When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the language?
I started learning in high school - year 9. It was mandatory to choose a language and little did I know how much choosing Mandarin would impact my life. Although learning Mandarin at high school was difficult, I didn't want to lose what I had learnt when I left, so I continued my language learning through university, which led me to go on exchange to China for a year. It was during these years where I really fell in love with the language as I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of the culture.
Tell us about your Chinese language learning journey? What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the experience?
My language journey has certainly had its ups and downs, but it has taught me resilience.
I've been lucky enough to:
- learn Mandarin during high school
- visit China on a short trip during high school
- learn Mandarin during University - both in New Zealand and in China
- teach English to children and my Mandarin teachers while in China
- work in Shanghai
A few of the most rewarding experiences include:
- making friends with local students while on exchange and visiting my friend's home town in North China to meet her family.
- being a tour guide for my mum who visited me in China.
- being involved in an international running event around Huang Shan.
- dreaming in Mandarin!?
- having Mandarin as the common language among classmates during my first semester on exchange. I was the only class member who could speak English - the other classmates were Japanese, Korean and Russian.
- encouraging me to learn more about my own family's Maori ancestry. When in China I was often asked to speak "New Zealand's language", sing a song in Te Reo, asked to cook a traditional dish, tell stories about my family's origins. I couldn't do a lot of this, which enhanced my thirst to learn more about myself our my whanau's Maori ancestry.
What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?
- overseas job opportunities
- it has increased my interest in Chinese culture, which led me to apply to the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network
- attending Tsinghua University on exchange, one of China's top universities
- having the opportunity to teach English to children and my Mandarin teachers in China
- being a celebrant for a Chinese couple
What do you like most about the Chinese culture?
From what I've learned, seen and experienced, a lot of Chinese cultural values are similar to Maori cultural values - with high importance placed on whanau, relationships and food. This drives a lot of the way holidays are spent, the way families live, and how business is done.
I also love how kind people are to foreigners learning Chinese. While in China, as soon as I said "ni hao", the response was always "wow your Chinese is so good!" - it made it a really encouraging environment to keep learning.
What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?
After living in China, I really noticed how relaxed Kiwi culture is compared to Chinese culture. You can notice this in the way we speak, the way we act, and how quickly things are completed.
The way we speak: Kiwis are known for being "chill", and this is reflected a lot in the way we speak and the slang we use. To someone visiting China for their first time, the language can come across quite aggressive - it takes a while to get used to the sound of tones, people speaking quite loud, and the speed of the language. I often thought people were arguing when they were actually having a friendly conversation.
The way we act: I was asked a lot of very personal questions by Chinese friends. It was a shock to the system the first time this happened, as it's not common in NZ to ask detailed questions about salaries and monthly health. Some people take this as prying, but asking intimate questions like these shows that the person asking really cares about you. It made me question why we have so many topics that are "not socially acceptable to talk about" in NZ.
How quickly things are completed: I remember walking into a high rise building on Monday morning and the shop on the ground floor was a florist. Tuesday morning, the shop was completely empty aside from construction workers assembling new walls and carpets etc. By Wednesday, it was a completely new, fitted out store. We saw this on numerous occasions - if something needed doing, it was done SO quickly.
Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of taking up the language?
Our opinions are made up of the experiences we live. Learning Chinese opens up a huge door to experiences you can't even imagine. This will change the way you think, the way you treat other people, and may also enhance your curiosity of other cultures, including your own.
China has, and will always have, a huge impact on New Zealand - through business, through families moving between our two countries, through education, and in many other aspects. Learning Chinese, even just a little, gives Kiwis a greater understanding of the country and its people.
Tips: listen to podcasts and watch TV shows to train your ear to hear tones. Read Mandarin children's books. Have a language partner - help a Chinese speaker learn english and they can help you learn Chinese. Most importantly: stick to it. It's not easy, but that makes it so much more rewarding. And dreaming in Chinese is crazy experience.