Jonah Lefkoe 2018 Harvard China Fund Summer Grant Reflection

Feb 25, 2019

My mornings in Beijing began with the screamer. He called from the park below my window, beginning promptly at 5:15 each morning. There was a martial tone to his one-second blasts, urgent yet measured like a French police siren. I don’t know if the screamer was disciplined or deranged, but his consistency inspired my work ethic as I studied Chinese at Harvard Beijing Academy this summer.

Soon after the screamer began, my iPhone’s bossa nova alarm added foreign dissonance to the daily choir. An optimistically purpling sky crept through the gap between my curtains. After a crunching roll across my mat, I ran to the far wall and blackened the sky once more. Nude and teetering in place, my eyelids pressed away the glaring light. My ears rang as Nongfu Spring water spilled into my gurgling stomach. After a frigid dousing in the shower, I sat down at my desk, ready to review for that morning’s dictation quiz.

If I achieved any success this summer, it was only because of relationships with and help from others. My most important supporters were my teachers. HBA’s teaching staff included some of the most dynamic, compassionate young people whom I’ve ever met. Despite the pace of 120 new vocabulary words, 30 grammatical structures, an essay, three worksheets, a presentation, and a test each week, the workload felt manageable with my teachers’ endless support.

I have come to believe that living a good life anywhere is about the little relationships—formal and informal—that you form with the people around you. The snack stand proprietor around the corner from Beijing Language and Culture University always flagged me down when he had Coke Zero in stock; the dorm custodians taught me that it takes five insertions of my laundry card into a crack at the front of the machine to start a load; the cafeteria lady made me special orders of jianbing, a savory northern Chinese breakfast wrap, which she knew was my favorite snack. At first, I was barely able to sputter a few words and had trouble with simple tasks like telling a cab driver my destination and buying toothpaste at the market. Yet as I learned more Chinese, I became more able to communicate with the people around me. These transactional relationships became more personal as I learned about my acquaintances’ lives and explained to them why I’d come so far from home.

My most surprising relationship was with Ulaanbaga, an ethnically Mongolian student at Baotou University of Science and Technology in the northern Chinese administrative region of Inner Mongolia. I met Ulaanbaga as part of HBA’s social study project—a week-long trip outside Beijing during which students were expected to study an aspect of Chinese culture through interviews with locals. My project focused on economic development and ethnic minority cultural assimilation. While reflecting on the ways in which ethnic Mongolians preserve their culture as China modernizes and China’s ethnic majority Han culture becomes ubiquitous, Ulaanbaga asked me if I had studied Jewish history. He was surprised to learn that I am Jewish. Jews’ ability to preserve their minority culture and still thrive in secular society, he explained, was a model for Mongolians in China. I was struck that my people’s history had inspired a minority population as far-flung as Inner Mongolia. I will never forget Ulaanbaga and that conversation.

After HBA I feel vindicated in my decision to joint-concentrate in History and East Asian Studies. The more I’ve learned and experienced Chinese language and culture, the more interested I’ve become in the relations between our countries. Because of HBA, I will finish Harvard having taken three years of Chinese, well-positioned to achieve greater fluency and pursue a career in U.S.-China relations. Even if I am never entirely fluent in Chinese, I will achieve proficiency sufficient to form genuine interpersonal bonds with Chinese people from all walks of life, from shopkeepers to businessmen to government officials. Traveling to Beijing has allowed me to advance my Chinese, and lay the groundwork for an impactful career managing the most important geopolitical relationship of my generation.

This blog post was written by Jonah Lefkoe, Harvard College Class of 2019, and recipient of a Harvard China Fund language study grant.