10 January 2018
A generation of American professionals equipped to engage with China
This series showcases young American professionals who have studied Mandarin for any length of time, including studying abroad in China. Where are they now? How have their studies abroad, and Mandarin language studies more generally, shaped their experience as young professionals?
Today we feature Sam Brummitt:
Sam’s first experience living abroad was on a summer exchange program to Spain during high school. It was that initial experience that sparked his interest in studying abroad and learning languages. He then took the chance to go back during his junior year of college, where he learned about careers teaching English abroad. He immediately got on track to become a certified English as a Second Language teacher.
Several factors influenced Sam’s eventual journey to China. On the one hand, he felt his time studying Spanish had run its course. “I had been looking for a new and more challenging language to study,” he said. While in Spain, Sam met an ESL teacher from Barbados who suggested that he look at English teaching opportunities in China. In addition, as a student of International Relations, he was conscious of the importance of understanding US-China relations. “I was very interested in studying what I thought was going to be the most important bilateral relationship of this century,” he said.
With this in mind, Sam took his first trip to China in 2007, where he spent a year and a half teaching English in Jiangsu province while pursuing Mandarin study with a private tutor. During his first summer in China, he studied at the Beijing Language and Cultural University (BLCU) where he witnessed the revitalizing influence of 2008 Beijing Olympics on the nation’s capital city.
Sam notes that his foray into Mandarin was later than most of his peers. “I was in Chinese language classes along with other American students who were undergraduates majoring in Chinese or East Asian studies,” he said. “So it’s never too late to start”.
Sam then spent the next year and a half at Nanjing Normal University as a language student while also teaching English part time. He notes, “After three years of language study, I was able to pursue many job opportunities beyond teaching.” Sam did marketing and translation work for a Chinese law firm to help them reach more foreign companies and expats in China. He also worked for a company where he managed social media marketing campaigns on behalf of Chinese companies.
All this became possible once he reached an intermediate level of Mandarin, and opportunities continued to open up. “I didn’t expect to spend that much time in China,” Sam said. “I got really into studying the language and more opportunities opened up as my Chinese skills improved.” As such, despite originally intending to stay and teach for only one school year, Sam ended up working and studying in China for six years.
At the five-year mark, he decided it was time to start looking into international affairs graduate programs so that he could delve further into the topics that interested him about China, from energy to foreign policy. He applied to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which brought him to Washington, DC for the summer of 2012, and then back to Nanjing for another year, where studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.
Sam completed his master’s degree at SAIS in 2014, where he had the chance to put his China experience to the test in some interesting internships. During his first semester in DC, Sam interned at the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), which deals with China on trade and investment policies. While at the USTR, the Chinese government announced the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (FTZ). Sam recalls, “American media coverage of the Shanghai FTZ was sparse on details because all of the policy documents released at the time were in Chinese.” He saw his chance to make a difference. “Another intern and I were among the first people to translate the Shanghai FTZ ‘negative list’. This list states which industries would have restrictions on foreign investment and—by omission—which industries would now be open to foreign investment, and this information turned out to be really valuable to others in the U.S. government.” This is just one example of the ways in which Sam’s Mandarin skills and China experience converged to provide meaningful impact in an area of consequence for US-China relations.
It was more than just language proficiency that helped Sam’s case; it was also a demonstrated knack for putting that ability into context in a work setting. “It’s important not only to be good at Chinese but to have another skill too,” he said. “There are so many people now who speak both Mandarin and English fluently, so it’s not enough to rely on your language ability alone. In my case, I spoke Chinese and learned as much as I could about online media and marketing, which turned out to be a great combination that led to a number of professional opportunities in China.”
Sam emphasizes the value of spending time in the country itself. “There is immense value in having experience in China and immersing yourself in the culture,” Sam says. “There are different levels to that. You can live with other foreign students or you can live with a Chinese family and not speak a word of English.” Indeed, the subtle peculiarities of foreign language and culture are best appreciated through lived experience.
USCS: Advice to current and future Mandarin learners?
SB: Progress is slow. For me, the experience of learning Chinese and training for a marathon were very similar. You need to follow a training plan when preparing for a marathon; likewise, you need the same sort of rigor and dedication when learning Chinese. Learning a language, like learning a sport or an instrument, takes time, it’s incremental. You’ll notice improvement over months, not days, so be patient and stick with it.”
Sam Brummitt is currently an International Trade Analyst for the International Trade Administration (ITA). Before joining the ITA, Sam interned at USTR, the State Department, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, and the Asia Group