Why I’m Going to China after I Graduate before Working in Tech

I love bad English signs in China

So I say:

I’m a senior in college studying Computer Science and Chinese.

Then everyone say:

Oh that’s…interesting. Why the f*** are you studying Chinese?

My Journey Learning Chinese

I’ve written before about the rising technological scene in China, but I did not originally choose to study Chinese for pragmatic and economic reasons. In high school, I studied Spanish and German, which as a native English speaker feels like cheating. Something like 40% of words in Spanish are cognates for English speakers.

In college, I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and tackle something that was thoroughly alien to me. I choose Chinese because it was a language that evolved entirely separately from Romance languages, essentially meaning I wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. As a side-benefit I was also learning the official language of the world’s most populous nation, what’s not to love?

This is a picture of my notes from my first day in Chinese class.

From my very first lessons in Chinese, I quickly became more invested in the language than I had expected to be. Before I studied Chinese, I remember thinking that Chinese sounded very harsh. Although, now that I have studied it academically, I know have precise pedagogy to reinforce this belief. The “angry” sound that Chinese often takes on for Westerners is principally due to the 4th tone, which is similar to the drop in pitch that accompanies a American mother’s scolding. It was fairly difficult to get used to the fact that in any given sentence I would have to use the same intonation that has always meant I was angry, to simply express my meaning. To this day, I struggle to really commit to the 4th tone, because I don’t want to sound offensive.

So with this difference in mind, you may find it surprising that I have since discovered that there is a marvelous warmness about speaking Chinese that I’ve truly come to enjoy. The modal particles are wonderful agents for expressing and feeling this warmness. Modal particles are characters used to terminate sentences with a splendidly intricate blend of attitude and declaration of tone (of one’s sentence, not voice). They don’t necessarily express an exact meaning, but rather reframe the sentence in the There are modal particles that are used to express a question, surprise, happy surprise, a positive suggestion, and many more nuanced meanings that haven’t quite made themselves entirely clear to me. At any rate, any regular, boring sentence can easily (and often is) turned into a cute / excited exclamation.

We’ll go to the store…(ugh).

Turns into:

We’re going to the store and we’re excited and happy yay!

Now this is certainly hyperbolic, but I think it does a nice job of illustrating the pleasant feeling that you can communicate with Chinese.

My Progress with Chinese

From my humble beginnings, struggling to even construct the simplest characters, my skills have (thankfully) improved. I am fairly conversational and can skate by in most polite conversations. But, when it comes to truly expressing my feelings on abstract concepts, I falter heavily. I’ve included a letter that I wrote to one of my dear friend’s parents to illustrate both my progress, and how far I have yet to go.

A letter I wrote to my friend’s parents, thanking them for hosting me

For readers that cannot read Chinese: don’t worry that you can’t read this letter. You truly aren’t missing much more than a 2nd grader’s rambling attempts at expressing thanks. My sentence structure is simplistic, and I make many, many grammatical errors. So…I’m going to improve.

In the summer of 2016, I was interning in San Francisco. I walked into an ice cream shop and happened to notice a man using WeChat. So I struck up a conversation with him and after I few minutes of putting my Chinese through it’s paces, I asked if he knew anyone that could help me study Chinese in the mornings before my internship started. He pointed across the room and said, “My wife used to be a kindergarten teacher in China”. So the woman pictured to the right ended up meeting up with me thrice a week in the mornings to tutor me in Chinese for 90 minutes. My Chinese improved and I made a great friend!

Why I’m going back

I want to build companies and products that effect the way that humanity interact with each other. I want to maximize our utilization of existing infrastructure and provide economically sensible choices for consumers to contribute to a future of widespread human collaboration. Businesses are a powerful tool in society, as they create monetary incentives for a very specific behavior. When properly motivated, new businesses and products are tremendous tools for reorganizing the Earth’s economy, so that seems to be the path I want to take forward.

China is a world brimming with possibility, a market that is undergoing remarkable growth at a scale that the Western world troubles fully grasp. I want to place myself in this environment for three reasons:

  1. I want to improve my Chinese
  2. I want to learn about what it takes to run a business in China
  3. I want to improve my familiarity with modern Chinese culture

And I don’t see a better place to do that, other than China itself.