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.
Cultures are an important part of understanding the world and other people. Growing up, however, I had only ever been exposed to my own culture. Because of this, I would find every opportunity to learn about different ones. I realized that Asian cultures appealed to me and began to delve deeper into understanding the similarities and differences between American culture and Asian culture. This led to my interest in Chinese culture. I never really thought about why, but looking back on it, something about the culture and language intrigued me and caused me to want to know more. Maybe it was the characters, or maybe it was just how much I heard about the difficulty of the language as a whole, but I knew that I had to learn it.
While I was applying to high school, I was glad that Mandarin Chinese was offered at my first choice school, and I knew that I had to take the course. My Mandarin teacher, who was extremely funny and joyous and enjoys life, inspired my drive to learn. This experience lead me to take the STARTALK program at the University of Chicago. Taking that program exposed me to the rigor of gaining a full grasp on a foreign language — learning to put mind over matter and listen to keywords to figure out the meaning of a word or phrase. Keeping an open mind is always the first step, and after being a part of that program, I was able to get used to listening to Mandarin. Guessing was also a big part of learning Mandarin that I learned, as I noticed that knowing what a word means may not be enough to understand, but guessing the definition using context clues shows a deeper understanding of the language.
I wanted to practice listening to native speakers more, but the only person that I knew was my teacher. That is why I applied for a summer program called China Summer Language, Culture, and Technology Initiative (CSLCTI). In the program, I would be traveling to China, completely free of charge, for a month and taking University language classes and classes on Chinese culture, history, and technological advances. This was a huge opportunity for me, as this was exactly what I wanted in order to improve with the language. I began studying and successfully made it into the program. Being in China was a unique experience that I would love to have again, as I was completely out of my comfort zone, but exactly where I wanted to be. Immersion is the best way to learn a language anyway, and I took full advantage of that.
All in all, my interest in China has been present for a huge portion of my life, and I always seek new ways to practice and spread my love for the language and culture. I love challenges, and learning Mandarin has to have been the hardest challenge that I have ever faced, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise. Knowledge is growth and exposure to another culture and language gives you knowledge in its own unique way. Even describing what I have learned is very difficult to me, and I hope that other people in the world can experience it for themselves.
Jayda Grissett is part of the US-China Strong Foundation Student Ambassador Program.