My adventures in China, learning Mandarin and in Chinese Culture!

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The Confucius Institute US Center’s People To People National Awards Gala

On Saturday, November 18, 2017, The Confucius Institute US Center held its second annual People To People Awards Gala. The awards recognize students all over America who have excelled in their Mandarin studies and who have helped in people to people exchanges between the US and China.

I was not only selected to win one of these 10 awards (from 110 Confucius Institutes nationwide, but I was also invited to give the keynote speech on behalf of all of the honorees.

It was a little scary speaking in front of 200+ guests, but mostly it was fun and a great honor.  Also speaking that night was Major General Charles Bolden, who ran NASA for many years. He flew four shuttle missions! He delivered a very powerful speech on the importance of good relations with other countries, remembering how he invited several Russian cosmonauts to his home in Houston and how after starting off a little leery of one another, they grew to be good friends!

I had the chance to meet people from all over the world and my story was shared in the media. Here are some examples:

William and Mary News: How Noodles Led To Serious Study of Mandarin

NBC12 Richmond: Midlothian Homeschooler Honored For Studies In Mandarin


I am supposed to appear on CBS TV’s “Building Better Minds” program soon and hope to post the video here.

It was a great night and I’m sure I won’t ever forget it!


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Visiting The Embassy of China in Washington DC!


On Friday, September 7th, I traveled to Washington, DC and stepped into China!  It’s true, when you visit the Embassy of another country, you are officially on that countries’ land!

The building is stunning!  It was designed by IM Pei, the architect who is probably most famous for putting the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, in Paris.  Its a strangely shaped gray concrete structure that looks like it doesn’t have a lot of windows from outside, but when you’re inside, you don’t get that feeling.

We first had a “China Salon” which was a panel discussion about China and its politics. The hosts, all diplomats from the Embassy, talked about Taiwan, working together with the US, tariffs, and more.  Here’s a photo from that part of the trip:



After the panel discussion, there was a Q/A session with the audience, and we then went on to another room to enjoy a really good martial arts demonstration by a team from China:




I took a lot more photos, but most of them just look like blurs because the athletes were moving so fast!

After the martial arts performance, it was time for dinner! I tried duck for the first time, and also had fried rice and sweet buns filled with custard.

The best part was meeting with various diplomats and getting to know them. What they did for the Chinese government, what they’ve done in America and much more. Here are some photos of the Embassy staff and me:


with Lieutenant Colonel Zhang Shuangpeng




with Dr. Zhang Yan, the Deputy Chief of Policy for the Embassy

I also got a tour of the different artworks that the Embassy has on display. Some of them are really beautiful!


Panorama of The Great Wall, by Guan Shanyue




The best part of the trip for me was speaking with the diplomats. They were all very impressed that I spoke Mandarin and all of them complimented my teacher! The diplomat who is in charge of Culture, Mr. Mo Liyu,  offered to send me books and videos on Chinese culture, which was very kind!  I’d love to do this again!

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Meeting The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley

Friday, July 13, 2018
State Department Building/UN, New York City


This was without a doubt one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had! I still can’t believe it really happened.

I read Ambassador Haley’s autobiography, “Can’t Is Not An Option,” and was very impressed with her accomplishments and how she overcame so many obstacles to become one of the most powerful women in the world!  (The book only goes up to the point where she was Governor of South Carolina.)

And I reached out to her office, I wanted to ask some questions, learn more about diplomacy and since I would be in New York City for the China Institute job, maybe I could meet her.  I didn’t think anything would really happen.

But, the next day, Ambassador Haley’s Chief of Staff, Katherine Veldran, said that the Ambassador had not only read my letter, but also saw my speech at The National Press Club… and would like to arrange a meeting!

WOW!  I was totally surprised and never expected that to really happen!

On the day of the meeting, we went to the US State Department building across the street from the UN.  It is a strange looking building and there are no windows on the lower half of the building. I met a really nice security guard outside (photo above) and told him that I had an appointment with the Ambassador. (First time I ever got to say that! LOL!)

We walked past some photos of the Ambassador and the President and Vice President:

And then it was through the security checkpoint, where ALL PHONES ARE TAKEN AWAY! There are little storage boxes for everyone entering the building.  We had to wait for one of Ambassador Haley’s team to escort us upstairs. On all the floors there were lockboxes for cellphones.

After talking to a really nice team member and learning more about internships (You have to be at least 18 and submit a standard application), we went upstairs. I have to admit, I was kind of nervous!

When we walked through the doors to the Ambassador’s office, she was standing in front, waiting for me! She gave me a big hug, and asked if I liked to be called Isabelle or Izzy. She asked me about the trip from Midlothian and how I was enjoying NYC.

We took this photo:


And then we went into her office! The photo was taken by the official State Department photographer, since all of our cellphones were gone.

I didn’t get any photos from Ambassador Haley’s office, but here are some photos of other people in the office with her:


On the left is Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer, and on the right is the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.  I sat in the same seat as he did!

One thing I noticed right away was that there was an inscribed piece of wood in the coffee table. It was about 3 feet long and it said, “Can’t Is Not An Option” – which is the title of her biography as I mentioned and her motto.  She signed my copy of the book:


We talked all about diplomacy, how to become a diplomat, what to study in school, etc. Ambassador Haley just got a resolution passed at the UN to hold an arms embargo against South Sudan and she explained how complicated that was. That China had to abstain, and African nations had to be persuaded to vote for the resolution.  It sounded like it should be obvious that a resolution like that would be unanimous, who wants to support government soldiers that kill tens of thousands of their citizens?  But it was tried before and it didn’t pass.  Through lots of hard work behind the scenes, the resolution passed and hopefully the killing will stop or at least slow down!

(Ambassador Haley has a desk to the left of where I was sitting. The blinds were down on a sunny day and it was because there is so much spying in the area. There are other embassies and missions right next door with all kinds of electronic devices on the roofs.)

There was a knock on the door at one point and the Ambassdor’s assistant said, “5 minutes until your next appointment!”  And Ambassador Haley said, “Give me 10 minutes, please!”.  How cool was that??

Ambassador Haley knew all about me and we had a real talk. It lasted for about a half hour and I wasn’t nervous after a few minutes. She talked about finding common ground between parties, like she did with the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina. How that was key in negotiating. Finding things in common that you can agree on.

We also talked about languages and how important it is to have great translators at the UN. It was funny to hear how fast the translators work but that because they’re focusing so hard on getting the words right, they sometimes leave out the emphasis on strong statements, which makes for weird translations. Like something meant to be really powerful just comes out as an ordinary statement.

It was like talking to a friend. She was one of the sweetest and smartest people I’ve ever met.

When it was time to go, I got another big hug and said goodbye. I invited Ambassador Haley to have lunch at Little Poland, but she had her next meeting about to start.  Next time!


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2018 Chinese Bridge Speech Contest at University of Maryland

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On April 21, 2018, I went to the University of Maryland to compete in the 11th Annual Chinese Bridge Speech Contest for High School and Middle School kids.

This was the official Hanban and Confucius Institute contest for these states:  Utah, Tennessee, Maryland, Idaho, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nebraska, Wyoming and Washington DC.

I worked hard to get ready for the competition with my teachers, Dr. Yan Gao, Dr. Xun Lio,  and Sharon Meng.

We all drew straws and I got number 8, which is considered a lucky number in China!
I then did my speech, called “My Adventures in China”:

Then, I did a performance, which was 30% of the score. I chose the song “Ta Lang:”

After all the kids finished their speeches and performances, the judges tallied the scores. I was the very last person called, which was nerve-wracking! But, the good news is that I won!!




I had a great time and met so many wonderful new friends. Thank you to Rebecca McGinnis and Jianxin Cui from the University of Maryland Confucius Institute! All the other kids did really well also, it must have been hard to choose a winner!

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My Job as Teaching Assistant at China Institute’s Summer Camp


In July 2018, I spent two weeks at NYC’s China Institute, working as a Teaching Assistant in their NYC Day Camp!  I got the job through the head of the China Institute’s teaching program, Dr. Shenzhan Liao, who I met at the CIUS Center’s Annual Gala. She was very sweet and liked the idea of having me help the teachers!

For two weeks, I worked with the teacher of the advanced group and the 7-14 year old kids on lessons about the landscape of China, calligraphy, making dumplings and even a  noodle-making class!


Jingrong Yao. me, and Shenzhan Liao

We started the week doing lessons on the geography of China, teaching the kids new words, how to write them, watching videos and more! The teacher introduced me by showing my video from the CIUS Center Awards speech, which was funny and a little weird!

I got to teach a class in calligraphy, which the kids really enjoyed. They took home their works of art and were so proud of what they could do!  Later that week, I got to do a dumpling class which was also a lot of fun!  We did something crazy too, and made dumplings filled with M&Ms! (I don’t think this was very traditional!)


from the Chinese Calligraphy class


cleanup time at the Calligraphy class

Later in the week, Shenzhan was so nice and let me have some time off on Friday so that I could go to the UN and meet Ambassador Nikki Haley. You can read that story here!

When the two weeks came to an end, Shenzhan presented me with a China Institute t-shirt!


And I was interviewed about the Summer Camp, which was a great opportunity for kids to learn about China, its culture and language.  I’d love to do this again someday!

Here’s the video:

The China Institute’s Summer Camp has a blog if you’d like more information. You can see it  here!

Thank you, China Institute for a great experience!

I will be doing more teaching this year, working on weekends at The Central Virginia Chinese School, a school for heritage kids.!




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Chengdu Middle School Presentation


Thanks to my good friend from the William and Mary Confucius Institute (WMCI),  Qiong Yang, I was able to visit the Chengdu Middle School in September 2017 and I did a presentation and Q/A session for the class. I spoke only Mandarin, which was a neat experience!

I talked about life in the US and the students shared about their lives in Chengdu. We weren’t that different. They played video games, sports, did music or dance after school.
I asked them what they wanted people in America to know about kids in China, and like most kids anywhere, they shouted, “HOMEWORK! All we do is homework!”  I think they wanted their teacher to hear that, as she was standing next to me. 🙂

Some of the kids played Minecraft and we swapped userids so that we could try to play together. One of my friends, Emily, whose mom arranged the presentation, was a student in the class. You can see her here:


She is an amazing musician! She plays the Chinese zither, called the ‘guzheng’ and has been playing for many years. When she was in the US, she did some performances for large audiences. She’s my good friend and I’m really glad we met!

After the presentation and question session, the kids honored me by walking me to the school gate. We walked down stairs that had quotes from the famous Chinese poet Du Fu. The school was named for him and the Du Fu museum (which we visited afterward) was down the street.


The kids were having a great time and so was I. At the beginning they applauded practically every sentence of mine, which was very flattering! They asked so many  questions and we all laughed a lot!


This was one of the best days ever, thanks to Qiong Yang and her daughter Emily and her husband, Gang. I’ll never forget it!   I would love to visit more classrooms in China and make more friends.  BEST. DAY. EVER!!!!

The school posted information and photos from my presentation on their WeChat blog. Its in Mandarin, and you can read it here.


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Teaching Kids about China and Calligraphy at Woodville Elementary


On Friday, March 30th, 2018, I went to Woodville Elementary school in Richmond, Virginia, to teach the second and third graders all about China and Calligraphy!

This event was organized with the help of Heather Riddell, a teacher at the school who specializes in reading. Since she came to the school, the kids’ test scores have more than doubled! She is a great teacher and truly nice person.  Also helping was Professor Ying Liu, from The Confucius Institute of The College of William and Mary. She provided ink and brushes and paper for the calligraphy demonstration.

About 50 kids attended the event.  I spoke about my experiences traveling in China, about learning another language and showed some slides of The Great Wall, Beijing, Xian and Chengdu.  I think the kids’ favorite were the photos of the baby pandas in Chengdu.

We then talked about The Great Wall and shared all kinds of facts and history of the largest man-made wall on earth!




The kids asked lots of great questions and it was so much fun to have my first experience as a real teacher.

After the presentation on China and The Great Wall, we moved on to learning about calligraphy. We distributed brushes, ink and paper, but first did some practice with pencil, learning to draw the words for “Life” and “Fish.” Once the kids got the hang of writing the words, we moved on to trying it with the ink and brushes. Here are some photos:







At the end of the day, the kids left with their finished calligraphy and Mrs. Riddell and the teachers and principal of Woodville Elementary school gave me this gift of a school t-shirt and lanyard:


This was one of the best days ever!  I hope the kids had as much fun as I did.



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Peter Chang Cooking Classes! March 18 & April 8!


We’ve scheduled two additional dumpling making classes with Chef Peter Chang and his wife Lisa (also a renowned chef!), due to popular demand!This is a rare opportunity to cook with James Beard Award finalist Chef Chang!In the class, we’ll learn to make different kinds of dumplings!  We’ll have pork, shrimp and vegetable dumplings with three types of wrapper.

After our dumpling class, we will share a special sampling of Chef Chang’s favorite dishes to celebrate the New Year!

There will be dishes for vegetarians, and one of the dumpling options is vegetarian as well.

28276780_1712313752160004_1395348887952946436_n.jpgThe classes will be held on Sunday, March 18th at 11am, and there will be another on Sunday, April 8th, also at 11am.

The price per person is $20 and all children must be accompanied by a paid adult. (No dropping off kids under 14.)

All attendees must book in advance using the below “BUY NOW” buttons. (You can adjust the quantity of attendees on checkout.)



Peter Chang’s restaurant is located at: 1203 Richmond Road in Williamsburg. You can find it on Google maps here.


QUESTIONS?  Please email:  Isabelle (Baoling) Szczerbinski

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Chinese New Year! Peter Chang Dumpling Making Class in Williamsburg!


UPDATE:  Our event was featured on WTVR (CBS) TV News in Richmond!

Today I hosted a dumpling-making class with the famous chef Peter Chang and his wife Lisa. To add to the excitement, the CEO of US CHINA Strong, John Holden, came all the way from Washington, DC to join us!

We talked about US CHINA Strong and its mission, about all the different community courses that are held at William and Mary’s Confucius Institute and then.. dumplings!

We made pork, shrimp and vegetable dumplings with three different kinds of dough, regular, orange (made with carrot) and green (made with spinach).

After Chef and Mrs. Chang taught us how to roll, fill and seal the dumplings, they were cooked for us and served along with an INCREDIBLE New Year lunch which included chicken bao, two kinds of noodle dishes, dry fried sausage, dry fried eggplant, tofu and lotus root (that was AMAZING!), and many more which I can’t remember now. 🙂

Everyone had a great time and enjoyed fantastic food. The class was so popular, the waiting list was four times the size of the class of 30 people!  We will be doing more in the future.

Thank you to Richmond’s CBS TV news anchor Rob Cardwell and his wife Debra, to my French teacher Jay Crowell and his wife Hilary, to Deb Gribben and her family, to Allan Sanders and especially to Deliang Wang from Confucius Institute at William and Mary and Qiang Fu, who runs the Peter Chang restaurant in Williamsburg for making the class so much fun and a big success!!

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My Journey as A Student of The Chinese Language and Culture

My journey began six long years ago, at age five.


I visited a new Chinese restaurant with my parents and was mesmerized by the chef who was tossing fresh noodle strands all around the open kitchen. He smiled at me, and I started to speak with him. I tried to ask him questions about how he was able to take a large ball of dough and turn it into fine noodles by pulling and stretching and throwing.  He answered, but I could not understand him.  The owner explained that he’d just arrived from China and didn’t yet understand English.

On the ride home, I asked my parents if I could learn to speak Chinese.  I loved the food, the décor, and I felt sorry for the chef that couldn’t communicate with his neighbors. My parents agreed to find me a Chinese teacher and this was the beginning of my wonderful journey of discovery and learning.


Soon after this event, our family moved to Richmond, Virginia and I started taking lessons in Mandarin for 4 hours/week, plus homework.  I was able to start watching cartoons and movies that were entirely in Mandarin.  “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf” was an early favorite of mine, as was “Big Head Son and Little Head Dad”.  I loved the silly cartoons which were very different than anything I’d seen before and I was happy that I could understand the dialogue.   I am now able to understand and enjoy Chinese books and movies and recently saw “The Mermaid”, “Monster Hunt,” and many others.

I joined the Confucius Institute of the College of William and Mary and was able to take my learning to the next level.  They had cooking classes with famous chef Peter Chang, and I was able to learn so much from him, prepare dishes with him and translate some of his comments to the class. (Chef Chang spoke only in Mandarin).  I became friends with Chef Chang and his wife, Lisa, and they delivered a wonderful class in making dumplings for me and my friends. I have learned so much from Chef Chang; About life in Hubei, Szechwan cuisine and its ‘ma-la’ seasoning (spicy and numbing), and how to prepare so many of his recipes.


Each year, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts puts on an annual China Fest in Richmond.  I was able to volunteer to help with the calligraphy station with the Confucius Institute. Learning calligraphy was great fun; It’s such a beautiful art and I fell in love with it.  It was also a great experience sharing it with all of the visitors who stopped by the WMCI booth and had their names written in traditional Chinese.

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At the VMFA, some people from CCTV overheard me speaking Mandarin. They seemed pretty excited and asked me if I would do an interview with them, and I agreed. I was then interviewed, entirely in Mandarin, by the Chinese television network.  The interviewer told me that she couldn’t believe how good my accent was, which I took as a great compliment.

Through the Confucius Institute, I have attended several Mid-Autumn Festival parties, concerts of traditional music, a Kung Fu and Tai Chi exhibition and have taken (and passed) five of the YCT Exams. (I plan to take my final YCT this year and then work on mastering all of the HCT exams.)

One of the WMCI teachers, Qiong Yang, and I have become great friends. She has taught me calligraphy and even got me a personalized signature stamp from China! I play often with her daughter, Yangyang, who is my closest friend and with whom I speak both Mandarin and English.  Both Yangyang and her mom have taught me so much about China and I am grateful to have them as friends and teachers.


I have tried my best to share the love I have for the Chinese language with others. Recently, I was invited by a group called the JNCL-NCLIS to help lobby Congress for more funds for language education in public schools. (JNCL-NCLIS stands for Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for Languages and International Studies, and yes, I had to look that up!) I got to meet with the staff of Senator Tim Kaine, Senator Mark Warner and my Congressman Dave Brat.  They were all really open to the idea of increasing spending on language learning after I presented them with many facts about the benefits of speaking a foreign language!

Once I returned from The Capitol, I started working as a volunteer Camp Counselor at the W&M Confucius Institute’s Spring Break Camp!  I’m enjoying learning from the counselors and helping to teach the other kids.


Learning about the Chinese language and culture has opened so many doors for me!  I’ve made wonderful friends, tasted and prepared delicious foods, appeared on several television shows, learned about the history of China, practiced calligraphy and other arts which originated in China, met Senators and Congressmen and am now preparing for a 3-week tour of China!  I hope to make many new friends and learn even more and see all the unique sights.

It’s funny to think that this journey all began with noodles!