Q1: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO MAJOR IN CHINESE STUDIES AT DEPAUL UNIVERSITY?
NOAH: As with most decisions in my life, I ended up majoring in Chinese Studies on a relative whim. I was entering DePaul as a Jazz Performance major, but about two days before classes began, I woke up with a certain sense of terror and decided, in a stroke of passion, to change my major to Chinese. Well, it wasn’t truly that random. The summer before freshman year, I had happened across a high school classmate whose parents had emigrated here from Taiwan. Something had instigated him that day to bring his erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument, and as he began to draw the bow to show me how that little instrument could sing, I was entranced by the sounds that rang off those two strings. My heart and intellect went wild. I started asking him about traditional Chinese music, which lead to a conversation about traditional Chinese art, then fashion, history, culture. Then language. LANGUAGE. Ah. That was the music I was looking for. To demonstrate, he said a few words, a few sentences, and when he saw how much I was digging it, he drove off the road and let loose strings and sheets of rapid Chinese. The twisting tones, consistent rhythms, and succinctness of sound, not to mention the delicate intricacies of the characters which he began to write down for me—I decided right then and right there to engage in serious studies of the Chinese language. He was thrilled. His eyes glowed. He enthusiastically promised to teach me for one hour every day, and that’s how I fell in love with Chinese—and perhaps out of love with jazz. One form of music for another. So when I woke up that one morning with cold feet, Chinese seemed like a pretty rational major to change to.
Q2: WHAT WERE THE SIGNIFICANT EVENTS THAT SHAPED YOU DURING YOUR DEPAUL YEARS? HOW?
NOAH: In 2014, DePaul’s Chinese Department offered me a Chinese government scholarship (CSC) to study for one semester in Beijing. This was singlehandedly the best academic decision I made in all my years at DePaul. In the months before accepting the scholarship, my interest in Chinese was losing that initial fire, but as soon as I landed in Beijing, I knew I was still on the right path. Living in China did not only kick my Chinese into high gear, but it was there, face to face with the people and a new way of life, that I realized how much I inherently gelled with and appreciated the culture. Just about every weekend, after a mind-numbing week of intensive Chinese studies, I would walk along the street gathering a variety of oily bites and chatting with the vendors, and bring my food to the local park where I’d shoot the bull with elderly Chinese men and women. These interactions were engaging and personal, and they fueled my interest for the country, its people, and its language. They also left me with an accent that sometimes resembles that of an old Beijing man with a cigarette hanging off his lip.
Another memorable event for me was the Chinese New Year Gala this past year, as I was given the opportunity to be an MC. Now, I’ve always been one to shy away from the stage, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to serve as one of the representatives of DePaul’s Chinese Department at its biggest annual celebration on campus. For the first few acts, my hands were shaking, and I bet my voice was as well, but there was a certain thrill in cracking jokes in Chinese in front of however many hundreds of people there were in attendance. The whole experience felt surreal. It was the perfect conclusion to my time at DePaul, and it made me feel like I actually accomplished something after all those years scribbling characters and memorizing grammar structures in my room.
Q3: WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? WHAT IS YOUR FUTURE PLAN?
NOAH: I’m currently working at the Chinese Consulate General here in Chicago. My job position, which translates literally as secretary, is really part-secretary/part-translator/part-journalist, but maybe I’m just glorifying the realities of the job. One of my main responsibilities is hunting down relevant news articles and editorials covering all nine states of the Midwest and summarizing them into Chinese. Regardless of the specific job title, what I do at work forces me to keep my Chinese sharp and on the rise, and for that, I am grateful. And ever so slightly exhausted.
With regards to the future, there are a hundred and one things I want to do, and thus I have no idea what I will actually be doing. Perhaps I need another old classmate of mine to come along with an instrument and feed me with absolute certainty about my next step. I’ve considered translation, education, journalism, and even healthcare, but we’ll have to see where the wind blows. I do know one thing, however, and that is I will undoubtedly integrate Chinese into whatever career I step into. At the end of the day, the ambiguity of my future doesn’t weigh over me—rather, I feel quite liberated.
Q4: WHAT SUGGESTIONS CAN YOU GIVE CURRENT STUDENTS IN THE DEPAUL CHINESE STUDIES PROGRAM IN ORDER TO IMPROVE THEIR CHINESE LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY AND DEVELOP A CRITICAL UNDERSTANDING OF CHINA?
NOAH: Surround yourself with the language. Surround yourself with the culture. Two of the most valuable things I’ve done to improve my language skills and reignite and sustain my passion for the culture are working in Chinese restaurants and moving to Chinatown. In the restaurants I worked at, every interaction, whether with the majority of customers, my fellow servers, the chefs, or the boss, was conducted in Chinese. Being yelled at in the thick of an evening rush while trying to balance an armful of plates was critical for improving my listening comprehension skills. No sarcasm intended. And with regards to living in Chinatown; rubbing my morning eyes while a flurry of dialogue in a variety of Chinese dialects breaks through my window; walking home at night through a maze of exciting smells and beautiful, bold characters shining down from storefront signs—these are the subtle details of life that remind me of my love for Chinese. I’m not saying everyone needs to go to their favorite Chinatown restaurant and submit a job application or even move to Chinatown, but the main point is, situate yourselves in environments that are flooding over with Chinese. This is hardly a novel or insightful recommendation, but is truly the one thing that has made the most significant impact on my Chinese.
In terms of gaining a critical understanding of China, there’s no better way than to take thought-provoking classes and read broadly. But apart from the obvious, I’ve learned a fair amount about China, particularly with regards to its societal and cultural aspects, through interactions with Chinese friends and strangers alike. Everyone analyzes the trends of and understands their country from a unique perspective, so engaging with a wide swath of the population—with people of different age groups, from different fields, etc.—is beneficial in forming your own ideas of the country.