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Up close in China:
Scarsdale teen’s summer of cultural diplomacy

Abigail Goldstein in China and her homestay sister, Zhu Ren, with the American pancakes they made together.

“What did you do on your summer vacation?” is a familiar refrain for the first week of school. While most students might say they had a job or went to camp, Abigail Goldstein experienced education diplomacy.

The Scarsdale High School senior spent June 18 to Aug. 6 in China on a U.S. Department of State National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship.

Throughout the seven-week program, formal instruction in Mandarin and informal language practice while living with a Chinese family in Shanghai’s Pudong district helped Goldstein boost her Mandarin skills. She also expanded her cultural understanding to the point where she considers herself an ambassador for China and an advocate for cultural exchange.

Goldstein began studying Mandarin in ninth grade at SHS and last fall her teacher, Wenhui Gu, encouraged her to apply for the state department scholarship. She is one of 620 competitively selected American students who received a merit-based scholarship this year to study languages deemed “critical” by the State Department. Those languages are Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish.

The program seeks to increase the number of Americans who can engage with native speakers of critical languages and to “spark a lifelong interest in foreign languages and cultures,” according to a NSLI-Y press release. It also seeks to “develop a corps of young Americans with the skills necessary to advance international dialogue and cross-cultural opportunities in the private, academic and government sectors.”
The two prior summers, Goldstein traveled with the Experiment in International Living, a cultural exchange program that arranged a homestay for her with a family in southern Spain in 2013 and two separate families in China’s rural Shandong Province in 2014.

With the State Department program, Goldstein experienced urban life — six weeks in Pudong, which is Shanghai’s newest district along the Huangpu River, two days in Nanjing and five days in Beijing.

Pudong is Shanghai’s cosmopolitan refuge with good air quality. Her host family has two children ages 7 and 15, who live in an apartment on the 21st floor of a high rise building with their father, a stock trader, and their mother, a homemaker.

The kids are studying English with teachers from Israel, she said. But their main task is to study for the Gao Kao or “tall test,” which is China’s version of the SAT. “College entrance is fair with this test. It levels the field,” Goldstein said. But it also restricts the lifestyle of high school students. “They always have to study — even in summer.” In fact, the American ambassadors sometimes felt they were getting in the way of their peers’ intense studying.

When they did spend time together, the teens engaged in community service, including a project to raise money for a safe water project in Kenya. Goldstein also accompanied her host sister to teach local elementary school children how to paint and helped with their English homework.

Making her way around the city, Goldstein learned that Shanghai is an economically advanced metropolis where many people speak English. “Shanghai is so different from the rest of China,” she said. “In Shanghai they have everything — even the ingredients for s’mores.”

In rural China the previous summer, her encounter was quite different. Traveling more than 13 hours by train from Beijing, she arrived at her temporary home in a Mongolian yurt, a simple, round tentlike shelter on a platform with a wooden entryway. She observed the traditional culture where older women had had their feet bound and every family worked the land for self-sustainable food. “China is such a foreign place; everyone thinks they know it, but really they don’t,” she said.

Aside from China and Spain, Goldstein has traveled to many other countries, including Iceland, Scotland, Croatia, Peru, Italy, and twice to New Zealand. Last year, the Goldstein family hosted a Chinese exchange student visiting Scarsdale through the high school’s World Languages Department.

Goldstein said her mother’s work with Overseas Private Investment Corp. sparked her interest in China. Grace Goldstein, who traveled to China five times to meet with local government officials to bring investors to China, said, “Travel and language are a passion for [Abby] and she hopes to use this in some meaningful way in college and a career.” 

In a conversation with the Inquirer, the teen said she’s not as interested in living abroad as having a job that connects with China; perhaps marketing in the Asian sphere or in agri-development, or, maybe international education or environmental policy.

This year at SHS, Goldstein will continue studying with just six other students in fourth-year level Mandarin, she said, and will take the language in college as well.

Living and talking with her host family this summer boosted her mastery of Mandarin’s distinctive tonality. As the weeks of intensive training progressed, Goldstein said: “I noticed I was saying things I didn’t know that I knew. I was processing and reading things that I didn’t know I know.”

Upon their return, the repatriated NSLI-Y scholars participate in a phone interview to gauge their language ability and to give feedback about the program. “We made pre- and post-trip videos of ourselves speaking Chinese,” Goldstein said. “Everyone improved; it was surprising to watch.”

To keep up the momentum, she and her American and Chinese peers text each other in Chinese characters through WeChat, a free, multiplatform social networking app known as Weixin in China. She also plans to seek out places to practice Mandarin and eat Shanghainese food among the Chinese community in Queens. (Her favorite food is sheng jian, a soup with pan-fried meat dumplings.)

Goldstein said she prefers China’s non-Westernized culture, but she is realistic about her future encounters: “I most likely would be dealing with the people in Shanghai, not the rest of China. ... I spent this summer learning about the New China, which is more important for business and policy.”

Asked about the value of learning Mandarin, Goldstein replied: “Honor and respect are very important in Chinese culture, so if [a non-native speaker] even says ‘hi’ in their language it’s a big deal. If you can speak Chinese you pop out of the field. And it shows you really care.” She added: “Not many Americans who aren’t Chinese can speak Chinese; it’s a difficult language, so whenever you start speaking to them [in Chinese] they are impressed.”

Commenting on restrictions she experienced in China, Goldstein said Facebook was not accessible and the Chinese Google didn’t allow certain controversial things; she couldn’t find a particular music video about North Korea, for example. “It’s not a free place at all,” she said. “Protests are shut down all the time without anyone knowing about it. Banners are forbidden. As a teen you have to get permission for everything … not that things are bad there; it’s just very different and seems bad to us.”

Her Westernized and well-traveled host family are aware of China’s restrictions, but for them “having rules is good because it maintains order,” Goldstein observed. “There are so many people. ... In a subway station or on the Great Wall, for example, you might get stuck [in a crowd] and you need to follow the rules to get by… How else would you keep 3 billion people under control?”

At SHS, Goldstein runs the Bridge Club, which she created two years ago, and is head of the SHS Quizbowl academic trivia competition. And, as a captain of the SHS speech and debate team, she’s eager to add her personal stories or unique perspective to extemporaneous debates: “I’d talk about whether China can reform its economy before it reforms its political system.”

-- Applications for 2016-17 NSLI-Y programs will be available at nsliforyouth.org in the early fall. For information about U.S. Department of State-sponsored exchange programs visit http://exchanges.state.gov.

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