She Initially Learned Mandarin to Teach

Meet Davida Moore, a healthcare industry professional who initially learned Mandarin to be able to teach. Read on to discover what her journey was like learning Mandarin, spending two months in China and her language tips for Mandarin learners.

BGLL: Thank you so much for sharing your story. Tell us about yourself.

Davida: My name is Davida Moore. I’m black and born and raised in Detroit, MI. My native languages are Standard English & AAVE. I have a BA in East Asian Languages & Cultures with a concentration in Mandarin & Chinese culture and a minor in geography from Michigan State University. I am currently employed as a Workforce Administration Coordinator with an online healthcare & IT training school called MedCerts. I oversee enrollment and invoicing for our department that works with workforce offices across the country.

I also work for a close friend’s commercial cleaning franchise, where we control sanitation of different places such as offices, medical facilities, daycares, etc.

BGLL: What opportunities were you able to take advantage of because of your language?

Davida: I was able to study abroad for two months in China in 2008. Living in China for 2 months was an experience in itself. They are not used to seeing Black people there. On at least 4 different occasions, complete strangers came up to me for a picture. People stopped what they were doing and stared at me everywhere I went. I was the only Black person in our group of about 30. The only other person that got more attention was the redhead in our group. Let it have been a moment when I spoke Mandarin—they freaked out! They did not think I was American. In fact, one of my roommate’s tutors asked her if I was going back to Africa when everyone else went back to America. My whole time there, I saw 5 other Black people—3 were Ethiopian (I saw them on a weekend trip to Beijing at the Forbidden City) and the other 2 were Black Americans (I saw them at this dive bar we found a few blocks away from Nankai University’s campus—VERY random for them to be there.) Imagine me, with limited knowledge in words for hair care, trying to explain to a Chinese man with limited knowledge on hair and English, how my hair was braided like it was at the time! It was a very interesting time in China to say the least. I learned a lot about them and myself. I am most proud of not officially giving up on myself and getting to the point in my life where I am now; there were some dark years to overcome.

BGLL: Would you ever consider living there?

Davida: No, I cannot see myself living over there, especially now with not only the pollution issues (which I saw firsthand in the host city, Tianjin), but knowing a bit about their current transactions on the African continent. These transactions are not always in favor of the people native to the lands as well as other human rights issues in China.

Just recently, a classmate of mine from high school was released from prison in China after 4 years all due to a fight a man picked with him that he defended himself in. They knew from the other man admitting that he started it that my classmate was only defending himself, but they did not care. That still does not sit well with me.  I will definitely visit again, as the geographer and historian in me loves the ancient cultural sites and the stories, but cannot be sure about a life there.

BGLL: What other languages do you speak?

Davida: I can speak Mandarin and some French. I was initially going to use my languages to become a teacher in the Detroit Public School system after graduation, due to the loan forgiveness scholarship I was on.

BGLL: How did you learn Mandarin & French? What was it like?

Davida: Keep in mind I was usually the only Black person in my Chinese classes once I was at MSU. My high school was 98% Black, but only 1 other classmate of mine went on to take Chinese after high school and she did not major in it. I was, and still am, a unicorn so to speak.

I am still not sure how I was able to learn both French and Mandarin at the same time. It was a requirement of my program, so we all made it work. At M.L. King High School, the program I chose was called CISC, the Center for International Studies and Commerce. You either chose to take business courses or Mandarin with another language. I chose Mandarin initially because I like Chinese food. I chose French because I didn’t like the Spanish teacher; turns out, she spoke both Spanish & French and decided to switch to French that year. Luckily, she got a better job and left the school, haha. These were the thoughts of a 14-year-old. I continued taking Mandarin in college, because I thought I could go further with it than French, and there was no other subject that I thought I would be willing to study and teach.

BGLL: What did you struggle with the most on your language learning journey?

Davida: My hardest struggle with Mandarin to this day is memorizing characters in order to read and write. Everything is practice, but it is easier to remember pinyin (Romanticized writing with tones noted for English learners to learn characters) than it is to remember characters; there is no alphabet. Each character has a different meaning. So, one small line could make a word mean something completely different, or mean nothing at all. I have yet to overcome this challenge; as stated, it is all practice. Sometimes however, rote memorization takes over and that is not necessarily good.

BGLL: Did you ever feel shy to speak? How did you overcome that?

Davida: I do still feel very shy speaking to Mandarin speakers (and even around people that have no clue what I’m saying). They always tell me my enunciation is good, but sometimes I feel like they are just being nice as “being nice” is something that is a part of their culture. Other times, I feel they mean it because they are surprised that any American has taken the time to learn Mandarin, as it is a difficult language for English speakers to learn and not many will learn it in America.

BGLL: Which of your foreign languages is/are your favorite and why?

Davida: I would say Mandarin but, truthfully, I lost my zeal for it midway through my senior year of college. While I was in China, I was very discouraged by the lack of language we had learned and how they sort of held our hands, in that we always had someone that would speak English to us. While we were there, my class was on the year 3 textbook, but we finished it and started the year 4 textbook as well. Year 4 is as high as MSU teaches. I flipped to the end of the book, and the closing statements from the author stated something along the lines of “we still did not learn enough characters to read an everyday Chinese newspaper”. I spoke to our professor/program director (she had come to China with us) and all she said to do was study. That was so disheartening to me. When we got back home, we started the year 4 book (which as a class, we’d completed half the book while in China) and did not have much more supplemental information after that. The professor my senior year was not helpful, and we actually complained to the dean about her. All of these issues sadly turned me off from Mandarin and China in general. I did not feel right within, going back home to Detroit with lax tools to teach students who already had so much to go against. They didn’t need me adding to that.

I do hope, however, that in me sharing my story, I get the spark back in me to keep going! I spent 9 years studying Mandarin, and while I may be rusty, some things I just will never forget about. It is still deep within me.

BGLL: What are 3 tips you can offer those who are trying to learn another language?

Davida: My first recommendation: do NOT be like me! If you love something, go for it! Mandarin is hard, French was not easy though it is easier than Mandarin because it is a Romance language that much English is borrowed from. But they are BOTH worth learning! You open your mind so much more just from learning how other people think—even on such a basic level as sentence structuring.

Another thing I would recommend, do NOT beat yourself up about it as you’re learning! Americans have a weird reputation abroad—it depends on who you talk to, but many people expect us not to learn any other languages over English. So, when you learn something, go speak it! They will appreciate you trying, and can be open to teaching you too!

Finally, have FUN! Once upon a time, I loved learning both my languages. I had teachers that tried to make it fun for us to learn. If you’re learning on your own, make it fun. There are no grades to be worried about. You can decide what you want to focus on, instead of learning random lessons about how to say “rocket ship” in Mandarin, which would be good if I were working for NASA, but I have yet to use that phrase in any time speaking Mandarin.

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