Name: Catharine Crandall
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Chinese name: 柯思琳 / 小猫
China experience: Studied at Minzu University from June to December 2013.
Where I’ve traveled in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Datong, Xi’an and Chengde.
Fun fact: When I was in fifth grade I wrote, directed, composed and starred in my own musical.
大家好, my name is Cat Crandall, 柯思琳 (kē sī lín) or 小猫. I’m from Brooklyn, born and raised, and have studied Chinese since I was 13 years old.
My interest in China began when I was very young. I spent my preschool through middle school years at a very small Montessori school in Brooklyn, unofficially regarded as the international school within my community.
My classroom was filled with children who spoke different languages and hailed from nations such as Denmark, France or even China. Educational exchanges were initiated by way of shadow puppet performances and dumpling-making classes. This allowed us a glimpse into China and some superficial aspects of its culture, but I always wanted more.
Living in New York, I saw Chinese characters everywhere: painted on buildings, plastered on trucks and printed in the newspapers distributed on Canal street. I heard snippets of Mandarin on the bus, in the supermarket and outside school.
It frustrated me to be presented so frequently with something I could not understand. Spanish I could make out, and even the most heavily accented English was easy. But Chinese felt so impossibly unfamiliar, yet so close at the same time. To truly understand not just the language, but also the culture and people, I would have to go to China. But before that, I realized I would probably have to learn Chinese.
When I got to high school I enrolled in my school’s Chinese program, which put me on the path to a deeper understanding of the subtleties of Chinese culture, and the importance of the U.S.-China relationship.
My struggle—I would even call it a battle—with the Chinese language has been one of my largest challenges to date, both inside the classroom and out. From tones to characters and grammar to etiquette, internalizing the language has not been easy. Hours spent slaving away over a character set, only to forget them the next day would bring me to tears. I was timid in the classroom, afraid to make a mistake, which only frustrated and infuriated my teachers.
Despite living in a city with three “Chinatowns,” it came as a surprise that I was interested in studying such a “foreign” language.
Just when I was ready to quit after my first year of Chinese, I decided to take part in a language camp in Beijing for four weeks in 2008, just before the Olympic Games. When I arrived, the developing nation struggling to catch up with the Western world I expected was nowhere to be found. I saw an international superpower whose citizens were aware of the importance of the U.S.-China relationship much more so than their American counterparts. Just when I was beginning to grasp this, I had to go home and carry on with high school. Thus, the real breakthroughs didn’t come until last year when I came to Beijing for six months.
A LIFE-CHANGING TRIP TO BEIJING
Studying Chinese in the U.S. always felt like a novelty. Despite living in a sprawling city with not one but three separate “Chinatowns,” it came as a surprise to nearly everyone I met that I was interested in studying such a “foreign” language. By the time I decided to make the move to Beijing in 2013, however, even the most sheltered were coming to understand the growing impact of China and the Chinese language on the United States. Instead of skeptical looks, my academic aspirations were met with praise.
At this point I assumed that my trip to Beijing, years of studying Mandarin and a 100-level Chinese History course had made me a China expert. I thought I understood the nuances of Chinese culture and the nature of the U.S.-China relationship. I was wrong.
Through living in Beijing and interacting with the community, I began to discover the array of misconceptions that Americans had about the Chinese, and that the Chinese had about Americans. Why was it shocking to both my Chinese friends and myself that we had so much in common? The concept that we would have overlapping interests and opinions felt groundbreaking when it shouldn’t have.
The concept that we would have overlapping interests and opinions felt groundbreaking when it shouldn’t have.
For both parties, this was probably a result of having been raised in a political climate where cultural differences were criticized and emphasized while similarities were largely ignored. Regardless of my parents’ dedication to exposing their children to a variety of perspectives, the fact remains that many people are not yet taking the right approach to the U.S.-China relationship. The effects of this reality can be difficult to avoid, but luckily it is an issue that individuals, organizations and agencies have begun to tackle, including the Golden Bridges Foundation and Project Pengyou.
Like my initial foray with China in elementary school, my most recent trip to Beijing, while proving to be truly unforgettable, only left me wanting more. Dumpling classes, language camp, years of studying Mandarin and even a six-month stint living in China have not even scratched the surface.
PATH TO PROJECT PENGYOU
It is these experiences that have motivated me to pursue a future that involves China and public service. I think joining the Project Pengyou team will be the perfect start. I am excited to gain experience working for a nonprofit organization, not to mention one that deals specifically with issues relevant to my academic past and recent experience. I’m looking forward to learning more about working in the public sector, the intricacies of the U.S.-China relationship and how to constructively break down cultural barriers to make way for a more productive future.