"Good evening, everyone. It's a great pleasure for me to join you here to enjoy this traditional Chinese cultural feast," Charlie Hoffs, a Stanford University freshman, said in fluent Chinese when speaking at a Confucius Institute Day celebration here this weekend.
More than 600 people from state and local schools in the San Francisco area, as well as Confucius classrooms and teaching sites across northern California, enjoyed the event's Chinese cultural performances, which included the dance Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger, a group performance of A Moonlit Night on the Spring River and the duet The Moon is High in the Sky.
Earning rounds of applause, the performance - which was held at the McKenna Theater at San Francisco State University to celebrate the annual Global Confucius Institute Day－was co-hosted by Hoffs and Kaylee Doty, a senior at the Confucius Classroom of Western Sierra Collegiate Academy in Sacramento.
The two women from the US defeated 106 teams from 96 countries, to become the international victors of the 2017 Chinese Bridge International Language Competition. In an interview with Xinhua News Agency, the pair said their passion and perseverance in learning the Chinese language helped them stand out.
Hoffs, who chose Jiang Mingxi as her Chinese name, said she became fascinated by the language eight years ago.
Starting with art
"I found a Mandarin book when I was 10," she said. "The characters in the book seemed to be flowers side by side. Since I love drawing flowers, I began to draw those characters. That started my romance with Chinese."
"Then I increasingly realized the language's importance in the economy and tourism," she said.
China has almost one-fifth of the world's population, so it's important to communicate with the Chinese people on an intimate level, she added. "China is also increasingly a rising power and is capable of navigating the business world. Speaking Chinese is a vital skill."
Her remarks resonated with a couple of parents and teachers who came to watch the performance. A mother of an 8-year-old girl, surnamed Zhang, said that she drove three hours from Chico, in northern California, so that her daughter could enjoy genuine Chinese culture.
Zhang, who came to the United States 20 years ago, said bilingual learning can help children's brain development.
Even more important, Zhang said, learning Chinese has helped her daughter connect to her extended family back in China.
"We go back to China every year. My daughter blends right in. It is very important for her future," Zhang said.
David P. Wong, assistant superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, also said Chinese learning was a gift given by Chinese-American parents to their children, and they can use it to learn more about the Chinese culture.
"With language programs and cultural programs working in conjunction with the Confucius Institute, they can have a better understanding of their roots. That builds a very strong relationship," he said. Doty and Hoffs' Chinese teacher, Gao Chen Qiumin, told Xinhua, "We have more students coming from white families and there is still a long candidate list waiting to be enrolled into our school.""I have taught Mandarin for more than 20 years and watched the number of students grow from 50 to more than 300 in my district," Gao added.
Cool, unique skill
Learning Chinese is growing popular in the United States, Doty said. She was pleasantly surprised to find in the Chinese Bridge competition that many people her age were learning Chinese, with many of them speaking more fluently than she does.
"Although it is difficult with some of the grammar structures because it is very different from English, it is really worth it and you can use it a lot in the world," said Doty, whose Chinese name is Huang Qiuyue.
Hoffs shared her opinion. "Many people have recognized that we should have got on this train earlier.... It is still a rather unique skill.
"I believe that in a time when skills are scarce ... the people who do possess that unique perspective and unique connection with China will be more highly valued," she said, adding that studying Chinese also gave her an edge in her university admission.
She said her main essay submitted to Stanford was about how she chose her Chinese name and what that name meant to her.
"Choosing that name helps me better understand myself. I chose Jiang because when I traveled to Lijiang, I just fell in love with it. I chose Mingxi to express my desire for greater clarity and to live a clearer and more thoughtful life," she said.
According to the nonprofit US-China Strong Foundation, about 400,000 students in the United States are currently learning Chinese, twice the number of 2015.
"People in the San Francisco Bay Area see the value in learning a second language. As Chinese is the most-spoken language in the world, they can foresee that by learning this language, doors for them in their future careers," said Wong, the San Francisco educator.