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.
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!