Samuel is an alum of the 2021 Chinese (Mandarin) summer program. This story was submitted as an entry to the NSLI-Y 15th Anniversary Storytelling Competition.
It was nine o’clock on Saturday morning on the U.S. East Coast, the same time in the evening in China. The three other American students on the Zoom and I were chatting about last night’s class, wondering nervously when our counterparts in Xi’an would join.
I was excited but intimidated to meet the Chinese high school students who were going to speak with us. I worried about how fluent they expected my Chinese to be, whether I would disappoint them by speaking too slowly or making a mistake, whether they would speak so fast I couldn’t understand them at all.
Several weeks later, the same three U.S. students and I were again on Zoom, at the same time. Three Chinese students were there with us, too, and we were discussing books. The conversation was awkward, halting even, but animated. Zoom often doesn’t translate body language well, but every time the person speaking offered a smile we would all laugh.
The Xi’an high schoolers were telling us their favorite classic Chinese books, mainly of mythology and legends, that we could read. We, in turn, were brainstorming classic American books to recommend to them. This exchange of book recommendations changed the way I think about learning and connection across distances.
It was a favorite topic of conversation for a number of reasons. One, reading books in another language is of obvious benefit to learning that language. Although the seven of us were speaking Chinese together, the students in Xi’an had been learning English in school, and some planned to attend U.S. universities. We all had an interest in the other language, and we were helping each other through our conversation about books.
Books are also closely related to culture, and the books each of us recommended would have a profound impact on the way the Chinese students saw America and vice versa. I have never been to China, and some of the Xi’an students hadn’t been to the U.S., either. We had a mutual interest in the culture of the other; books encouraged and responded to that interest.
Beyond these two wonderful reasons for our discussion of books, there was a third: the book suggestions taught us subconsciously about each other. Books have many purposes, but a primary one is the imparting of knowledge from author to reader—in essence, learning. All seven of us are students and young people—students who study and are able to understand and think critically about the world. The titles that we traded were the ultimate recognition of this fact: we were all interested in learning about the world, and we all had ideas for each other about how to do so.
We were seven people meeting online, four of us on one side of the world and three on the other. While I sincerely hope we meet in person someday, the chances of such an encounter are slim. However, during the several fleeting weeks in which we met, we gave each other gifts of learning. We recommended books and exchanged tools for that essential task of youth, discovering one’s world. I will in all likelihood be ignorant of the rest of the Chinese students’ lives, but I will know for the rest of my life that they are somewhere, perhaps meeting challenges and joys similar to my own, perhaps with some of the same insights from the same books guiding us.