Our Kind of People

Lines of latitude, learning lead Ocean Springs man to China

The first time Steven Mockler went to China to spend a summer studying, he quickly found a crustacean that reminded him of home.

The Ocean Springs native, who is a senior at the University of Mississippi studying Chinese and international business, said he was happy to see crawfish at a seaside market.

"It was exactly the same -- minus the potatoes, corn and sausage," he said.

Mockler, 22, has spent four summers in China as part of Ole Miss' Chinese Language Flagship Program. In August, he'll leave again for nearly a year.

"My mom always tells me to live a big life," he said.

He said his parents are supportive, though cautious, and check on him often. But they are excited to see him venture out and learn more about the culture he studies.

"They didn't have the same opportunities I had, and they're always curious to what I'm doing," he said. "I get to be their eyes and ears on the other half of the world."

When he was in high school, he read a book in his economics class about China and the rise of several East Asian countries that captured his interest.

After some thought, he applied for the flagship program.

"I graduated high school and three days later I was at Ole Miss," he said.

He knew no Chinese, but the program taught two entry-level language courses over the summer. He then started freshman classes in the fall.

"It was intensive, but I got through Chinese 111 and 112 so I could start sophomore levels in August, and I've been with it ever since," he said.

He said learning Chinese was difficult at first because it is a tonal language. If he didn't use the right tone as well as the right word, then his meaning could be changed completely.

"Many first-year Chinese students say 'May I kiss you' instead of 'May I ask you a question,'" he said.

Luckily, Mockler has a musical-theater background that helped him pick up tones easily. Picking up on the grammar and syntax, he said, was almost like a math equation.

"Being able to speak fluently now, I really have to take off being an American and put myself in a Chinese mindset to make sure I'm using words and phrases correctly," he said.

He said he doesn't plan to live in China permanently, but he definitely sees working there for extended periods.

The climate he's experienced is similar to that of South Mississippi, he said, and some of the cuisine is very similar. He said there's plenty of fried chicken.

A big difference is the political structure and restrictions he faces in China.

"I can't open up Facebook whenever I want," he said. "I have to make sure I have a way to read my gmail .I'm friends with people who are very politically minded. In China, students are less like that.

"It's dangerous to be as interested (in politics) as my friends would be. That's a cultural revelation in itself."

Mockler said he loves serving as an ambassador to educate Americans about the Chinese culture.

"This is all part of my story to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. Most people will never go once," he said.