Why I Study Chinese (And You Can Too!)

In high school, I resented being forced to study Spanish. I hated Spanish in middle school, and I was prepared to do almost anything to avoid studying it again in high school. I say almost, because I was not about to take the distance-learning French class which was rumored to be even more boring. During my sophomore year I heard about a Chinese course being offered to high school students at UW-RF, and got really excited. Finally, something other than Spanish or French! A few friends and I talked to the administration and received permission to enroll in the program during our junior year. That year passed, and so did most of the summer without any additional information about the course. Finally, one week before classes start, I heard a rumor that the program was cancelled due to low enrollment. I confronted a guidance counselor, demanding to know what exactly was going on. Indeed, the program had been cancelled, and the school had not bothered to inform any of us students. With only two years left in high school, I had no other choice. I demanded placement in a Spanish course, and spent the next two years resenting every verb conjugation exercise.

This is brewing in the back of my mind as I sit down at SOAR to begin enrolling for my first semester of courses. I was in one of the last enrollment sessions, and many of the classes were already full. My first priority was to sign up for a chemistry course, everything else was secondary because I was on the way to becoming a famous genetics researcher (as I’m writing this, I’m laughing at myself… if only I knew). Anyway, I began scrolling through the endless list of electives and very quickly became overwhelmed. I gravitated towards recognizable topics; costume workshop, concert band, and French. Except, introductory French was full, or it conflicted with my chemistry class. I tried Italian, German, and even Spanish. No luck. I clicked through every single language offered by UW (hint… there are a lot!) and found exactly two that were not full or in conflict with chemistry; Mandarin Chinese and Urdu. I had no idea how one would even begin learning Chinese, it seemed so completely foreign, but that anger I carried throughout high school came back to me. I won’t let my stupid little high school keep me down. This is a new start. I’m a whole new person in the big city. I can do anything. I enrolled in Mandarin.
I still remember the ver first day of class almost perfectly; nervously entering a new lecture hall in the Microbial Sciences building, awkwardly introducing myself to students from all sorts of backgrounds; students who already spoke fluently but couldn’t read or write, Cantonese speakers, students who have Chinese parents but never learned themselves, Korean students, and even a couple of other clueless beginners like me, and getting my Chinese name 高爱丽. Our poor TA, You Laoshi, had just arrived from China, and we were his very first class. If only he knew what he was getting into.
We spent a solid month echoing sounds back to our teachers. No characters. No words. Just sounds. Vowels, consonants, and tones were practiced for eight hours every week. It felt more like an awkward pre-school singalong than an actual university course. Every day I went to Chinese class wondering, why bother? Its not like I was actually learning anything. But I went, every single day. And I commiserated with my classmates. We complained during class exercises where we introduced ourselves for the 7 billionth time (你好, 我叫高爱丽。 我是一个学生。你呢?). We complained about our listening homework in the cafeteria. We complained about hand cramps as we compared our hundreds of copied characters. We gossiped about the TAs. We wondered if we would be able to actually go to China one day. And, against all common sense, we signed up for second semester.
Chinese does not come naturally to me. Every single thing I know about the Chinese language has been hard-won through hours spent copying characters, drilling pronunciation, and hundreds of flash cards. For example, I know the words left and right. We learned them in second semester! The characters are 右 and 左, they are pronounced you and zuo or is it zuo and you.. wait, does the box-thing or the I-thing mean left or right? And I’m back at the very beginning again.

But, despite all of that, Chinese is so much fun! Take for example the phrase 马马虎虎. Literally translated, it means horse horse, tiger tiger… which is nonsense, unless you know the story behind the phrase. Way back when, someone drew a picture and proudly held it up for his friends to admire. Apparently, it wasn’t a very good picture, because his friends couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a horse or a tiger. From a mediocre picture to a phrase for not very good, Chinese is proof that languages evolve and freeze all the time. It may make no logical sense, but this is what makes Mandarin interesting to me.

Last semester, I took UST’s Chinese for non-Chinese background students VII (AKA advanced foreigners) with a bunch of wonderful Americans from schools literally across the nation, two Korean students, an pair Indonesian students, a students who’s family was originally from elsewhere but was raised in HK, and a graduate student from Greece. UST is admirably trying to revamp their Mandarin Chinese language program for international students, providing more levels in order to more accurately group students according to their levels. But, because we all came from such different backgrounds, it is very difficult to know who exactly knows what. The curriculum remains a work in progress, and while I’m glad to have taken the course to keep practicing, I will be even more grateful when I return home to UW’s wonderful Chinese language department.

This semester, I enrolled in eighth semester Chinese, but ultimately dropped it. In combination with 15 other difficult credits, and missing much of the first two weeks of class, I knew there was no way I could catch up with the heritage speakers. I was surprised, however, to find how much I miss the routine of Chinese class, looking over new vocabulary, slowly reading through new papers, and commiserating with an instant new set of friends. I find myself listening in to Mandarin conversations on campus, just to quiz myself. I’m trying to decipher the traditional characters on signs around campus. And, I’m looking into graduate programs that include a Chinese language component.

Every day you make a million random little decisions that shape your life. Consider stretching yourself, and learn a random language. Had I not made that snap decision four years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting in this dorm room overlooking the sea. I wouldn’t have found two amazing internships working with passionate and inspiring people an ocean away. I wouldn’t have found a community of friends who continue to support and amaze me every day. I wouldn’t have stumbled onto a million other random little decisions that have made my life so much richer and more interesting.