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Ode to Chinese

Chinese is multi-faceted. It has the usual complexities of languages, yet the grammar is very simple. The characters are so varied and can be their own form of art. There is a musical quality to the tones, and a monotone volume meter for your mood. I love the characters that are built with logic and order and the art of calligraphy with the goal of making an appealing message more beautiful. It is a pleasure to have this as a common means of communication with many people I meet, and I enjoy the look of disbelief. I like that there is so much more of the literary and cultural world available through this ancient and venerable language.

I started Chinese as a curiosity and a little bit of peer pressure as two of my best friends were learning it in college. Encouraged by my parents for the economic aspect of the language of the world’s largest economy, I started to take classes. It was challenging and thus captivating in a way that only Latin has been, yet it is the opposite. Simple grammar with an absurd writing system and extremely rigid word order. I was hooked. It turned out that two years of Chinese plus a class or two would garner a minor in the language, and so I added that. The time came to apply for Fulbrights, and I needed to choose a country. Taiwan had the perfect combination of being able to teach English (allowing me to start giving back as my Greek professor said I must) and spoke Mandarin (as opposed to Cantonese speaking Hong Kong as the other option). Taiwan was great! Kind people, beautiful mountains, an awesome language. I stayed on for three extra years and a master’s degree.

There were times that it was challenging: 300 words a week is no joke, particularly when each is written differently (not just spelling, very differently); the 13 year old from El Salvador who was fluent in both Spanish and Chinese was an object of jealousy; skipping three levels of Chinese to try to force myself to get to a level in which I could succeed in my master’s program was hard; moving from complaining about how long 1,000 character essays were to writing 10,000 plus character seminar papers was a shock and a month of my time. However, there are so many wonderful things that have come out of my time learning Chinese: I have found some of the best friends that I have. I have a home away from home. I have learned how to live and adapt to a culture that is very different from my own. I can truly say that I am fluent in Chinese. I have a foreign, off-shore bank account. I met some truly amazing people in the Fulbright program. I have gained most of my strong opinions about how to teach a language. I have a second family. I have come to appreciate how much the caretakers of programs I have done have done for me and the others in our programs. I found connections in other countries because I can speak Chinese that have made Japan more comfortable and the U.S.A. a happier place for me. I have learned the value and reward of all of the work it takes to learn another language fully, and I am so grateful that I have the multi-faceted tool at my disposal.