From China with Love
Member Betsy Rogers explains how a classmate inspired an enduring fascination with China and the language.
Ellen Yeh sat next to me in the back of the classroom in seventh grade. She would go to Chinese school on weekends and practice writing her characters in class. I would copy the characters and she would explain them to me. And I was, like, “Wait, there’s a whole word in one character?”
In ninth grade, I went to boarding school and they offered Chinese. We had a great Chinese teacher, who was a foreigner, and made the class fun. That was my language for high school, and we had an eleventh-grade exchange for six weeks in the summer to Harbin [in northeastern China] in 1988.
I realized my Chinese was terrible but just learned. I also learned tai chi and martial arts. Everything I had thought about China was different. I didn’t realize it would be so poor, but I remember how warm and friendly everybody was. They would talk to us and invite us over for dinner. The experience completely opened my eyes.
In my senior year of high school, I went to Beijing to study at a foreign language college for three months. That was when the student protests [in Tiananmen Square] happened. I lived with a Chinese family in their apartment.
Everybody biked everywhere. If you took the bus, sometimes you couldn’t get off at your stop because it was so packed, or you had to climb out of the window. There were no Western goods available. You had to go to the [state-run] Friendship Store to get cheese or jam. There weren’t that many restaurants and some didn’t allow foreigners in.
I would study in the morning with the other foreign students and we would explore everywhere in the afternoon. I didn’t get homesick because I went for the adventure, and I loved learning the language. On weekends, we would go to Inner Mongolia, the end of the Great Wall, Xian. I would just follow along.
By May, each school organized its own people to march [to Tiananmen Square]. I remember we stood on a bridge over the third ring road, and the entire highway was just full of students carrying banners calling for freedom and democracy. I would go down there two or three times a week to talk to the students.
I was meant to travel at the end of May, but protests started in other cities. I flew home and it was like the air was taken out of the balloon because you come back to the calm life as you know it. When [the] June 4 [crackdown] happened, I couldn’t relate to it.
In 1991, I went back to Beijing to study for one semester. I really wanted to get fluent in Chinese and to be able to read ancient Chinese texts. I did more exploring—and eating! Then, in 1996, I led a six-week study trip from China to Pakistan for high schoolers. I learned resilience and an aptitude for observing and adapting to wherever I landed. There is so much beauty in the country. The history is so rich and the landscape is so dramatic.
I made my kids go to Japanese school. I said, “Learn a language because it opens up so many doors for you and gives you a cultural understanding and an empathy for people’s circumstances.” At the end of the day, everyone is just concerned with family, health and education.
As told to INTOUCH’s Nick Jones.