China is making a home in American newspaper headlines these days: a Coronavirus outbreak, protests for democracy in Hong Kong, the 70th anniversary of Communist rule, a trade war with the United States, and Muslim detention camps disguised on the western border. This is the China that lies 7,233 miles away from the United States; an image of China shaped by news sources.
These are important parts of China to be sure, but they are not all of China — the country where I lived for 10 months last year.
As the demand for Mandarin Chinese language learning soars throughout the United States (PBS estimates one million American students studying Mandarin in 2020), the motives for our relationship with China and our role as speakers of its language must embody more than hopes for advancement in commerce and business.
There is nothing wrong with fostering strong business relations, but this approach often marginalizes culture. It disregards the people of China — especially in the towns and villages where there is less money to be made and where a connection to the outside world seems nearly nonexistent.
We can do better.
First, the language must be learned alongside the culture. In a 2015 press conference with China’s President Xi, former President Barack Obama said, “If our countries are going to do more together around the world, then speaking each other’s language, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start.”
In 2017, I attended the Middlebury Language School of Chinese in Vermont for eight weeks. It was here, after four years of studying Mandarin in high school, that I first experienced language and culture stitched together as one. In the morning, I would drill the new grammar rules and phrases into my head before spending the afternoon hours cooking Chinese cuisine or playing mahjong — authentic representations of Chinese culture.
I will always count this experience as a turning point for my Mandarin. I arrived timid, speaking a language absent of color — no vocal inflections or subtle grunting to be had; I left with a vibrant Chinese vocabulary, confidence and love for the language, not to mention a better understanding of the culture that shapes it.
But even so, I had yet to interact with its people, on their turf. I could take satisfaction in my Chinese language proficiency score, jumping from beginner to intermediate advanced, but I could not picture what life was like for those living in China.
So last year, midway through college, I decided to live there.
While living in Nanjing, China, a city of 8.3 million people, I often spent my weekends traveling throughout the country to hidden towns, those still untouched by the growing market of Chinese tourism. I’d hop in strangers’ vehicles, sleep in people’s homes if they’d have me. I learned to trust the Chinese people, and I listened to their stories, in their language.
With my knowledge of Mandarin expanding, I would head back to the city for my week of classes, often finding time to make dumplings with the housemaid, whom I called “Auntie,” in my host home.
As my host family and I enjoyed homemade dumplings for dinner in the evening, we would discuss the news, and they would seem to always come to the same conclusion: 没办法.
There is no way, no other method.
“Our children have to take extra classes to compete for entrance into a good high school in China, 没办法.”
“I used to dream of changing this system, feeling as if I had the power to in fact make change, but now I’m older and I’ve just decided, 没办法.”
It was in these moments that the Chinese language seemed powerless, but equally authentic.
The United States should be placing more emphasis on learning Mandarin Chinese, but the approach must be holistic.
I am grateful for the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese, but I am even more proud of the stories I carry from the journey — those shared with me on crowded trains through mountainous villages, in noodle shops and around Buddhist temples. When I read the newspaper headlines regarding China, I hear their stories coming through. I may read the articles in English, but I read with a lens that is rooted in the culture of China, a culture that was shared and shaped for me by the people who know it best.