Shen Yiming: My Story of Growth in China

As infinite stars shimmering in a midnight sky, so are the desires of my heart. Yet some stars blaze more brightly than others. What I will tell you, and what most people really want to know, is why I came to China and why I chose to study Chinese.

In 2011, I graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in news-editorial journalism. Finally set free from the education system, I decided to take a gap year and explore the world outside Oklahoma. That summer I went on the bum, backpacking across the United States until I ended up in Oregon on the coast of the Pacific Ocean — the western boundary of North America, that immense, glistening, white crested body of water, beyond which lay new worlds and adventures. It was summertime and the weather was warm and the people friendly. During the daytime I would recycle plastic bottles for pocket change, and I would "couch surf" or sleep outside under bushes at night. Life was carefree until I started running out of money, so I began searching for work. But the US was in the midst of a financial crisis and there were few jobs available, especially in Oregon. Alas, it seemed as though my journey had come to an end; it was time for me turn back and go home. Little did I know, my journey hadn't stopped there at the ocean. Indeed, it had only just begun.

At that moment of uncertainty, I received an email from my friend Caleb Kirby in China. He was a teacher at an international school in Yantai, a developing port city on the coast of the Yellow Sea in eastern China. He said his contract was ending and that he was moving to a local university to become a foreign English teacher. He said there was a good chance that he could get me a job there, too. All I had to do was send an email to a man named" Wallace"— the foreign specialist at Shandong Institute of Business and Technology. So that's what I did. To my astonishment, the next day I received his reply — a contract. This was the great turning point of my journey: I was employed on the other side of the world. Three weeks later I had a newly issued US passport, a Chinese visa and was on a plane taking a 14-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean to China.

I taught English for three school years at SDIBT. When I first arrived in Yantai, I had long oily hair and a scraggly beard, and my skin was tanned from summertime travels. My students affectionately called me "Captain," after Captain Jack Sparrow of the movie series "Pirates of the Caribbean." At the beginning, teaching English seemed a detour from my career path of journalism. Going to China was a risk, an adventure, as it is for any young person leaving America for the first time, full of curiosity and wonder. My plans were ever changing and I was taking opportunities as they presented themselves. But I quickly found that I had more to gain than I had to lose. The language barrier both fascinated and frustrated me. I wanted to communicate with Chinese people in their own language. I wanted to know what their lives were really like. I wanted to make deep and real friendships, not acquaintances built on surface-level conversations of limited language ability. Fortunately, my new circumstances provided a unique opportunity, the key factor, which would open for me the door of Chinese language study.

As a foreign English teacher at the university, I was allowed to attend Chinese language classes. The best thing about the deal was that it was free — I didn't have to pay for anything except textbooks. So I took every chance I could to attend classes and learn this new language. I was part teacher, part student; when I wasn't in class teaching English, I was in class studying Chinese. In December of 2013, after two and a half years of study, I took the HSK 5. To my surprise, I passed the exam by just a few points! My interest in Chinese language had outgrown my desire to teach English, and I decided to pursue a Master of Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages. In the spring of 2014, I applied for a scholarship through the Confucius Institute at the University of Oklahoma to enter the master's program at Communication University of China. OUCI was extremely generous to recommend me to Hanban for the scholarship, despite my still being in Yantai and having never studied at a Confucius Institute — it was the sheer grace of God.

That summer before my graduate studies began, I went home to visit my family in Oklahoma. There, I met a group of Chinese teachers who helped me choose a new Chinese name. I had already chosen the surname "Shen" because it sounds similar to my English Surname, Shinn -— a pronunciation that doesn't exist in Chinese. After a long discussion, the teachers decided on the name "Yiming," which comes from the Chinese proverb, "As soon as the quiet bird sings, it becomes famous." (In fact, they chose this name because they had just met me and were impressed with my whistling.) Blessed with this name, I moved to Beijing to begin a new chapter of my life. Now in my second year of the graduate program at CUC, I've passed the HSK 6 and am just eight months away from defending my thesis, earning my master’s degree and becoming a trained Chinese teacher.

China has taught me to take life as it comes and to seize each opportunity to improve myself. Learning Chinese has opened my mind to new ways of seeing the world, and the past four years have been a time of growth and maturity for both my mind and character. Looking back, these have been the most exciting, challenging and rewarding years of my youth. Having become both fluent and literate in one of the most challenging languages, I am facing a future of untold possibilities — of fortunes and failures. What I've learned about dreams is that they are malleable, not set in stone; beacons of light to point you in a general direction, but not to guide your every step. The dream I conceived as a boy might not be the same dream I will realize as a man, and achieving one dream instead of another may not bring me greater happiness. After all I’m a man who likes taking detours, the backstreets, the road less travelled. Each turn I take in the winding path of life leads to another pasture, valley or hilltop. And I want to experience them all.


A Message from Academic Advisor:

I served as academic advisor for Shen Yiming (USA), a Master of Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages. In his four years in China, he beautifully completed the transition from English instructor to Master of Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages. His talent with music made his original Chinese language song “Liu Xue Zai Zhong Chuan” (Studying Abroad at Communication University of China) a hit around campus. His China dream, as far as I know, is to learn as much about Chinese and Chinese culture as he can, and become a facilitator of Sino-American cultural exchange.

- Academic Advisor: Yue Qi

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