Sasha Zhang is a 2023-24 Mandarin Academic Year and 2022 Korean Summer Program alumna. She is an incoming first-year student at Stanford University.

Hello everyone! My name is Sasha, and I studied Mandarin Chinese in Kaohsiung, Taiwan this year. My NSLI-Y experience was nothing short of incredible. For me, NSLI-Y was a year of transformation, but it was even more so one of community and connection.

Many of my favorite NSLI-Y memories revolve around the spontaneous interactions I had with Taiwanese locals. I once met an older couple on a tour bus, and they invited me to lunch on multiple occasions. I met a retired teacher, who would invite me to her office for tea. I met another girl who took me to see a lantern festival with her boyfriend. Aunties and uncles at the top of a mountain we frequented always invited us to join them for tea. With Anoushka, another member of my cohort, we conducted street interviews and talked to locals about their experiences running small businesses, being an immigrant in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese education system. So many Taiwanese people offered their time, their warmth, and their welcome to myself and my friends, complete strangers, all while expecting nothing in return.

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My host family is the greatest example of this. They took me on trips to Taipei, beach towns, my host mother’s family home in a fishing village. Every night, my host mom would cut me the most delicious Taiwanese fruit. My host dad would practice his karaoke skills in the living room and force me to sing a couple songs. Just a couple weeks ago, they all woke up at 3am to drive me to a neighboring county and support me as I ran my first half marathon. The care my host family gave me is something I’m incredibly grateful for.

The program also gave me an environment surrounded by highly motivated, supportive, and close-knit cohort members who made this experience so incredible. Together, we experienced ups and downs, growth and stagnation, earthquakes, typhoons, and many games of Uno. My Taiwan experience would not have been the same without our cohort.

I am Chinese American and grew up speaking Mandarin at home but, before Taiwan, I was only familiar with Chinese spoken in a family setting. This year, my Mandarin level improved from an intermediate level to one of professional competency. Because of my new language skills, I've reconnected with members of my extended family who still reside in China, and I’ve found cross-disciplinary ways to engage with US-China and Taiwan policy through work and academia. NSLI-Y not only opened the doors to a facet of myself that had lain dormant for the better part of my adolescence, it also expanded and brought the five-year-old Chinese-speaking Sasha into my 18-year-old present self, giving me the tools to move through the Mandarin-speaking world with nuance and newfound maturity.

For my final language project, I explored the influence of East and West on the Taiwanese education system, examining the role of Confucian tradition and liberal ideas on the changing Taiwanese teaching philosophy. I interviewed Taiwanese teachers from different generations, as well as students who have studied in both Taiwan and Western countries. The project was a great opportunity to challenge my language skills and consider the roles of tradition and globalization on education systems.

The next phase of my Chinese language education will primarily be independent study, but I know NSLI-Y has cemented Chinese language learning and the country of Taiwan as important pillars for the rest of my life. Through NSLI-Y, I’ve connected with strangers, reconnected to blood family, and found a new family in my host community in Taiwan. This year not only deepened my investment in the world outside of my home community, but also gave me the language tools to deftly engage with it. I can’t wait to see what the connections sparked this year look like in ten, twenty, and thirty years.