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How Noodles Led to Serious Study of Mandarin

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     Isabelle speaks at the CIUS Center National Honors Gala.  
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     Isabelle poses for a photo with other award recipients at the CIUS Center National Honors Gala.  
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     Isabelle takes a photo with WMCI's Professor Shi and her parents.  
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The full China Daily article can be found here.


A little girl's interest in wanting to talk about Chinese food put her on a path to study the Chinese language.

Isabelle Szczerbinski first became interested in Chinese when she was 5.

"We were at a Chinese restaurant in Dallas. She was watching a man making noodles. She was so excited that she wanted to talk with him. Unfortunately, he didn't speak English. On the way home, she said she wanted to learn Chinese," said Eric Szczerbinski, Isabelle's father.

"I totally fell in love with the language. It's so beautiful and unlike anything I've ever heard before," said Isabelle, who was one of 10 exemplary students honored by the Confucius Institute (CI) US Center in Washington on Saturday.

The People-People Award recipients were selected from 110 Confucius Institutes across the country.

"It's not just your knowledge about language and culture, it's actually the special sprit that inspires you to do this," said C.D. Mote Jr., president of the National Academy of Engineering, who is also on the honorary host committee.

The honorees all have extraordinary stories about their journeys of learning Chinese with the CI.

Isabelle, whose Chinese name is Bao Ling, is now 12. She lives in Midlothian, Virginia, where she is home-schooled.

Szczerbinski watches movies and TV from China without subtitles.

Some of her favorites Chinese cartoons are Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf, and Big Head Son and Small Head Dad, which are very popular in China.

"They are so different from what I've ever seen on American TV," said Szczerbinski.

Szczerbinski studies at the Confucius Institute near her home, the William & Mary Confucius Institute (WMCI) in Williamsburg, Virginia.

"It is just the beginning of a fantastic ongoing adventure, all thanks to the Confucius Institute," she said.

The WMCI offers courses on many aspects of Chinese culture, from travel tips to calligraphy, to tai chi, cooking and music.

The first course that Szczerbinski took was a cooking class.

"I love Chinese food. The chef was a famous chef, Peter Chang," she said.

Szczerbinski then tried tai chi and kung fu through the WMCI.

In 2017, through the WMCI, Szczerbinski joined the JNCL-NCLIS ( to lobby Virginia senators and congressional representative for more funding for language instruction in public schools.

"I want to thank the Confucius Institute for sharing the wonderful language and culture of China to the world," she said.

"It has been a wonderful journey for all of us," said Szczerbinski's mother.

James B. Heimowitz, president of the China Institute, said that more Americans need to be comfortable in a different culture and context.

"I hope each one of you knows how lucky you are to have the Confucius Institute as a bridge," Heimowitz said.

"The center serves as a vehicle for Chinese-language learning and cultural exchange and supports the individual Confucius Institutes across the country," said Gao Qing, executive director of the CIUS.


Isabelle's speech from the CIUS National Honors Gala can be found here.