I Learned to Speak Chinese at a Summer Camp in Minnesota

Devin Nickell, Community Engagement Manager for Project Pengyou/Golden Bridges, reflects on her time spent as a counselor at Senlinhu, a Mandarin immersion camp in Northern Minnesota and how it shaped her language learning.



My first time experiencing culture shock was actually not in China, but in Bemidji, MN.

Callaway, MN, the home of the Chinese language village, Senlinhu

The summer before my first semester abroad in China was spent in a tiny town in northern Minnesota as a camp counselor at the Chinese language immersion camp, Senlinhu (森林湖). Although I had taken Chinese for two years in college at that point and done well in my class, fluency of any kind still seemed far from my grasp. At first, I was shocked to be away from home and completely out of my depth linguistically.

The first meeting during staff orientation was held in Chinese, and I sat in humiliated confusion beside my new coworkers feeling extremely left out and like a failure. Luckily Yinglu Wang (Lulu), a bubbly older-sister type from Sichuan, took me aside after seeing me struggle and told me “it’s ok, we’re going to work through this together. I’ll help you!”

I started carrying around a small notebook to write down everyday words and phrases I had picked up in conversation but didn’t quite understand. At the end of each day, I went through the notebook with Lulu and the other counselors, who helped explain them to me the best they could. During meals, I was seated next to (non-English speaking) Lao Peng, who pretty much became my Chinese grandpa. He anticipated the mistakes I would make and was extremely patient and gentle correcting me. Soon, I found myself armed with budding conversational skills I had never dreamed possible and by the end of the summer when I looked back at the little notebook I realized it was filled with words that I now knew!

Having some fun at the lakefront.

The friendships I made with the other counselors, staff, and villagers who came from all parts of the world to this little haven of Chinese in Minnesota are lasting and unforgettable. The Chinese language village is part of a larger network in the Concordia Language Villages, and the organization’s mission of preparing kids to be informed and empathetic global citizens is imbued in the camp culture. Traditional American summer camp experiences of singing around a campfire, learning arts and crafts and outdoor activities, and cozy late night chats in our cabins all happened in Chinese. The community created at Senlinhu is truly a suspension of two worlds, and the feeling of camaraderie is especially rare and tangible because of it.

I went to Senlinhu originally hoping to improve my Chinese, but I left with so much more. My Chinese may have improved that summer, but the real treasure I gained from working at the villages was the experience of creating a community where Americans and Chinese alike could learn about each other and share a new perspective on the world. Before my time at Senlinhu, Chinese had seemed so daunting, but after spending a summer in such a supportive and cross-cultural community, I found the confidence to continue studying it.

For any Pengyous who are thinking about what kind of China-related job to look for over the summer, Senlinhu is definitely an unforgettable experience worth considering, and I welcome any questions you have about life at the Villages!