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How One East Coast High School Student Was Found in Translation

October 11, 2017

Guest blogger Bradley Stoller is a high school junior from Massachusetts who has studied two years of Chinese. Last summer, he spent 3.5 weeks studying Chinese intensively in Beijing. This is an account of his experience navigating the annals of language. Language I/O Co-Founder Kaarina Kvaavik is a guest lecturer at Boston University's Questrom School of Businesswhere Bradley's father, Gregory Stoller, teaches.

Photo: Bradley (third from left) with his fellow students.

By: Bradley Stoller

“The dumplings you introduced was so delicious! Next time I want to go (with) you and Suji again! With you, both of us are happy!”

This was just another text I received from someone who didn’t speak English while I was in China.It may seem like a typical text, but being from a fellow classmate in China—a very long way from my Massachusetts home—the text became that much more special.

I started my three-week trip to Beijing to improve my Chinese with a mindset that it would be like any other language class I’ve taken. The difference: I would learn Chinese, in Chinese.

Can I really do this? What if I don’t meet anybody? Am I going to enjoy anything?” I asked myself when I arrived and didn’t see any similar faces.

Traveling at 16 to China wasn’t a problem; being fully on my own, away from family and American classmates was. I felt dizzy when the pilot announced our arrival in Beijing. Once off the plane I was truly alone; nothing was familiar, and nobody was there to watch my every step. No safety net available.

At the HSK Global School, I was not only younger than all my classmates as most students were generally in their second and third years of college or in their thirties, but I was also the only English-speaking person. The other students were from India, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia and South Korea. My host family was kind, but they were a true family unit, often leaving me behind while they went on weekend family excursions. While on my own, I began thinking about how I could find that friend whom I desperately wanted.

This is perhaps the most difficult part of traveling overseas: Figuring out how to become comfortable with those around you while blending in with and befriending the locals. Each hour brings an avalanche of unique experiences and new people.

Making friends was challenging, considering that each nationality has its own customs, and diverse personalities. Once you reach out, you plunge yourself into these differences.                                                                                      

After working up my courage and using Google Translate, I asked the Korean sisters from my class (Soobin and Suji) if they wanted to hang out one night. The first translations didn’t go so well, however. I tried to say “let’s go to a coffee shop” in Korean, but it translated to “drinking flowers.” I wondered how we would ever communicate since they didn’t speak English. 

Although we didn’t share the same language, we spoke volumes with facial expressions and broken Chinese that evening. In one night, we created thousands of inside jokes. For example, at a coffee shop, Soobin took out 25 coins in an effort to figure out what we could afford from the menu. In class, when we answered questions correctly, we celebrated with a Korean version of rock, paper, scissors. That Friday night with Soobin and Suji was six hours of letting worries disappear, which made it difficult to say goodbye to not just my friends, but also my summer sisters. It defined my experience abroad, and was my favorite memory from China.

Upon reflection and preparation for my junior year, this is what I’ve learned:

1. One-language communication is useless in friendship. It’s the bonds and connections you have that create friendship. After all, camaraderie is not about nouns and verbs said in the correct order, but rather the people using them.

2. Relationships aren’t measured as individual points of time. As we said our goodbyes, I truly felt somebody had ripped out a part of me. I was scared everything we had created together would suddenly come to a screeching halt. On the bus to the airport I instead realized this could be the beginning of something unique; not the end.

3. There is value in reaching out, and pushing yourself to take that next step. My entire experience wouldn’t have occurred had I not stepped outside my comfort zone and taken time to explore the endless possibilities of friendship. Traveling overseas allows you to venture into the unknown, intensively improve your language fluency, discover more than you knew was possible and meet people you never thought would talk to you.

Bradley Stoller is a high school student at The Rivers School, in Weston, Massachusetts. He enjoys traveling, language study and meeting new people and is considering a major in general business or hotel management.