Do you speak Chinese?
Even as I wrote this question, I’m thinking to myself: what person could be so culturally unaware s/he doesn’t know that "Chinese" is not a language? Oh yeah, that person was me.
When I was 15, I spent a week in Hong Kong representing my rugby team from LA. I had no idea what to expect. I quickly learned that 1) Hong Kong is different from "mainland China" and 2) "Chinese” isn’t a language. During my trip, I mainly heard Mandarin and Cantonese, which represent only 2 out of 200+ dialects of the Chinese language.
Throughout the week, I went to school, church, and rugby practice with my host sister. She's standing to my right in the photo above during one of our practices. She was my age and was from Mauritius--a place I’d never heard of. It turns out that it’s an island off the coast of Madagascar where the main language is Creole. In Hong Kong, she and her brother went to a French international school and all of their classes were in French. They were also fluent in English.
That's 3 languages already--but who's counting? Nearly everyone I met was fluent in multiple languages. And had lived in multiple countries. And was in 9th grade, just like me. In LA, I was being praised for spending a week in a foreign country where, as it turns out, you don’t even need to learn a new language to get by. Yet most of the high schoolers I met in Hong Kong had already lived around the world. No one treated me differently as a foreigner and/or a person of color, like I thought they would. That's probably because nearly everyone I met was also a foreigner and being immersed in new languages + cultures was part of their normal, everyday lives.
My time in Hong Kong showed me that there is so much to learn and to experience and I decided to make that my new normal. To get out of my LA bubble and to expand my perspective. I began making friends with people who weren't from the same neighborhood as me. For the rest of my high school Spanish classes (and eventually college Portuguese classes), I took language learning very seriously because I was determined that I would live abroad one day. It paid off when I was navigating new languages + cultures while working in both Brazil and Spain.
Fast forward 10 years later, almost one month after my 25th birthday, I’ve just accepted an offer to live and work from my fourth continent--Asia! I'm moving to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! Being planted in LA this past year taught me that I don't have to travel in order to grow. Nevertheless, living and working in a new culture does force me to expand my mind in ways unlike anything else I've experienced. I’m extremely nervous and excited to move to Southeast Asia. Yet again, I don’t fully know what to expect. Above all, I’m extremely grateful for my experience in Hong Kong all those years ago and the opportunity to live out my new normal.