This article is a part of the East-West Center - US-China Strong Foundation Guest Contributor Program, which shares the experiences of American students currently or previously studying in China.
In the summer before my seventh grade year, I received a letter from my school giving me the opportunity to enter a lottery to participate in Middlebury Interactive for either the Spanish or Mandarin Chinese language. Originally, I desired to enroll in the Spanish Program. Between the majority of my friends choosing Spanish and the population of Spanish-speakers in Delaware, I thought it would be the best choice. However, I also thought, “Maybe, one day, I can venture out of Delaware.”
For such a young mind, this thought had a lot of substance. Outside of Delaware, Mandarin speakers are more populous than Spanish speakers by huge margins. In addition, Chinese presented a challenge. Unlike Spanish, you have to recognize characters in order to comprehend it. I continue in Chinese because it is engaging and there is always more to learn. My Chinese teachers have taught me countless vocabulary, but most importantly, learning Chinese instills a different mindset. In English, there are many exceptions to grammar rules. Contrastingly, Chinese follows a standard sentence structure. Students learning Chinese often carry thinking skills that allow them to be at the top of their game. Whether I am translating a sentence or listening to recordings, my mind is always working. Whether pursuing knowledge of various dialects or cursive characters, I have never experienced boredom with the language.
I did not know my decision in seventh grade would have such a profound affect on my future. This past summer, I traveled to China through the Delaware Summer Chinese Language Initiative for Communicating STEM. By studying Chinese in school, I was eligible to apply and participate in this month-long, life-changing experience that offered a way of life that differs from American culture. I engaged with locals and participated in making traditional crafts — I was fully engaged.
Kofi once said, “We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.” My journey with Chinese and through China has truly prepared me for college, careers, and the world. The Chinese culture introduced me to morals that are not traditionally taught. We learn about courtesy to elders and manners towards strangers; things that are otherwise omitted in normal instruction. Daily practice is imperative to engrave the language into my mind and I have had to work tirelessly to attain results.
As an African-American female speaking Chinese, I stand out from others taking Spanish or Italian. As I plan to enter the medical field, and the possibilities of treatments utilizing both western and eastern medicine are intriguing to me. Companies, universities, and governments have begun and will continue to collaborate in research to understand this potential. As I plan to develop my Chinese-speaking skills, I will build a competitive edge for the career world only possible for bilingual professionals.
Eryne Jenkins is part of the US-China Strong Foundation Student Ambassador Program.