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Heidi Schalberg’s Confucius Institute Story

Heidi Schalberg
Junior, Pioneer High School
Student, UB Confucius Institute Community Chinese Language Class

The following essay is Heidi Schalberg’s contribution to the My CI Story collection of essays written by students affiliated with the University at Buffalo Confucius Institute and published in December 2019.

Heidi Schalberg, in light blue hoodie, center, with classmates and teachers at the Confucius Institute in spring 2017.

I will always remember my time spent at the University at Buffalo Confucius Institute. The programs and events I participated in have had and continue to have a meaningful impact that cannot be found elsewhere. I will forever be a different person because of this community of people I have found. My knowledge of China and its language has increased, but I have also enjoyed learning about Chinese customs and culture. I wish I started sooner.

In September of 2016, I was 12 years old and starting off 7th grade. Like any kid, I was trying to find my place and who I was. I wasn’t athletic, and I’ve always had difficulty finding activities I enjoyed. I tried Girl Scouts, 4H, and club after club, but I felt I didn’t fit in anywhere. My pool of friends was small due to my introverted love of staying in my room and reading. I started taking Spanish in school, yet it was too early in the year to know if I really enjoyed it. I just wanted to find some extracurricular activity that I enjoyed.

I will never forget my mother proposing the idea of taking Mandarin. We were sitting at the dinner table when my mother discussed that she had been searching on the internet that day for something that I could participate in. Call it fate, luck, God, whatever you’d like, but what she found changed my life, and I will always be thankful. She discovered Mandarin Classes at the University at Buffalo every Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. Even though the semester already began, only one class had passed and the director whom my mother talked to said I could easily catch up. I was always interested in Chinese culture and I figured that the Confucius Institute was a great place to start.

I was glad that the class was for beginners because the only words I knew were “hello”, “thank you”, and “grandpa”. But my professor, Wen Guo, was kind, smart, and great at catering to the needs of her students. If I needed help, she would be willing to tutor me on the side or meet with me before class to catch me up with the material. My professor had mastered two difficult languages and knew every word from Coca-Cola to tiramisu.

However, my professor was not the only person I learned from at the Confucius Institute. There was an array of people, and it was enjoyable to learn about the backgrounds and journeys of my classmates. I had never been to China, but it was fascinating to learn their opinion of the country. It taught me that anyone can learn a language, no matter what age or stage of life. The classroom was small, yet cozy, and though I was worried about speaking in class, I felt comfortable.

I will never forget the first sentence I memorized in Chinese. It was Hěn gāoxìng jiàn dào nǐ, which means “Happy to meet you.” I remember waking up one day and I couldn’t stop repeating this sentence to myself. However, at the time, I had no idea what this phrase meant. Even though I have learned so much through the years, I have made myself never forget “Happy to meet you” because, at such a young age, I found out what my brain could do.

I have continued to take classes for the next three years, enjoying every moment. In my second year of taking Mandarin, I decided to take the HSK exam. I doubted my abilities but studied and took my HSK in December of 2017. After receiving news in January that I had passed the HSK, I felt accomplished and I had proof. Maybe I didn’t receive any sports trophies as a child, but I have this, and I am proud of it.

The best part of the Confucius Institute is the impact it had on me at school and at home. I had something to talk about with other kids and my teachers realized that I was a student who loved learning. Years later kids still come up to me in class and ask me to say something in Mandarin. I stood out as the kid who was studying Chinese in college. My family members are proud of how far I have come along and have encouraged me to try my best at everything I do. “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” in Mandarin continue to be used in my household to this day.

It was also entertaining to find out different facts in class about Chinese culture, like how you should never write someone’s name in red. No matter what, my professor would never write a student’s name in red. I enjoyed learning about how there were places bigger than where I lived. Everyone knows that the earth is large, but you don’t truly know how large it is until you learn about another country and the people who live there.

Even though my HSK and years of practice will probably only end up on a resume, I have no regrets. On my first day of class, we listened to a song in Chinese where someone sang about how their Mandarin wasn’t very good, but they were trying. I think everyone should at least try to learn a different language and visit that country. You don’t have to be fluent, just try your best. I am nowhere near perfect at speaking Mandarin, but after 3 years of class, I learned that I don’t have to be. If I go to China and show an effort in their language, they will try and help me find my way. This may come as a shock, but I do plan to go to China someday.