Chinese is a Beautiful Language!
The odyssey of UCLA student Abdoulaye N'Gom
Why learn a foreign language? For some students, it is merely a question of satisfying the requirements for a degree. For others -- often called "heritage students" -- it is a question of mastering the language of their forebears, a language the student may have learned to speak at home, but did not learn to read, or only to read a little. For still others, it is a way to connect with foreign peoples and foreign cultures, a way to break out of the confines of the culture one has inherited, a way to become truly a global citizen.
On their way to acquiring a foreign language as an entrée to a foreign culture, students often discover that what at first blush appeared foreign turns out to be in many ways unexpectedly familiar and comfortable. Through studying the particularism of a foreign culture, they begin to experience, and appreciate, the univeralism of global human culture.
The story below chronicles one student’s journey to universalism, a journey in which learning Chinese has been an important vehicle. Students of Chinese typically describe the language as "difficult" or "really difficult." While not denying the difficulty of Chinese -- especially written Chinese -- this student also describes it as "beautiful." This student’s conclusion that Chinese is beautiful is based on a combination of the inherent characteristics of the language and the student’s unexpected -- even "amazing," as he puts it -- experience in China.
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From Dakar, Senegal -- the hometown of UCLA student Abdoulaye N’Gom -- to Beijing, China, where Mr. N’Gom studied Chinese at Qinghua University in the summer of 2001 on a scholarship from the Freeman Foundation, is plenty far: around 7,600 miles, about the distance from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia. A direct flight, if there were such a thing, could traverse the distance in about fourteen hours. But figuratively speaking, the journey for Mr. N’Gom was much farther, and took much longer. In fact, one could say Mr. N’Gom traveled the equivalent of 50,000 miles, with stops for intellectual and spiritual sustenance along the way. And one could also say his journey took most of his life.
How is it that Abdoulaye N’Gom came to make this remarkable journey?
A Love for Words
As a child, Abdoulaye N’Gom picked up discarded foreign-language newspapers from the streets of Dakar, took them home, and read them -- aloud. Abdoulaye did not know the meaning of the words he recited, nor their correct pronunciation, but he loved to hear the sounds and he loved to hear himself enunciate them. Neighbors, hearing Abdoulaye N’Gom’s recitations and taking them to be nothing more than gibberish, said to his mother: "You’d better take little Abdoulaye to the marabout [spiritual healer]: He’s crazy." But, fortunately, Abdoulaye "studied" not to win the approval of others, but to satisfy his inner craving.
Despite his young age, Abdoulaye seemed to intuitively understand that facility in foreign languages is like a magical key that opens doors to the vast panorama of cultures across the globe. And he also seemed to understand that mastery of a foreign language is not something to be accomplished by locking oneself in an ivory tower, surrounded by dry, lifeless books, but is be achieved physically: by personally experiencing language in the place and culture where it is spoken.
At first, Abdoulaye could not physically get much closer to foreign cultures than by going to the airport at Dakar with his friends, to play a game: To listen to foreign tourists and try to guess what languages were being spoken. Identifying English and French (the medium of instruction in Senegal) was easy for all the children. But only Abdoulaye was able to identify such truly "foreign" languages as Finnish, Italian, and Chinese.
At the age of thirteen, Abdoulaye could no longer contain his drive to physically get into foreign cultures, and with two of his friends, ran away from home with the vague idea of traveling to France. The boys took a train northward, across Senegal into Mauritania. There they arrived, penniless and hungry. Fortunately, the local French consul was kind and sympathetic, and provided the boys with tickets back to Dakar. For Abdoulaye, this little adventure was to pave the way for much greater adventures abroad.
A Love for Acting
As a student in Dakar, Abdoulaye N’Gom excelled at recitation -- especially of poetry -- an important component of French-influenced pedagogy. He found he enjoyed performing before his classmates. Out of class, at soccer games, he often pretended he was an announcer, describing the play-by-play action. His friends declared, "Abdoulaye, you should be a comédien!" The French word comédien might best be translated as "actor." And that indeed is what Abdoulaye decided to do: to become, in his words, an artiste.
In 1968, Abdoulaye traveled to France to learn the craft of acting. He settled first in the small town on Vernon, where he took acting classes on the weekend and supported himself by working in a factory during the week. At the end of the first year, as part of the final examination, students were required to present a small dramatic performance. Upon the completion of Abdoulaye’s exam, a gentleman in the jury said to him, "You have a flair for the dramatic. You should go to Paris to continue your studies." Following this good advice, Abdoulaye moved to Paris and enrolled at the Conservatoire nationale d'art dramatique de Paris, and then joined a little theater group consisting of a few African students who specialized in performing plays by African authors. Abdoulaye supported himself by washing dishes, coat checking, and other odd jobs.
Abdoulaye found himself influenced by the cinema, especially by American film. He was drawn to Westerns and gangster films for their good guy vs. bad guy themes, and to such films as Woodstock (1970) for their African American music, and especially to the films of Sydney Poitier, for their sensitive and incisive portraits of character and personality. Abdoulaye began to recognize that the horizon for black actors in France was constricted: that Africans were always considered outsiders, exotic "others." Saying to himself, "Maybe I’m in the wrong country," Abdoulaye began to save for a trip to America.
In the summer of 1973 Abdoulaye departed for America. His friends saw him off with the words "Abdoulaye, you’re crazy. You don’t even speak English!"
Abdoulaye had been given the address of a hotel in Harlem by an American jazz musician in Paris, so that is where his American experience started. With a Senegalese friend he then moved to East St. Louis and joined the troupe of dancer Kathryn Dunham, where he read French poems as part of performances, and then traveled with a friend to the San Francisco area. There he took private drama lessons, and later applied to enter the College of Marin, known for its excellent theater department. The entrance exam required an audition, which Abdoulaye passed with a reading from Oedipus Rex, although he still spoke virtually no English. In the next two years, Abdoulaye performed in plays at the College of Marin, with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and with the Black Workshop also in San Francisco. Abdoulaye learned English through the scripts. He rehearsed by going to the seaside and reading his lines. As he puts it, “the waves were my audience.”
Learning that casting was to be done for the TV film Roots: The Next Generations, he traveled to Los Angeles and won a part. For roughly the next decade, Abdoulaye “did the rounds” as he says, performing on Broadway, off Broadway, in London with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, and in the Berkeley Shakespeare festival, and then getting what he calls "a big break": a part in the play Death and the King’s Horsemen, by the Nobel-prize winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, at Lincoln Center. This was followed by a part in the movie The Super (1991), his first role in a movie. Back in Los Angeles, in 1996 Abdoulaye entered Los Angeles City College to continue his formal education. At LACC he began to study Chinese, although he says at first he did not much appreciate it. In 1998, he entered UCLA, from which he graduated in 2001, with a major in Italian. He then became a graduate student at UCLA, also in Italian.
Why Italian? Because he fell in love with the neo-realism of Italian cinema in the years following World War II, exemplified by such classic movies as The Bicycle Thief (1949) and Open City (1945). In such cinema, Abdoulaye found “the acting penetrated to such depths that it was beyond acting: it was real.” As Abdoulaye says, “By knowing the language, I felt I could reach the heart of this great art.”
Africa in China
While majoring in Italian, Abdoulaye N’Gom continued to study Chinese. This led to a part in an episode in the TV series Dharma and Greg, where Abdoulaye played an African college professor who speaks both English and Chinese. It also led to an opportunity to take an intensive summer language course at the Inter-University Program, which is cosponsored by UCLA, at Qinghua University in Beijing.
The instruction at the Inter-University Program has the reputation of being the best offered by any such program. Among the sponsors of the program are virtually all the top research universities of the United States. The instruction is rigorous, with hours of tutorials in classes consisting of two or three students. Each night, Abdoulaye reports, he studied at his desk in his room until he could no longer sit up, then he dragged his books to bed with him, to continue studying until overcome by sleep.
On weekends, the students understandably sought respite, a chance to unwind and speak English with their fellow students. But Abdoulaye found his relaxation in other ways. He got on his bike, and rode off into Beijing, to meet the people of Beijing head on, so to speak. He went to places where people congregate to chat -- cobblers, supermarkets, bike repair shops, and the like -- and chatted with them. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was amazed by what he found.
"Above all the languages I speak," Abdoudayle has said, "Mandarin Chinese is the one that has reconnected me with my cultural roots in a fascinating way. Through this language I have rediscovered a sense of familiarity via Chinese cuisine, which tastes like my mother’s cooking. Also I saw in Beijing a strong sense of family, a reverence for elders, a sense of sharing, and the art of using the products of nature as a means of healing -- just like in Africa. When I visited Beijing . . . I met a student from central Africa attending Qinghua University. I told him that although I had been in Beijing for only a few weeks, I was amazed that the ways of life and living in general reminded me so much of Africa. He responded: 'You have no idea, my brother. I’m a medical student who has been living here for two years, and everyday I feel like I’m in an African country.'"
Abdoulaye relates that on summer evenings in Beijing, people come out of doors, to sit and chat, to play games, to have a snack -- boiled peanuts is popular, just as in Senegal. All of this is, Abdoulaye says, just what one sees in African towns and cities. Moreover, Abdoulaye -- going by the Chinese name An Guoyi -- found himself warmly and sincerely welcomed by the people of Beijing. There have been stories in past years of racism in China, particularly directed against Africans. Abdoulaye says he saw none of that. On the contrary, people welcomed him into their homes and establishments, and when his studies were finished and it was time to return home, Abdoulaye says his new Chinese friends -- the simple people of Beijing -- pleaded, "Please don’t go. Stay here. You belong here."
Abdoulaye N’Gom’s summer in Beijing was a life-transforming experience. He believes that indeed he does belong in China. He is writing a screenplay based on his experience in Beijing, and believes that his calling as an actor will bring him back to China, not this time as a visitor, but as an artiste, to live and work in a culture that might forever have remained "foreign" to him had he not decided to learn the Chinese language.
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Abdoulaye N'Gom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about him is available at www.lacasting.com/TalentShowcase.asp?TALENTID=164461