Juan Mateo, a current Mandarin Chinese Virtual NSLI-Y student, lives in New York City and is a junior at Regis High School.

Growing up in New York, Chinese culture has always been embedded into my daily life, yet I felt distant from it. As a child, I remember going to local parks in Chinatown and learning to play ping-pong with elderly Chinese men who only spoke Mandarin or Cantonese. My father, who is Filipino, would often be asked if he and I had Chinese heritage since we frequented the dumpling shops around the park. Despite the language barrier, I felt as though I had already somewhat connected to Chinese culture, and I wanted to connect even more. I chose to study in the Virtual NSLI-Y program because it has helped me to begin breaking down this language barrier to become a student of the world.

My class experience in NSLI-Y has been eye-opening. In class, I have learned so many Chinese cultural norms that are vastly different from ours in the U.S. along with vocabulary that provides a great foundation for future study. The most memorable class we have had so far was meeting a Foreign Service Officer who served in China during the Covid-19 pandemic. We learned what daily life was like in China, and how it changed during their “Zero-Covid” policy. For instance, we learned about paying using facial recognition at a grocery store and about isolating at a hotel for two weeks when returning to China. Though I heard these stories online, I found it interesting to gain more nuanced perspectives. Outside of class, I have been able to go back to those same dumpling shops I visited as a child and connect with the shop owners, but this time I can connect with them through Mandarin. I’ve also been able to connect with friends who speak Mandarin, and I taught them a tongue twister I learned through my NSLI-Y class that they found very funny! Virtual NSLI-Y has helped me break that language barrier so far, and I hope that with future study I may continue to connect with the Chinese American community in New York.

Despite the fun I have had, studying an entirely new language virtually has been challenging. The intricate details of Mandarin call for meticulous studying. I have learned to pursue that level of detail through my textbook and various online resources. Ms. A, my Virtual NSLI-Y teacher who is always available should I need help, has also been a great resource to me.

If you are considering studying Mandarin or applying for the Virtual NSLI-Y program, I highly recommend it! Even with the busy schedule I have, I would not trade my experience from Virtual NSLI-Y for anything.

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