Sam's Trip to China

Two years of college Chinese was not enough 😅


25 October ’18

I’ll admit that my younger brother beat me to it. After just one year of college he registered a gap year, threw a mattress in the back of Mom’s old VW Station Wagon, and hit the road. He spent the fall meandering from Maryland to Los Angeles, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. In the spring he continued, going from Los Angeles up to Quebec, over to Vancouver, and finally back down to UCLA. He loved it.

Is wanderlust a genetically inherited trait? Our father fondly recalls his backpacking around Europe, but our youngest brother seems to have no desire to venture beyond the East coast. Is it symptomatic of our generation? Everyone else I know is happy to pursue a comfortable life within the confines of the great United States of America, relegating other countries to travel destinations (and more power to them! They’re set up to do great things over here.) Is it a coping mechanism we both developed in response to our mother’s early death two years ago?

As my brother traversed the country I finished up my final year at UT Austin. I graduated with a major in Computer Science and a minor in Mandarin Chinese. This blog is about my adventures in China. My adventures in Computer Science can be found here.

Many people ask why I chose to minor in Chinese. The College of Natural Sciences (which my major is a part of) at The University of Texas at Austin requires that each and every one of its students graduate having at least one year of study in some foreign language. There’s no way I would have enrolled in Chinese on my own. I took three years of Spanish in middle and high school and detested it. Due to student protest (I assume) the College, in it’s wisdom, relaxed the requirements. Now you could take a year of language or a semester of a foreign culture class. A foreign culture class is a blowoff class - a waste of three credit hours. And I didn’t come to college to waste my time.

I had a couple of options for which language I could study but Chinese jumped out at me for two reasons. The primary one was that it was the most different from English. The written language is symbolic, the way you pronounce a word changes the meaning, there is no tense in the grammar, etc. Learning this language provided the most opportunity to rewire my neural circuits. The second was its utility. It’s the most spoken language in the world, it’s useful in my profession, it’s the language of a rapidly rising world power, etc.

At the end of my (required) first year I had only just begun to grasp the language. This was after no small effort either. Most classes are three credit hours, out of an expected fifteen. But both of the intro Chinese classes are five credit hours, meeting every day of the week and representing a third of my coursework for the whole semester. I created almost a thousand anki flashcards and spent, on average, an hour a day just doing flashcards. I did all the homework and assignments diligently. I even went to my TA’s bi-weekly office hours to practice speaking and listening. And after a whole year of concerted effort I was finally able to distinguish the five different tones from each other just over half the time.

So after a year of work what was I to do? Be content with having satisfied my requirement, retire my anki deck, and slowly forget my Chinese? No. My next year I signed up for Chinese III and IV, and Advanced Conversation, thereby satisfying the requirements for a minor. In my final semester at UT half of my course load was Chinese.

Approaching graduation, I once again faced a crossroads. Graduate and join a US based tech firm where my Chinese would slowly wither away, or book a flight to China and actually learn this language?

Why choose? I was incredibly fortunate to have been a part of the Turing Scholars Honors Program, and to have had Dr. Calvin Lin as a resource. He, with the help of Dr. Lorenzo Alvisi, put me in contact with people at Microsoft Research Asia and I was invited over as a visiting fellow to do research as a part of the Intelligent Cloud and Edge Group under Dr. Liang Chen for six months in Beijing.

I’m sure that those of you who have found your way here already know this story either in part or in full. Many of you expressed interest in keeping up with my trip. I hope this blog can serve, at least, as a starting point. If you’re interested in getting an email every time I post, you can sign up here. For those of you that are old school, there’s an RSS link in the footer. A blog is unfortunately a little one sided, so please send me your thoughts, responses, suggestions, ideas, hopes, dreams, or fears to any of the posts through any of the contact methods in the footer! Or better yet, come visit 😊

I leave this Saturday (October 27th, 2018). I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited. Here’s to wanderlust 🍻

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