Foreign Language: GPS for My Journey to Global Citizenship

By Pei He, Monterey Institute of International Studies

(This is one of the winning essays of the Many Languages, One World Essay Contest. The purpose of the Many Languages, One World Essay Contest and Global Youth Forum is to highlight the importance of multilingualism as it relates to global citizenship. Students from all over the world submitted thoughtful, insightful essays on the subject, and we appreciate and applaud the efforts of all the students who took the time to share their views on multilingualism.)

Global citizenship is not born, but acquired. It is the willingness to understand the real world, the determination to be part of it and the responsibility to make the world a better place. Different people have their own ways of becoming global citizens. Here is my version of story.

The transition from the local citizenship I was born with to true global citizenship is a long journey. I know its starting point and destination. But I have no idea where I will be and how I can travel in between. Fortunately, I have a proprietary GPS—foreign language, which has led me all the way from an underdeveloped part of China to the center of the global village. English as a foreign language has always been guiding me in my long journey of life. It helps me see the world, become part of it and offer solutions to it.

I.Born local: English led me up the education ladder

I was born in 1990, the end of the 20th century, when many people started to picture what the next century would be like. In China, among the many predictions, here is the most common saying: the most basic survival skills in the 21st century would be English, computer and driving. In retrospect, that is true. But in the 1990s, private cars were not commonplace in China, especially in a third-tier city of western China’s Sichuan Province, where I was born. As for computer skills, people learned about keyboard layout on a paperboard years before they could actually touch a real desktop computer. Back then, English was the only modern skill I had access to.

By the time I got into the primary school, English had already become one of the three dominant subjects in China’s compulsory education, which made English a make-or-break factor in any entrance exam. Like millions of other Chinese teenagers, I worked very hard in learning English just to pass the college entrance examination, because our teachers from primary schools to senior high schools kept motivating us by saying “knowledge is the only way to for you change your life”. In other words, to live a better life, we have to pass exams and go to college. Passing the college entrance examination therefore became the supreme goal of all students. In the exam, English took up the same share as Chinese. Good skills of gap filling, reading and writing in English became musts. However, speaking was left out completely. Even listening tests were not universal nationwide. This is how I, just as many other Chinese teenagers, first learned English in the 1990s. In the first 12 years of my school life, English led me all the way up the education ladder and helped me arrived at the next stop of my life journey—college.

II.Go abroad: English led me to see the world

The moment I was admitted to college, I was thrown into a complete loss. Because everyone around me had told me how important the college entrance examination was, but nobody had ever said a single word about what’s next after the holy exam. Following my heart, I chose my favorite subject, i.e. English, as my concentration of study.

I had always loved public speaking, but sometimes I felt restrained when speaking in Chinese, the carrier of a not so outspoken culture as those in English-speaking countries. As my English speaking skills improved little by little, I found that speaking in English could free me form the awkwardness when I spoke in Chinese and help me think from different cultural erspectives. Gradually I fell in love with English speaking and got engaged in all kinds of English speaking contests. Throughout my four years of undergraduate study, I took part in over 20 English speaking contests in China, sharing my stories and ideas with both Chinese and foreigners and making friends with other English lovers. Surprisingly, I became the national champion of one of the English speaking contests in April, 2011. As a reward, I had a chance to tour around the United States.

The trip, for the first time ever, took me outside of China and showed me a world I had never seen. I was surprised at the vast land inhabited by few people, which could never be though of in the super crowed cities of China. I was spoiled when cars politely stopped waiting for me to cross the street, when China then had the world’s highest mortality rate from traffic accidents every year. I was astounded to see that most college campuses in the States had no gates and fences, which in contrast were common scenes in China. I came to realize that not all countries were like China; the globe was made up of different nations and diverse cultures; and there were gaps to be filled. All those differences helped shape my world view, i.e. a global perspective and respect for differences.

More importantly, the tour started my dream, giving me something I desired to work for from the bottom of my heart and letting me see the next stop in my life trajectory after the holy exam. On August, 13, 2011. I paid a visit to the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Standing in the General Assembly Hall, I was impressed by the solemnity of the venue and the words of the guide “there were times when prolonged international meetings and negotiations had to be concluded because interpreters got off work”. I didn’t know whether that’s true or not. But it was then when I got to know that speaking a foreign language can play a much bigger role than just telling personal stories. There was much more important information to be conveyed, which could bear on the life and death of people in some parts of the world. When I was looking at the booths in the venue, a sense of mission came to me. “Maybe I could one day become one of the invisible persons behind that dark glass and help communication,” I told myself, “interpretation is just the career to pursue”. Taking this dream with me back to China, I applied for a master’s program in interpretation, preparing myself to be part of the global village.

III.Be global: English helped me provide solutions for globalization

When I started my graduate life in Shanghai, I came to realize that the demand for interpretation was not just limited in UN conference halls. It could also be at a local level. In the most open city of China, I saw foreigners and Chinese live harmoniously in the same city but their lives are hardly connected in a real sense, since the language and cultural barriers are still there. Foreign companies need interpreters for their meetings and fieldtrips to factories on one hand; local citizens want to learn new ideas and advanced technologies from outside of China on the other. In a fast developing China, interpretation is needed in Shanghai and many other cities just as in international conferences.

While studying interpretation on campus, I worked as a part-time interpreter to explore what I can do to facilitate cross-cultural communication. I worked in metal product factories, helping American experts train local workers. I also worked on university campuses, interpreting lectures given by Israeli architect, German industrial engineer, New Zealand horticulturist, American musician and Taiwanese Movie director, etc. Without physically leaving Shanghai, I actually felt like travelling around the world to get ideas across. It was English, as a second language, that magically made all of those wonderful experiences both for me and my audiences happen. By interpreting foreign ideas into Chinese, I proudly helped many local citizens better understand the outside world and future leaders draw upon advanced theories and technologies.

But letting Chinese people know the outside world is not enough. Globalization is a two-way street. Fortunately, English enabled me to present China to the outside world, too. As a student delegate from China, I attended the 21st General Meeting of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council in Vancouver, Canada in June, 2013. Together with student delegates form many other Asian-Pacific economies, I luckily had a chance to talk with policy makers of different nations on the sidelines of conferences and made the voice of China’s next generation heard on issues including infrastructure deficit, creativity and innovation, inclusive growth and resilient societies, green growth, and risks to growth in the Asia-Pacific, which bear on the development of the world at large. At a formal meeting, my group, consisting of student delegates from New Zealand, Canada, US, Korea and China presented our policy proposal named “Tech Life Cycles: Closing the Loop” under the theme “Green Growth for Asia Pacific Region” to ambassadors and officials of PECC member economies, in the hope that by closing the loop of the life cycle of electronic products, we will be able to curb environmental pollution and create jobs through new green industries. Our final report is to be submitted to PECC Secretariat and offer reference for current policy makers in months to come. Many among my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were startled by such communication and dialogue between international leaders and students as what I experienced in PECC meetings, which was unimaginable even a decade ago. What made the difference? It’s language. English as the official language for many international meetings made it possible for me to get across the ideas of the younger Chinese generation and make my contribution to globalization.

To be a responsible global citizen and serve globalization is by no means easy. It takes intensive training and long-term accumulation of knowledge to be a qualified interpreter. That’s why I am now in Monterey Institute of International Studies, a tiny campus concentrated in three blocks hosting students from 55 countries. Students are enrolled in different programs ranging from translation and interpretation to nonproliferation and terrorism studies. But we all share the same mission: to be the solution. To realize this goal, we have classes, practice and read extensively. Most student including me, use a foreign language to carry out daily communication. With the assistance of a foreign language, mostly English, meaningful dialogues are made and progress is achieved. In just three month, I am going to graduate and officially start my duty as a global citizen by providing interpretation service to international conferences and offering solutions for cross-cultural communication.

IV. Next Stop: To Be Continued

It has been 18 years since I had first started to learn English, beginning my trip of transition from a local Chinese citizen to a global citizen. In Chinese tradition, the 18th year of a person marks his or her adulthood. In this sense, I will hail my adulthood as a global citizen in this coming May, when I graduate and become part of the global workforce. Looking back, I didn’t have a clear plan when I first started my trip from a third-tier city in the underdeveloped part of China. The only thing clear to me was that I needed to learn English to get to the next stop of my life and I knew I liked it. This foreign language, as my personal GPS, then guided me in my journey over the last 18 years. It led me to see beautiful scenery, experience different lifestyles and learn distinctive cultures. Most importantly, it was through this language that I built my dream, i.e. to be an invisible bridge in cross-cultural communication. As an adult global citizen, I will be using the interpreting skills and techniques I have acquired to make my contribution to globalization in the foreseeable future. I don’t know where I will be ten years from now. But I have nothing to worry about, because I am blessed with a GPS, which always leads to me to a better world, where there is more friendship and less barriers.