By Nancy, NSLI-Y China, Summer 2014
14 weeks ago, I sat anxiously on the Delta airplane looking out the window. That was the last glimpse of American terrain that I would see for the next six weeks. I was excited yet nervous about studying Mandarin in China as a recipient of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship. However, by the end of my trip, I could not fathom how much I have learned and experienced. I was proud to spend six weeks in Jiaxing, China where I developed a wealth of new knowledge, created unforgettable memories, and formed friendships to last a lifetime.
Upon receiving the scholarship, I imagined spending all my free time memorizing new words, frantically practicing Chinese penmanship, and discerning the complex grammar. However, I was completely wrong. While I did dedicate four hours in the classroom and five hours out of the classroom daily to learn the complex language, I also learned through exposure to the native Chinese speakers and to the Chinese culture, an experience which no class can emulate. Additionally, I am proud to say that with the help of my Chinese friends, whom I still remain in contact with, I had acquired a wealth of Chinese vocabulary that even surprised many people including myself. In fact, a vendor I met was so impressed with the Chinese I had acquired in the first two weeks that he gave me a jade bracelet for free! Moreover, I was evaluated as an Intermediate Chinese speaker after taking the oral language proficiency interview.
However, going to China was more than just learning a new language or making new friends; it was an exploration of my heritage. My maternal and paternal grandfathers were born in China, and both my parents were born in Vietnam. My generation can only speak either Chinese or Vietnamese, but nobody knows both. Thus, I was exhilarated to learn Mandarin and be the first of my generation to be able to speak both Chinese and Vietnamese. This is a vital part of preserving my Chinese-Vietnamese heritage. In addition to learning Mandarin, my trip to China gave me a taste of Chinese culture and cuisine. I unsuspectingly ate an American bullfrog which was quite like eating a chicken-fish dish. I also ate eel and snail for the first time and both were surprisingly delicious.
Being in China gave me an opportunity to learn Chinese culture and to also share my own. I knew many of the citizens in the small town of Jiaxing had rarely seen foreigners. Therefore, as a United States citizen ambassador, I was determined to give them the best impression of Americans. I was shocked to learn that many Chinese thought American students were lazy. I proudly explained that many American students, including myself, actually arduously juggle extracurricular activities, volunteer work, jobs, and sports with academics. The Chinese were impressed with the American student’s well roundedness and dedication to all these activities. Likewise, I was impressed with the Chinese people’s strong work ethic and friendliness towards foreigners. I also taught my Chinese peers and teacher more about the American school system, pop culture, and way of life. In fact, I had the chance to celebrate American Independence Day with my host family and educated them about American history.
In addition to interacting with my host family and Chinese peers, I am proud to also have contributed to the Chinese community through volunteering. While volunteering at a nursery home in Jiaxing, I conversed with over seven residents ages 60 plus and entertained them for one hour by singing “Let it Go” and Christmas songs in Mandarin. I also visited an orphanage for children with disabilities and spent my time singing American nursery rhymes, reading Mandarin children’s books, and playing games with the children. I am proud to have shared and expanded my international perspective. This wonderful experience has strengthened my appreciation for differences among cultures and people.
Moreover, I am very proud to say I successfully survived living away from my family for six weeks in a country where I was a true foreigner. After my security briefing at the American consulate in Shanghai on the first week, I was spooked by stories of pickpockets, scammers, and the hectic traffic. Even riding the public buses on the busy, chaotic Chinese roads was a feat and an amazing experience. The buses were extremely crowded and sometimes packed to the brim, far from what would qualify as safe. Despite these challenges, I would go back to China any day because exploring China has taught me so much, from practicing Chinese table etiquette to becoming an independent individual. Going to China has expanded my view of the world exponentially and increased my thirst for traveling, to learn more about myself and others. The world is my buffet and I plan to sample everything.
“Ni hao, wo de zhong wen mingzi shi Trang Phuong Hang” was one of the first Chinese phrases I learned from watching Mandarin tutorials on YouTube. However, I can now say much more than just my name in Chinese. I have not only learned a new language, but made lifelong friends and memories. The trip to China has boosted my self-confidence and thirst for knowledge. Although my summer in China has ended, my journey is still only beginning. I am looking forward to continuing my adventures with the next chapter of my life: obtaining a college education, where I am sure to gain more new experiences, unforgettable memories, and friendships to last a lifetime.