It was like living in a postcard.
Majestic mountains embraced the electric skyline. Small waves rippled across the seashore. Friendly locals greeted her with a smile.
When Andrea Dahl closes her eyes, precious moments from her six weeks in Zhuhai, a sprawling Chinese metropolis, come back with vivid clarity.
The Olathe North High School junior recently returned from China after being awarded a highly competitive scholarship as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. She was one of 620 students from across the United States to be selected for the honor, which allows recipients to study Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian or Turkish overseas during the summer.
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While in Zhuhai, Andrea stayed with a host family, attended language and cultural classes and went sightseeing.
“It was a dream come true,” said Andrea. “I learned a lot more than Chinese.”
Going to China wasn’t just an adventure for the 16-year-old. It was a chance to discover her heritage.
Being half-Chinese, Andrea always longed to visit the country of her ancestors.
Growing up, she learned the Chinese language by talking with her mother, who was born in Taiwan. But she wanted to sharpen her reading and writing skills. Plus, she wanted to discover the culture.
Andrea learned about the scholarship from her older brother, Ryan, who was awarded it three years ago.
When she followed in his footsteps, her family was thrilled.
“I knew going to China was the missing link for Andrea to learn the language,” said her mother, Angela Dahl. “It’s difficult to learn Chinese when you’re not there. She just needed that leap to the next level.”
During her six weeks in China, Andrea spoke the country’s native tongue the entire time. She also attended classes at a university, where she and the other scholarship students practiced speaking to each other, interacted with college students and learned to write Chinese characters. They studied Chinese games, such as shuttlecock and yoyo, and learned about ancient Chinese clothing and instruments.
Andrea’s host family was also helpful. Her host sister — a 13-year-old named Xiao Tong Sun — took her to Chinese dance classes and taught her how to converse casually.
To celebrate Andrea’s 16th birthday in July, her host family taught her how to make dumplings and they threw her a party. Her host mother even gave her a traditional Chinese dress.
“They treated her like their own daughter, which, as a mother, was comforting to hear,” Angela Dahl said. “I was relieved to know she was in such good care.”
But just because the Overland Park teenager spent a lot of time with her host family, it doesn’t mean she was coddled.
“I took the bus by myself a lot and got lost more than a few times before I got the hang of it,” Andrea said. “Having that kind of independence gave me confidence. If I can navigate in a city where I don’t completely know the language, then I can do anything in Kansas.”
In addition to learning about the country, she also got to introduce her host family to her other passion: science.
This past year, Andrea’s science project about climate change earned several distinctions.
It won the Grand Award at the Kansas City Science Fair. She also won third place in animal sciences at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May. While in China, she learned she was selected as a regional finalist in the Google Science Fair.
“I explained my entire science project to my host family in Chinese,” Andrea said. “I was sweating by the end of it. That was a huge accomplishment for me.”
Now that she’s back home, Andrea knows maintaining her much-improved Chinese language skills will be a lot of hard work.
But she’s going to try. She plans to study the literature she brought back from her trip and she frequently texts and e-mails her host sister in Chinese.
She hopes to take Chinese classes in college and use her bilingual skills to her advantage when job-searching one day.
Oh, and she definitely wants to visit the country again.
“I loved being thrown into their everyday world, but when I go back to China next time, I want to do it as a tourist,” said Andrea. “I still haven’t seen the Great Wall.”