The Oberlin Stories Project

On language as a gateway

Brendan Nuse ’17

“I am still a little surprised that a job as a translator of standardized test instructions ended up teaching me about Ohio history, but, then again, my experiences with Chinese at Oberlin have always been enlightening.”

Four students at a scenic overlook

I never expected to find myself on a tour of downtown Wellington, Ohio at 7:45 AM on a Tuesday. However, when the person driving me to my job at the Wellington public schools found out that I had never seen the historic sites of this small northeastern Ohio town, she insisted that I do exactly that. In the course of the next half an hour or so, I was introduced to a small town bursting with history: a pizza place that featured early photos of the town, a church built centuries ago, and even its own history museum. I am still a little surprised that a job as a translator of standardized test instructions that the Oberlin East Asian Studies department recommended me for ended up teaching me about Ohio history, but, then again, my experiences with Chinese at Oberlin have always been enlightening.

The Oberlin East Asian Studies program has also led me to many exciting experiences and discoveries outside of northeast Ohio, though. I had never been outside of the United States until I spent a semester studying abroad in Kunming, China on the recommendation of one of my Oberlin professors. There I not only got to take all of my classes in Chinese and speak Chinese all day, every day (the ultimate dream realized – I had been hoping to have an opportunity like this since sometime in high school), but also watched many, many Chinese romcoms, discovered an interest in anthropology and Chinese ethnic minority policy, and started doing research that would eventually lead to the honors project I am taking on this year. Of course, I also made many friends and memories along the way!

However, the biggest discoveries that the EAS department has led me to are the discoveries I’ve made about myself. When I was first going to Oberlin, I was sure that I wanted to take Chinese, but I doubted that I would be an East Asian Studies major, because I didn’t want to take the non-language courses required for the major. During orientation, I took a placement test for Chinese, but the test results got lost and I ended up having to go in and talk to a Chinese professor one-on-one to get a placement, which was something I considered very scary at the time. After all of that, I still ended up being pretty disappointed with my placement into second year Chinese, which I felt didn’t match up with my many years of Chinese study before college. To my surprise, that second year Chinese class ended up being by far the most challenging course I took that semester, and still stands out as one of the most difficult classes I have taken at Oberlin even going into my senior year of college.

The amount of progress I made that semester was astounding. I am sure that I learned more Chinese in that one semester than I did during my 4 years of high school. I was also surprised by the close relationships my professors cultivated with their students. During my first year at Oberlin, I not only participated in weekly Chinese tables, but also attended a Professor Beers event, at which I watched my Chinese professor easily win a drinking contest with some students. (Since I was under 21, one of my other professors handed me $20 and told to get myself a soda). Chinese became by far my favorite class at Oberlin, and I had no trouble making the decision to declare an East Asian Studies major. I even enjoyed the non-language classes I had been so worried about; some of them, like Chinese Popular Cinema and Public Intellectualism and Literary and Visual Cultures of Protest in Japan ended up expanding my worldview by introducing me to topics I had never considered before. Isn’t an expanded worldview the goal of area studies programs, and, even more so, liberal arts programs in general?

As I prepare for my summer job as a Chinese Resident Educator at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy, it’s easy for me to notice how much the Chinese program at Oberlin has changed my life. Besides improving my Chinese, I’ve improved my public speaking by being an MC for Chinese department events, had dinner with employees from the Chinese embassy, and discovered an intense love for spicy food. The Oberlin Chinese department has brought both my body and mind further than I ever expected I would go.