American sees a bigger role in telling China stories to the world
All eyes were on the stage, where American Akeel Alleyne was delivering a speech. "Everyone can be a light," he said. "It starts with individuals around us ..."
What made Alleyne different is that he was speaking in Mandarin and walked away as one of the winners of the Mandarin speech contest in Toastmasters District 85.
But more importantly, Alleyne made a connection with his audience, most of whom are native Chinese.
"My words were well-received, especially as I advanced through the later rounds while we were undergoing a citywide lockdown with many in low spirits," he said. "We all needed emotional comfort."
Akeel is the first non-native speaker to win the area-level Mandarin speech contest in District 85, one of four Chinese regions affiliated with Toastmasters International, the world's third-largest non-profit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a network of clubs in 144 countries and regions.
District 85 covers Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Anhui.
Having easily passed HSK 5 three years ago, Alleyne is planning to test his Chinese level again this year with the HSK 6-9 exam, the highest level of an internationally standardized test for non-native Chinese speakers.
Alleyne has been in Shanghai for three years and has coached Chinese students in public speaking and debate, rising to become area director of Toastmasters D85. Last September, he joined Fudan University's ICES Chinese Culture and Society program.
"I hope more people will come to China and Shanghai, and I am willing to introduce this amazing city and show them the most authentic life here," he said.
The 29-year-old American was interested in Chinese in high school. He said he was drawn to Chinese character compositions because they have deep meanings.
He used hao (good, 好) as an example. "It consists of nu (woman, 女) and zi (son, 子). A mother holding a baby. Is motherly love the best? Alleyne laughed, "Many Chinese words are pictographic or meaning-imbued characters like this and it makes learning Chinese fun."
After completing his undergraduate study in Chinese at the University of Maryland College Park in the United States, he decided to look for opportunities to improve his Chinese by working and living in China.
Alleyne moved to China in 2016 to teach English to children at a boarding school in Hefei, capital city of Anhui Province. "That's when I realized my Chinese proficiency could barely keep up with children aged 7-9 years," Alleyne laughed.
"I also realized then that there was much room for improvement after I encountered many communication problems here, such as opening a bank account," Alleyne said. "That pushed me to learn practical Chinese far beyond textbook study."
In 2020, Alleyne began coaching over 450 middle and high school students in debate and public speaking. He was fluent in Chinese by that time, which gave him an edge over other foreign teachers.
"Most foreign teachers couldn't speak Chinese, so they couldn't as easily identify a student's talent and help them improve," he said.
"In many cases, the student's problem was a matter of language, not techniques, and I could help them fix it," he said.
He frequently discussed hot topics like AI and technology with Chinese students.
This inspired his new approach. He advised them to frame the debate in Chinese, but write it down and debate it in English. On complicated occasions, he helped students organize languages in a native way.
"Many students achieved their goals," he said.
His bilingualism enhanced his leadership beyond coaching. He became area director of three clubs in 2022, two years after joining D85.
Alleyne's Chinese skills made his integration into local community much easier as most members of Shanghai-based clubs are Chinese and speak Mandarin outside Toastmasters meetings.
He was once invited to take the general evaluator role of a Chinese meeting. His fluent Mandarin and witty remarks impressed the audience. After the meeting, the club president told him, "You are someone I like to talk to most among foreigners because whenever you talk with me, you use Chinese."
Division Q director Yvonne Zhu, who oversees five areas, praised his leadership qualities as well, "Akeel is a down-to-earth, dependable and genuine person! He treats everyone with complete respect and does his best."
Alleyne said he had problems in complicated Chinese contexts but still communicated in Chinese with club officers and members.
"I tell them, 'Just point out my problem.' That way I can become a better leader and Chinese speaker," he said. "It's a higher level of learning Chinese than merely learning the language."
He became more aware of it during the Mandarin speech contest.
"The Chinese language has many metaphors, idioms and stories. If I continued with my previous Chinese level, people may understand what I say, but it may not convince or move them because I don't use native-speaker idioms. It is the culture behind it that matters."
"Cross-cultural communication skills help me resonate with native speakers," said Alleyne, who then decided to delve deep into Chinese culture.
He is now working on a full-year program on Chinese culture and society at Fudan University starting last September.
Even though it was hard to get started, he is fascinated by the profound Chinese culture and prefers literature and philosophy.
His favorite Chinese writer is Lu Xun, whose novels provide him with a comprehensive understanding of modern Chinese society, allowing him to develop a deep understanding of Chinese culture.
Meanwhile, Taoist value of "letting nature take its course" has deeply inspired Alleyne. He found it useful in his life and work, especially when dealing with complex issues or getting into trouble.
Alleyne stated that he "applied the Taoist mindset he learned to his work and life."
After finishing his Fudan University project, he plans to apply for a postgraduate program in Chinese study in Shanghai. He wants to promote a cultural exchange project between China and other nations and tell stories about China abroad.
He thinks his bilingualism and deep understanding of China can help him contribute to China's rising global influence.
"I also have a long-term plan to collect English resources and publish English books on a growing China and the real Chinese society."