Please don’t call on me. Don’t see me. I know the answer, but I could be wrong. Oh, just get me out of this classroom and on with my life. My heart rate quickened as the teacher scanned the students for hands raised and un-raised. Who would she call on? Not me. Not me. A sigh of relief as her eyes landed on a classmate two rows over. Someone else would be under the spotlight now. Saved for now from speaking in front of a classroom and stumbling through a language I’d known since birth. Time to learn a new language and get lost in its mystery. Early 90s. Chinese is a good place to start.
In the Right Place at the Right Time
On a quiet college campus in Columbia, Missouri, I stumbled onto several exciting avenues I was willing to participate in and was rewarded with stories to last a lifetime – ran for student council just because, was in a college production of Our Town, traveled to New York and participated in a Model UN – the shy girl from the back of the class, and was in the right place at the right time to be one of five students who decided to study Chinese for a semester.
For a political science major with an interest in international relations, Chinese was the language to learn. I’d spent twelve years taking Spanish and still couldn’t speak it well, but yeah, Chinese will work.
What We Learned about Language and a Culture Far Removed from Our Own
Stephens College had just received funding for a visiting professor from China, the year I matriculated. It would be just for one semester and he had to have at least 5 students enrolled. Guess who was number 3?
In a classroom meant for fifteen, our tiny class of 5, quickly became an intimate group of students wanting to learn a language truly foreign to our own. And in that tiny classroom, my heart didn’t race or quicken. We were all on the same boat. It was one of the most relaxing classes I remember taking.
We knew we didn’t have much time together so we made it count. And because we were so small, the professor could focus on each of us as individuals.
The Campaign to Extend Our Visiting Professorship for the Year
He was personable, funny, a great teacher, and we loved him. It was clear within the first few months, we wanted him to stay and finish out the year, so the 5 of us banded together to create a campaign to keep him at Stephens a semester beyond his contract.
It’s too long past to remember all the details, but I remember the days growing closer to when he’d have to leave and in the eleventh hour, he was granted with an extension to his contract. We’d done it!
My second experience campaigning to get something done we agreed was beneficial to both us and the school itself.
What’s the Best Way to Learn a Language? Immerse Yourself in It.
It was in one class, not far from the initial date we thought our Chinese professor must go I asked what would be the best way to learn Chinese. Or maybe I didn’t ask, maybe he just suggested it as part of his lecture – I’m unclear how the topic came up, but I’m glad it did.
He explained to us that the best way to understand and learn any language was to immerse yourself in it which by design immerses you in the culture as well.
I was inspired and the next day I went to a counselor and asked about overseas programs. My heart was set on a year abroad in China.
But, then two things happened.
As I opened the pages of the AIFS book, places I’d only glimpsed as a child were offered as experiences abroad. I could go anywhere! China was still on my mind and I debated, then I remembered Tiananmen Square, and suddenly I was afraid.
I couldn’t go somewhere tanks might overtake students my age in the center of a town or city. I need to go someplace safer, and the book opened up at a toss to Salzburg, Austria. I remembered this place.
This was the history of The Sound of Music and the Von Trapp Family, it was Mozart’s birthplace, and history now covered in dust in the history books.
Yes, this was the place for me. And is how a semester turned into a year of Chinese lessons which was leading me down the Silk Road to China, but at the last minute veered back into my comfort zone, and found me instead studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria.
Check back to tomorrow for Part III how studying Chinese in Missouri motivated my study abroad year in Austria.
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Break a Pencil!
© Lisa Street Rogers 2018