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

I officially started learning Chinese in 2015 as it was the foreign language taught in my primary school. Since a very young age, I was enamoured with the idea of being able to speak a foreign language (often pretending that I could) and since Chinese was the first one presented to me in an academic context, I seized it. Simple as that. Over time, I developed a more specific love for Chinese; in comparison to my understanding of English, the language seemed very logical, able to be further abstracted, and I loved the deep link between language and culture that I increasingly discovered as I became more affiliated with the community. The more I learned, the more I found to love.

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

Since starting primary school Chinese in 2015, I accelerated quickly and got involved in the school's learning enrichment programs. In 2018, after making friends with Chinese students, I saw the need to start teaching myself Chinese characters (they weren't a part of the primary school curriculum), which fortunately enabled me to have a level high enough to take Chinese when I started high school. In 2019, starting high school, my formal Chinese education began. That year I started getting involved in extracurricular activities such as the Chinese Club and the Chinese Bridge Speech competition, which I persist in to this day. I would strongly recommend the Confucius Institute competitions to all Chinese language enthusiasts, as they are a great way to both challenge oneself and also become ingrained in the Chinese language community. I am now studying Chinese literature at A2 senior level.

The most rewarding part of my journey is definitely unexpected, but it's not something that came suddenly: I have been amazed at the welcome and support I have received from the Chinese language learning and wider Chinese community. From close personal relationships with all three Chinese teachers at my school to meeting workers at Chinese businesses, the number of interpersonal doors learning Chinese has opened for me is well beyond my expectations.

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

Most importantly to me, I have formed strong bonds with all of my teachers over the years as we share a passion for this language. They have volunteered their time to help tutor me for extracurricular activities and my own growth. In a similar way, I have been able to connect with the wider Chinese learning community; travelling to Christchurch and soon China for competitions and last year even receiving bamboo castanet (快板) lessons from a local expert. I have also grown closer to many Chinese students at my school, bonding with close friends over our shared interest in Chinese culture, and even being offered a spot as a volunteer English tutor for children in China via an online teaching group a classmate runs. There are also generous tertiary scholarships that I hope to pursue in the future.

What do you like most about the Chinese culture?

It's hard to break Chinese culture down into parts and even harder to pick a favourite, but one thing I marvel at is how ancient this culture and language are, and how they have evolved and changed as well as been maintained. When learning about character etymologies, idioms and traditions, there are so many stories and such a profound natural logic to everything. Sometimes it will be similar to Western culture and sometimes very different, and in both cases I think this learning better helps me understand myself and others as people.

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

Once again, it's very hard to break this down, but I would say differences in social taboos and differences in intensity are the most striking. This analysis will also rely to an extent on stereotypes of each culture as they are both so varied. Spending time with people speaking Chinese, I often find people comment very candidly on topics that normally need to be addressed with more caution in English. For example, my Chinese teachers have often been more open about grades and expectations, for example sharing people's grades with the whole class or telling me that I need to effectively pick up the slack in a way that is more direct than other teachers; however, it can be more sensitive to talk about politics or criticise aspects of Chinese history, for example. I also find that Chinese culture encourages people to be more committed to things they consider important, as opposed to New Zealand's more relaxed, 'have a go' culture. This can be intimidating or stressful, but it is also really rewarding when you become involved in a community that doesn't hold back and will give as much as they can. No matter what, when cultural differences occasionally seem like an obstacle, I think it's important to remember that people are more than the culture they were raised in, and we can all ultimately connect through our humanity and mutual desire for acceptance if we don't let superficial barriers stop us.

Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese?

The only good reason to undertake the journey of learning Chinese is if you want to; it will be very hard to succeed if you don't want to be learning. But there are so many good reasons to want to: the connection to the extensive Chinese-New Zealander community we have in this country, the heightened employability and economic relations Chinese fluency provides, the personal growth of learning another language, and too many more to name.

Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about taking up Chinese?

Things I wish I'd known sooner when learning Chinese, in chronological order: pay attention to the tones and pronunciation, it will help you be understood when speaking; learn characters (汉字)— simplified is much easier and useful for mainland China, traditional is more rigorous and international— and pay attention to the stroke order as it's a little bit extra work that makes things so much easier down the line; accept that the grammar is vastly different to English and the only way to really understand it is to listen and replicate; understand that Chinese is not a different form of English, rather a different way of expressing your thoughts; if you're in school or university, get involved with the Confucius Institute via speech or essay competitions; finally (one I'm still working on), always try to get up the courage to speak to people in Chinese— it's never not been worth it for me.

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