Caitlyn Carpio is an alumna of the 2016 CLS Chinese Program in Suzhou, China. She is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pursuing a B.A. in global studies (Asia and international politics) and minoring in Chinese. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a fellowship to further study or work in China so that she can gain a deeper global perspective and understanding of Chinese culture, language, and business. Caitlyn is actively involved as a resident advisor on her campus and as a member of the 2017 Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit Executive Team. When she’s not in class, working, or studying at the undergraduate library, she enjoys watching UNC basketball, devouring cake pops, and traveling with friends and family.
Although I had never studied Chinese before high school, I had a number of Chinese friends in elementary and middle school and had always wanted to learn more about Chinese culture and language. As a musician and visual learner, I was attracted to Chinese due to its tonal and visual attributes. While I knew that learning Mandarin would be difficult, I really wanted to challenge myself. Thus, when I found out my high school offered Mandarin, I eagerly signed up. Since then, my motivation to continue pursuing Chinese has become much more personal; I have seen firsthand how my knowledge of the language has unlocked incredibly meaningful relationships and connections.
Visiting China for the First Time
Before the CLS Program, I had been learning Chinese language, politics and culture, but had never actually traveled to China. It wasn’t until I landed that I learned studying abroad would not only improve my language and cultural knowledge, but would also challenge me in ways I had never been tested before. My experience on the CLS Program expanded my worldview, grew my sense of empathy and understanding exponentially, increased my confidence, and unlocked a myriad of meaningful relationships with peers and Chinese individuals.
Furthermore, the human connections I made in Suzhou have given me even more motivation to continue studying Mandarin and learning as much as I can. Living with a host family for two months, getting to meet their numerous family members and friends, and meeting with a Chinese language partner for at least an hour every day, gave me amazing opportunities to gain insight into the lives of my Chinese counterparts, as well as the chance to share my insights about life in America. I built long-lasting friendships, gained unforgettable memories, and learned how to serve as a cultural ambassador.
Finding a Little Sister
One of the sweetest and most impactful relationships I developed was with my host family. As the youngest of four, I had always wanted a younger sibling but it didn’t come to fruition until this summer when I met my 12-year-old host sister. She worked tirelessly to improve my tones and answer my numerous questions, quickly gaining the nickname “Teacher Wang” in the house. She joined me for nightly walks around the neighborhood, spontaneously started hula-hoop competitions in our living room, and helped me practice calligraphy on the weekends, turning her room into a museum for our masterpieces.
Once, early on in the program, she asked me what my favorite beverage in the U.S. was. I explained to her my love for hot chocolate, and she surprised me after I got home from class the next day with a pot of hot chocolate waiting on the stove for me. I was shocked and choked up to find that my host little sister had gone out of her way to research online and pick up ingredients from the grocery store by herself just to make my day and make me feel more comfortable.
Although I was anxious about living with a host family before I left for China, I was blessed to have a host family that truly provided a home away from home, were my ultimate cheerleaders and challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone. They helped me learn to leave my pride at the door, and that I could only grow my language skills if I allowed myself to make mistakes, be corrected, and to ask for help if I needed it.
Personal Growth and Building Relationships
Mandarin can be intimidating at first glance, and I still find many of its aspects challenging today, but learning it is an extremely meaningful and important endeavor. Studying Mandarin is not only an opportunity for great academic growth, but rich personal growth and is incredibly relevant, no matter what your major is, due to the increasing interconnectedness of the world. I think learning about other people’s cultures and ways of life is essential to cultivate mutual understanding and empathy, and gaining proficiency in Mandarin is a key to connecting with over 14% of the world’s population.