Major turning points in a person’s life often come with little warning, and little indication of how they’ll change the course of their future. It was over dinner at a P.F. Chang’s that Mark Cicchini’s father told him their family was moving to China, a setting which he thought would be ironic. Just beginning middle school, Mark disagreed. He had no way of predicting, sitting shocked and upset in the Chinese restaurant, how that move would drastically shape the direction of his future. Mark is now a senior at Michigan State, pursuing a double major in Chinese and Hospitality Business. While it wasn’t an easy transition, it was the move to China which was the first inspiration for his choice of major, studies abroad, and career path.
Mark admits that he was unsure what to make of the move at first– the experience of the first six months was a huge culture shock to his family, and even seemingly small changes, like the drastically different food, presented a challenge. At a young age, he wasn’t motivated to learn the language– like most middle schoolers, he wanted to play video games, not study verb conjugations. However, as he adjusted to the shock, Mark began to fall in love with the culture and the language that would surround him for the next four years. Upon returning to the United States in high school, that appreciation didn’t stop– and he didn’t want to stop learning. But his high school didn’t offer Chinese, and he experienced firsthand how easy it is to lose language abilities when you don’t have opportunities to speak it.
Starting at Michigan State was almost like a new beginning then: armed with his passion for the language and culture despite some deterioration in his skills, he enrolled in beginner level Chinese classes. The change in pace from his Chinese classes abroad was frustratingly slow at times; however, he continued moving up, and it wasn’t long before he had the opportunity to return to China through two separate, two-month study abroad trips. Both programs were language and culture intensive, meaning long days of studying the language, followed by classes in calligraphy, Tai Chi, field trips, and other cultural experiences. During his second trip, to the Northeastern city of Harbin, he spent several weekends with a host family who welcomed him into their family, even teaching him how to make dumplings the proper way. Mark and his host family had great regard for one another, and the family was most excited by Mark’s ability to speak with them in proficient Chinese.
Even at an advanced speaking level however, mistakes continue to happen. When asked about his most embarrassing moment speaking Chinese, he chuckled, “I’ve had quite a lot.” He recalled an incident from his last trip abroad, when he was having a conversation in Chinese with a vendor in a grocery store, and mispronounced the word “parents.” Overhearing the mistake, a stranger approached to first correct, then reprimand him loudly in front of the store: “You should study harder!” Despite the embarrassment, it was his ability to take these experiences lightly, and even use them as teaching moments, which made these positive, rather than negative, memories– or at least, which allows him to laugh while retelling them.
Mark’s plans after graduation aren’t set in stone, save one fact: he knows that they involve a move to China. Whether that means attending graduate school at Peking University in Beijing, or getting an internship at Shanghai Disney, his love for the country and desire to live there is certain. While he’s still at Michigan State, he finds ways to use the language whenever possible: in particular, he appreciates how it allows him to connect with international students. Mark observed a sort of division between the international and domestic students, one which he found unnecessary. The ability to speak with a fellow student in his or her native language is something he’s found to be a powerful chance to start friendships.
The experience which stands out the most when listening to Mark tell his story is that of personal transformation. From the nervous kid who wasn’t motivated to leave his home or learn Chinese, Mark grew into a confident learner and communicator, looking for as many opportunities as possible to practice the language and become immersed in the culture. He discovered his passion in Chinese, and whether or not it’s expected, such discoveries inevitably lead to growth. While Mark’s journey with learning Chinese wasn’t a smooth one, it’s been continuing ever since that night at P.F. Chang’s, proving that while learning a language has its fair share of frustration and embarrassing moments, the experiences of personal transformation and making new connections are the ones which last.
– Story by Katherine Stark