“I do find language very intriguing, very fascinating,” said Jessica Lum, a 16-year-old Roseburg High School student.
Having that interest, Jessica applied for a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship. She answered written questions, was interviewed about her interest in languages and then was selected to be one of 19 U.S. students for an all-expense paid trip to China to be immersed in that culture. She wanted to learn Mandarin, a Chinese dialect.
“My dad is Chinese and I also just like how the language sounds,” Jessica said of why she picked Mandarin.
Jessica, a junior at Roseburg High and the daughter of Tod and Jeanine Lum of Roseburg, lived with a Chinese family in Xi’an, a city of 8.7 million people, for six weeks, returning home in mid-August.
All of the 19 U.S. students lived in Xi’an and meet at Northwest University, a Chinese school, each weekday morning. Jessica was the only Oregonian in the group. The students were split into two classes, with a Chinese teacher leading each.
“My teacher had studied English in France, but she had never been to the U.S.,” Jessica said. “She was a great teacher, probably one of the best I’ve ever had. She pushed us, but not in a bad way, because we learned a lot. The classes were really focused on the language. We finished 40 lessons out of a textbook in six weeks.”
Jessica said what she learned in six weeks was probably equivalent to one year in school.
The students spent four hours each morning talking and learning Mandarin. Role playing was part of the learning process. One example was a restaurant scene with some students ordering food, asking about items on the menu and how much they cost, and other students playing the waiter/waitress roles and answering the questions.
There was also homework every night. Because her host family didn’t speak a lot of English, Jessica got a lot of practice speaking with her host father, mother and their 12-year-old daughter.
The visiting students spent two hours each weekday afternoon learning about Chinese culture by taking field trips within the city. They visited temples, museums and small food shops and learned about Chinese emperors, dynasties and music.
Jessica said seeing the Terracotta Army, a collection of hand sculptured warriors who were to protect Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, after his death, was a highlight of those trips.
“The goal was to speak as much Mandarin as possible,” Jessica said of both the classroom work and the trips out into the city.”
Jessica’s first day of getting to the university was a bit scary for the teenager. Her host family lived an hour from the school, and on that first morning, the mother pointed her toward a public bus. Jessica boarded, but had no idea where she was going. Nobody could understand her questions, but finally, close to an hour later, she recognized a university building and got off. She then walked around the campus until finding her classroom.
“It was a scary experience in a city of 8 million in a foreign place without any language skills yet,” said mother Jeanine Lum. “Hence my concern at 3:45 a.m. when her text came in about her first day being ‘scary.’”
“The rest of the time she was fine,” Jeanine Lum added. “She was very comfortable after she sorted out the initial process. She adapted quickly.”
Jessica said the Chinese people she met wanted to talk about news items in the U.S. She said the people seemed to like “America” and “have a good perspective of America.”
Back home, her concern is how to remain familiar with the Mandarin that she learned.
“That’s a situation I’ve given a lot of thought to,” Jessica said. “I’ll try to self-study. I’d like to find a peer, somebody from China I can converse with.”
“I’ll consider taking Mandarin in college, but I may have to start over at level one,” she added.
Jessica said the trip to China was a great experience. She explained her host family treated her like a guest and refused to let her help with any household chores.
Plans are being made for the host family’s daughter to visit the Lum family next year.
At Roseburg High, Jessica has taken a year of French and will continue to study that language. She also plans to eventually take Spanish classes.
She said after her participation in this language initiative program, she would encourage other students to apply to this program or to other programs that offer similar experiences.
“This experience made me a more independent person,” Jessica said. “Most of the time I had to figure out how to do it myself in some tough situations. Learning how to embrace a culture that isn’t mine was hard, but really important. I feel I did well in those situations.”
“She has an interest in languages in general,” said Jeanine Lum of her daughter. “This gave her self-confidence to pursue something similar. Hearing sounds and repeating them back, she seems to be a natural at that. I am inspired by her passion to learn, grow and to have the zest to take on new adventures.”