Introducing Mandarin Aspirations Project Assistant Grace

Grace Valks, a third year Chinese student at the University of Leeds, recently joined the Business Confucius Institute team as the Mandarin Aspirations Project Assistant. Her internship will involve sharing stories about people’s Mandarin learning experiences to educate and inspire other learners.

We asked Grace to introduce herself by sharing her own ‘Mandarin Aspirations’ story.

In this article Grace explains how she got started with Chinese, reflects on some of the challenges and successes along the way, looks ahead to the future, and shares her tips for other learners of Chinese. 

Why Chinese?

I have been studying Mandarin for six years, and still have not perfected my response to the frequently asked ‘Why Chinese?’

A different and exciting subject

When I was 14, my school started offering an after-school class in Mandarin. I had always enjoyed learning languages, having studied French, German and Latin. I had only ever heard of how hard Mandarin was but, being in quite an academically competitive school, I was oddly drawn in by the fact that it was deemed so difficult.

I thought if I could learn Mandarin I could do anything.

I eagerly signed up to the class, and enjoyed studying something exciting and different on Monday evenings.

I slowly got my head around tones, after hours of repeating ‘ah’ , ’oh’, ‘oo’, and ‘ee’ with my classmates. Writing the characters was my favourite part, as I thought they were so artistic and elegant. I would spend 20 minutes writing one sentence so that it was as neat as possible.

Falling in love with Chinese

At this point, Mandarin class was a fun part of my week, but not something I took very seriously. It was in 2015, when I travelled to Beijing with my local Confucius Institute, that I really fell in love with all things Chinese.

I became fascinated with Chinese culture, from calligraphy to Confucian philosophy. I decided that I wanted to delve deeper into the culture, and reach a higher level in my language learning. I started incorporating Chinese culture into my other studies where possible, including painting a traditional Chinese style art piece for my Art A level and writing my English coursework on Chinese literature.

When it was time to decide what I was going to study at university, it became clear that there was only one option for me – Chinese.

My biggest challenges so far

In August 2019 I embarked on my biggest challenge in my Mandarin learning experience yet – going to Shanghai for my year abroad.

5000 miles away from home

The thought of leaving everyone behind to live in a country so far away and different from my home was terrifying to me. I was practically pushed onto the plane by my mum, and before I knew it was 5000 miles away.

I had been so worried about being away from home that I had not really thought about the biggest challenge – speaking Chinese. I had a shock when I got there and had to figure out how to go from talking about my hobbies in class to navigating my way through life in one of the largest cities in the world.

My first hurdle was finding an apartment, which may seem like an easy task when you look at the abundance of high-rise buildings in the city. In reality, trying to understand housing contracts and bills when they are written in Chinese was a lot harder than I expected. After a week of setting up bank accounts, viewing apartments until 11pm and struggling to communicate with landlords, I finally found a lovely apartment at a reasonable price.

In hindsight, I’m glad that I had this challenge to overcome straight away, as I was thrown in at the deep end and it felt like everything got slightly easier from there.

After spending 5 months in Shanghai, I was finally feeling acclimatised and was having the most amazing time.

Four young women in a Chinese garden.

Devastating news

When I came back to England for a visit in January I was surprised at how much I missed China. I could barely wait to get back out there!

However, the universe had different ideas and coronavirus interrupted my plans. After weeks of uncertainty, I was told that I would not be able to return to Shanghai, and I was devastated.

Study Abroad from my bedroom

I went from being immersed in Chinese culture and practicing my language skills every day, to sitting in my bedroom in England learning Mandarin on Zoom.

Screenshot of a Zoom meeting with 21 students on screen.

This was almost more challenging than when I was actually in China, as it was really difficult to create a language-learning environment at home, amongst everything that was happening in the world. I was disheartened when I thought of weeks before, when I had been having this once in a lifetime experience, and now was staring at my laptop all day.

However, I found comfort in the fact that all my coursemates were in the same boat, and we shared resources and tips with each other to deal with our new situation.

Celebrating success along the way

I think when studying Mandarin, achievements both big and small really keep you going.

Stepping out of my comfort zone

When I was 15 and very new to Mandarin, I was given the opportunity to participate in the British Council Mandarin Speaking competition. At first, I thought there was no way I would be able to speak even a sentence, but after being encouraged by my teacher, I decided to take part. Along with four of my classmates, I performed a version of Mulan in Mandarin.

Although I found the competition nerve-wracking, it was my first opportunity to take part in an event with so many Mandarin speakers, and it was a very exciting day. My group managed to be selected to go to the national finals, and this was my first achievement in my Mandarin journey that made me feel like the effort was worthwhile.

This experience taught me that sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone in order to achieve success, and you may thrive in situations you least expect.

Day to day interactions

Whilst living in Shanghai, being able to successfully order a taxi or understand my takeaway delivery driver were often the highlights of my day. I have found that I can generally string a sentence together and be understood by a Chinese person, but the real challenge came when trying to understand their response, which was normally spoken very quickly.

I got into a habit of treating myself to a weekly takeaway, and although this was something I looked forward to, I also dreaded the moment they called me to say they either couldn’t find my building or needed me to buzz them in. After a few incidents of hanging up in a panic when I didn’t understand them, I eventually recognised a few common phrases and was able to listen out for those to find out what they were asking me.

Telling myself that these small feats were big successes made each day feel exciting and kept me going with my studies.

Looking to the future

For now I am unsure where my Mandarin learning will take me, but the experiences it has given me so far have been invaluable.

Going into the third year of my Chinese course, I feel excited about the future. I am making the most of all available opportunities, such as the Confucius Institute workshops for undergraduates learning Chinese and, of course, this internship, which I will be doing part-time alongside my studies.

I am really excited about this project and looking forward to speaking to other Mandarin learners about their Mandarin Aspirations.

My tips for other learners

Celebrate your successes

Savour small tickets of success and use them as motivation. Here are just two of the little achievements that have kept me addicted to learning Chinese:

  • Having a conversation with a Chinese person
  • Writing a character correctly without looking on Pleco

Remind yourself of these every time you are finding things difficult.

Focus on how far you’ve come rather than how far you’ve got to go.

Take advantage of opportunities

On top of my daily university classes, I attend a weekly Confucius Institute workshop which consolidates what I have been learning that week. The workshop is a lot smaller than my classes, which means I have a much better opportunity to participate and practice my speaking, and also receive helpful feedback from my teacher.

I underestimated how big of a difference an extra hour could make.

Develop your interest in China

Nurture your cultural interests as well as working on your language. Attending webinars and events where you can learn more about things that interest you will remind you why you are working so hard!

What are your Mandarin Aspirations?

I hope you enjoyed reading my story, and I’m looking forward to hearing yours too!

What kind of role models and peers would you like to hear from? What kind of tips do you want to pick up from other people’s experiences?

You can contact me at G.Valks@leeds.ac.uk with any comments or suggestions.

Further reading

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.