Abena Amoakuh is an alumna of the 2016 CLS Chinese program in Dalian, China. She is a recent graduate of Boston University and will begin working toward a Master of Public Health at The George Washington University in fall of 2017, specializing in global health epidemiology. The oldest of three siblings, Abena is a first generation American and grew up in a Ghanaian household in Atlanta, Georgia. When she’s not studying, Abena enjoys watching movies and TV shows on Netflix (preferably binging them), cooking, travelling, and playing the viola.

Why Chinese?

I started studying Chinese in order to fulfill a university language requirement. Since I was studying international management, I thought it would be the most useful language to study as it is considered a “business language.” I continued to study Chinese beyond the requirement because although it is an incredibly challenging language, it is really fun to learn once you get a hang of the basics. Studying Chinese also opened the door for me to immerse myself in Chinese culture and continue to advocate for U.S.-Chinese relations in my everyday life.

Making Progress

When I arrived in Dalian for CLS I was probably the weakest Chinese speaker in the group. I was so nervous to meet my host family and language partner and could not for the life of me put together proper sentences in Chinese or understand what anyone was saying. For example, my host mom kept saying Rìběn (日本 -Japan) and I was so confused why she kept talking about Japan. It wasn’t until about my second week living with them that I realized they had lived in Japan for four years, and that my host sisters were born there. Just before I returned to the States, my host mom commented on how much my Chinese had improved and my 7 year-old host sister chimed in and said, “Yeah, because we didn’t understand anything you said when you first got here!” We all thought it was hilarious, and I really appreciated that they recognized my efforts and helped me so much throughout the summer.

Keeping an Open Mind

Being a black woman in China is quite a unique experience. There is a lot of staring, touching, and picture taking because Chinese people have had limited interactions with black Americans. Some people can’t fathom the idea of black people identifying as American and not African. Some days were harder than others, but I made sure to take it in stride and find the humor in the awkward or uncomfortable situations I found myself in.  In the end, being there gave me the opportunity to break barriers and reduce misconceptions within the Chinese community I was living in.

Future Plans for Chinese

This fall I will begin my graduate studies in global health, and I hope that I can work to bridge the gap between nations and contribute to improving health access across the world in some way. I am interested in learning more about China’s health system (how it functions and the key players and institutions). Many of the programs to which I have been admitted require that you complete field research, and I plan to complete mine in China. My Chinese speaking ability will be a huge advantage, and returning to China will also be a great opportunity to further expand my language ability. 

Words of Wisdom

Don’t get me wrong – Chinese is hard language to learn. It can be incredibly frustrating some days, but more than anything studying Chinese is incredibly rewarding. It’s a unique and beautiful language with an incredible history of its own. For me learning Chinese language opened the door for me to learn more about Chinese culture, history, and traditions.