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  • Tina Zhang

Learning Chinese

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Author: Tina Zhang


The Empress drew a tiny bottle from her sleeve. Her billowing silk qipao covered up her intentions as she emptied the vial of poison into the teacup across from her own. “Have some tea, I imported it from the outer Mongolian tribes,” she said to the Emperor’s concubine.

While my mom shouted warnings at the Tang dynasty heroine on screen, I focused all my energy on the yellow Chinese subtitles that bordered the lower portion of our TV.

Aha! The empress had said the word ‘tea’ again, and I matched the term with the Chinese character in the subtitles. I memorized the strokes to that word and continued to watch the show with my eyes peeled for characters I had yet to learn.

Ever since my grandma first bestowed onto me the proverbial wisdom that our ancient words hold, I have developed a fascination for the Chinese language. My mom’s Asian dramas, coupled with my weekly Chinese lessons, served as a perfect path to hone my language skills. Each episode I watched and book I read provided opportunities to see elegant strokes of unfamiliar characters.

At home, I took advantage of conversations with my dad. I begged him to explain the Chinese idioms he peppered his daily speech with. As I grew older, I signed up for cultural explorations on my own and traveled to ancient sites in Beijing, Xi’an, and Yunnan. There, I studied the temples and bamboo forests that had previously only lived in the pages of my poetry books.

Understanding Chinese has given me a new lens through which I see the world. I can learn from the silly stories my grandpa would recite to me or analyze Chinese news to uncover both perspectives of complex economic agreements.

Although my interest in the language stemmed from casual conversations with my family, I now see it as a tool to engage with much larger communities. Chinese has projected me onto a path shaped by personal experiences where I hope to create culturally bridging solutions in our increasingly divided society.

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