a friend introduced her to live-streaming to China, so she quickly began teaching herself Chinese and Chinese songs. To her surprise, her playing the piano and singing live-streams gathered an audience of over 100,000 live viewers. She has grown her fanbase in China now with over 600K followers across Chinese social media. She has also released several Chinese songs, one of which is called《背影》 (BeiYing) which can be found on most streaming platforms.  

She is currently working on a Chinese album, and posting videos on 抖音 (DouYin), in addition to continuing her Chinese language studies. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Chinese social media under the name “Carly Beth.”