When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the language?

I started learning Chinese in my final year at the University of Otago in 2011. My interest started much earlier - being half-Chinese I was surrounded by parts of the culture growing up. However, I did not know much about it other than going to yum cha for family get-togethers and receiving red envelopes with coins inside over Chinese New Year. The Chinese side of my family has been in New Zealand for over a hundred years, so learning the language provided a gateway to understand and connect with my heritage.

Tell us about your Chinese language learning journey? What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the experience?

I received a Confucius Institute scholarship in 2013 and chose to study for a year at Southwest Forestry University 西南林业大学 in Kunming, a city in Yunnan province. After my studies I lived and worked in Beijing for five years. I will forever treasure the experiences and personal connections I made during my time in China – from connecting with parts of my extended family, exploring the walled towns of the old Silk Road, and from a work perspective gaining insight into a unique environment with fast-paced development.

What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?

Learning the language opened a lot of doors and built a framework from which to understand cultural nuances and personal perspectives. The ability to engage in genuine conversation allowed me to develop true friendships and connect with a range of people with very contrasting backgrounds to mine. I loved hearing stories from old Beijingers who spent their school holidays catching frogs in the moat outside the city wall and spoke of the connection they had to their local community, something that has been lost a little amongst the rapid transformation of the city. It was also immensely valuable for my career as it got me on the front foot with clients and allowed me to form a strong foundation from which to build relationships.

What do you like most about the Chinese culture? 

The food! It plays a huge part in Chinese culture and signifies harmony and closeness of family and relationships. What I liked about discovering these themes is that it also allowed me to better understand my family and the festivals we celebrate. I also really enjoyed discovering the diverse regional cuisines that I never knew existed. I will never forget the first time I bit into a Sichuan pepper, nor the amazing melons and grapes straight from the field in rural Xinjiang.

What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?

There are a lot of small cultural differences that were not innate to me and every day was an opportunity to learn something new. A couple that come to mind are not standing your chopsticks upright in a bowl as it is like two incense sticks burning at a funeral, or understanding that there is a prescribed seating arrangement at a business dinner, with the seat facing the door reserved for the highest-ranking attendee.

Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of taking up the language?

Chinese culture has and continues to play an important part in our diverse communities. My main tip is to look for opportunities and make the most of them. There are a surprising number of scholarships available for New Zealanders wanting to study in China. The full year studying in Kunming gave me a huge advantage to immerse myself and create my own unique language journey.