How a Mandarin pop band inspired this Gilman scholar to learn Chinese

A woman holds a postcard in front of a red background.
Bunyisa Phanatnok holds pictures of Cantopop star and actor Aaron Yan.

Bunyisa Phanatnok first heard Mandarin pop music as a 5-year-old in her native Thailand. She was watching the Taiwanese romantic comedy “Meteor Garden” and heard music by F4, a Mandarin boy band whose members also starred in the show.

The show’s dialogue was dubbed in Thai, but the songs were not. So Phanatnok had to sing along phonetically. She was hooked for life, eventually making it her mission to learn Chinese.

Shortly after her fateful discovery of the boy band, Phanatnok and her family moved to Dinwiddie County. While she has since outgrown F4, her love of Mandopop remains.

“Every day I listen to Taiwanese pop songs,” said the 21-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student.

Phanatnok is spending the semester studying Mandarin at Providence University in Taiwan. She is one of three VCU students studying abroad through the U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program. (Phanatnok also earned a Freeman-ASIA Award and an ISEP Founders Fellowship to study a foreign language abroad.)

A woman stands in front of a giant ball machine.
Compass Festival at Uno Market.

“I had never thought about coming to Taiwan until high school,” she said. Her Spanish teacher suggested Phanatnok sign up for a 10-day intense Chinese language startup program. That experience made Phanatnok realize she wanted to do more than just learn Chinese.

“I want to become more fluent in it up to the point of coming to Taiwan and actually using it with the Taiwanese people,” she said. “I’ve been studying Mandarin since high school and I’ve always thought about what I can do to improve my language skills. And I decided to take Chinese at VCU, but it just wasn’t enough. It wasn't enough for me. I thought, I don’t really have the chance to speak Mandarin every day. And so I decided I wanted to go study abroad.”

Now that she’s in Taiwan, Phanatnok has learned that there’s so much more about understanding the language than learning the correct pronunciation and grammar.

“One thing that I learned is it’s not just the language,” she said. “It's more that you’re seeing the culture, you're seeing how people act, you're seeing why people act the way they do. I really like to analyze that. Especially, when I make comparisons, I just want to see why is it like that, why the country is so different from America. Even though I’ve been in Asia before, I lived in America for so long that I’m not used to the Asian life.”

Nor is Phanatnok used to not speaking any English, as is the case in her Mandarin classes. Her Mandarin teacher only speaks in Chinese.

“You kind of have to comprehend and try to understand what she’s saying,” Phanatnok said. “I’m very happy to get to just really, really force myself to use Mandarin. And that’s exactly what I wanted to have here.”

A selfie of two people.
Bunyisa with her roommate in Taiwan.

In addition to Mandarin, Phanatnok is also taking business courses — in English — to meet the requirement for her bachelor’s degree in international management with the VCU School of Business. She knows that speaking fluent Mandarin — one of the most-spoken languages in the world — will only add to her international communication skills.

“The ability to talk with people of different cultures and trying to understand them, with globalization nowadays, I think you can use these skills,” she said. “I’m taking this class called cross cultural management, so we’re not only learning about business, we’re learning about business in other countries and how they come together.

“I’m very happy that I had this opportunity to study abroad. I’m able to see the world, actually. For someone who hasn’t really been outside of Virginia that much, I just know that life is different over here. I’m very happy that I get to see that. I’m looking forward to making my time here even better.”

Phanatnok is one of three VCU students studying abroad this semester as a Gilman scholar. Grace Terry (international studies, Morocco) and Kebari Cheseman (political science, Germany) also are abroad on Gilman scholarships. Phanatnok is documenting her journey to learn Chinese at