Michelle Elia Siloata
1.When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the language?
I started learning Mandarin “officially” at a Chinese language school in Suzhou, Jiangsu in 2018 on the Prime Ministers Scholarship to Asia. Before that, I had moved to north-west China in 2016 to be an English teacher in a very small county called Shandan and at a school that was started by a New Zealander, Rewi Alley, post World War II when there was a high demand in China for technical hands on skills (things you couldn’t really learn at university). I was mostly inspired by students to be honest – they had learnt English without much prior to outside exposure (except for movies) and I thought hey if they have that kind of diligence, who’s to say that I can’t have it too!
2. Tell us about your Chinese language journey. What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the experience?
I was the only foreigner living in Shandan for two years – can you imagine? So I needed to learn Mandarin to get around, eat, communicate, etc. Having no knowledge of the language prior to moving in China, it was a big difference once I had learnt to communicate fluently. I only did 6 months of full immersion Chinese classes which I feel made up for the two years of broken Chinese! The most unexpected part of the experience was also the most rewarding – I didn’t realise how much of a real grasp I would have on the language and culture. When I left China, I really felt like I had left a huge part of me behind.
3. What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?
I would say it’s not even just limited to speaking, it’s more understanding of the culture that I felt had opened up for me and I feel like that is an opportunity in itself. Once you understand the culture a lot more through speaking the language, everything starts matching up – like for example, my Chinese friends would always walk me home to my door/gate, check on me once I get in, make sure I have food or warm clothes when I’m sick. When you learn the language, you start having a closer relationship with the culture and understand why Chinese people do these things. It’s incredibly innate for them to take care of others in their family and friends are extended parts of their family. So bringing those ideals back around, the intrinsic opportunity for me was a deeper understanding of culture.
I’ve also definitely have been offered many extrinsic opportunities for extended scholarships to continue Chinese language study, work opportunities in China and New Zealand just because I can speak Chinese. I’d like to think that it gave me a little bit of an edge when I applied for the role I’m working in now!
4. What do you like most about Chinese culture?
I say this a lot to my friends, but I really enjoy the similarities between Chinese and Pacific cultures in terms of collectiveness, and I don’t think anyone would really truly understand this until they move to China and experience it for themselves for longer than a year. The Chinese people connect over food, music, exercise – just wellbeing in general. When I was living in Shandan, I really didn’t feel like an outsider – sure, I looked different and I didn’t speak the language, but there are certain aspects of culture that doesn’t necessarily need words but more feeling.
5.What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?
I would say that Kiwi’s aren’t perhaps as “straight up” as Chinese people – absolutely not a bad thing on both sides. We tend to beat around the bush a little bit, perhaps a little reserved with some of our achievements, things like that. Bless Chinese people because they love sharing their achievements and things they’ve done, knowledge, culture, all of that.
6.Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for those thinking of taking up the language?
It’s one of the most useful languages to know and it’s becoming increasingly important in modern day society too. When I was in high school, languages like French were offered as an elective. I’m not too sure about the curriculum now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mandarin was climbing up the ladder to be one of those languages you can learn from high school. Just by looking at the international landscape at the moment, you can tell that Mandarin is one of the more world renown languages next to English, German, French, and Spanish.
Tips for those thinking of taking up the language – hey, there’s no harm in trying! If you get stuck, most cities in NZ usually have a groups on Facebook where you can connect with a buddy to learn Chinese and you can help them learn English. It’s a great way to learn and exchange intangible gifts of knowledge. There are also a ton of scholarships out there as well to study Chinese! As we say in Chinese, 加油！