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MIT student blogger Ben O. '19

Language by Ben O. '19

What Learning Chinese at MIT has meant to me

As an African American I have always felt left out when it comes to language, and to a larger extent culture. For many of my friends, language is the key to their culture; there was a big difference between my General Tso’s chicken and my friends’ 麻婆豆腐 (“ma po dou fu”) or my birthday party and my Hispanic friend’s quinceaneras. There was a realness, a distinct culture, a sense of history and background that I simply did not possess or understand. I felt like I was missing out on an entire world that everyone else seemed to have. This was further enforced by the fact that my community largely looked like me. A lot of us are poor, black, and had lost any long standing culture that our ancestors may have had at any point of time. We have no unique language, or holidays, or rituals. Of course we have genres of music, clothing, and stories that are unique to the African American experience, but there was nothing as tangible, nothing that I could undeniably call mine. I feel that for a long time I was okay with this because it was also true for everyone around me. None of my friends knew what country in Africa they are actually from. None of us knew what it means to have a flag that was truly ours. None of has had clothes to wear on culture or world awareness day. That was simply the world we lived in.

This dramatically changed when I began doing biology research my junior year in high school. For a long time I had been very out of touch with other ethnic groups because my school was about half white and half black. However, when I entered my research lab at Emory University I was very quickly confronted with a world of people I had never related to. A majority of the labs were largely Chinese or Chinese American, so as result, Chinese was the default language of the office. At lunch, I would sit and watch as my lab mates talk about their lives, their families, their work, in words that meant nothing to me. I felt lost. I wanted nothing more than to connect with my colleagues. To be able to understand why it is they thought the things they thought, said the things they said, felt the things they felt. To me a foreign language was and is more than just the translation of individual words; it is the physical embodiment of an entire culture, an entire world. The way that sentences are constructed reflect the culture of that language. Every thought, song, word, emotion, book, poem is articulated through the framework of language, and I wanted to see and understand another world more than anything.

After arriving at MIT in 2015 I immediately began my journey into learning Chinese. I would often study 4-5 hours a day. Not because I wanted a grade in the class, but because every second I spent studying bought me a little bit more of a new world that I could explore. I began to be able to listen to Uber drivers tell stories of travels from Hong Kong to the States; I got to hear about my lab mates’ first time in DC with his parents from Xi An; I helped with the struggles of my students from Beijing and Shanghai as they worried about their chances of ever entering an American university, and assisted an elderly man from Taibei around the MIT campus. Every one of these encounters is precious to me, and each one has allowed me to step into a world that I had not known even existed and would not have been able to see without my time in the Chinese Department here at MIT.

Being a Chinese student has expanded my view of the world in dimensions that I did not know existed. Before this, Chinese and pretty much any other language was only scribbles, incoherent sounds, and images that meant nothing to me and seemed to have no tangible impact on my life. However, I have found this to be as far from the truth as possible. Behind every sound and stroke of language is a story, and a meaning; a feeling, an idea, a world that is just waiting to be explored. This is a gift I cannot thank the Chinese department enough for helping me discover.

(Later to come, “why I have decided to take a year off from MIT and spend it studying Chinese in Shanghai”)