Lillian Okoye | Essays From The Great Wall

When I Was A Chinese/English Interpreter in New York City


A Chinese/English over-the-phone interpreter at one point.

I used my interpretation skills to help deliver a baby while a Chinese woman was in labor.

A Chinese speaker who was running into fraud issues with their credit card.

And even when a Chinese speaker had a car accident and needed to file a claim with an insurance company.

Never did either party know that me, a black woman, was the Chinese/English interpreter.

It was over the phone. 

[ To know that piece of information may have perhaps shocked and distracted them from the actual call, LOL. ]

I've interpreted for Chinese speakers of all ages - folks ranging from 19 to 88.

Health checkups.

Credit cards. Refinancing.  

Car accidents. 

911 calls.

I've interpreted it all. 

But certain moments have stayed with me.

My favorite memories of being an interpreter were those magical moments when both parties no longer feel like there's an interpreter between them. They feel like they're talking directly to each other.

Because they are.

To be honest, I live for moments like these.

Effortless communication.

Jokes. Laughter. Smooth communication.

It's breaking that barrier of communication.

It's helping people do things they never thought they could. 

It when they no longer realize I'm there - it's magical.

It's great to be in such a humanitarian role and serve as a conduit and help a limited English person with their conversation with someone else...

But what excites me more than anything in this world is helping folks like you go from zero to fluent so that you'll never need to rely me or on anyone else again.

That's the true freedom.

That's the dream.

I truly love that more than anything in this world!

And yes it is possible! So, so possible!

If I can do it, you can do it too.

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What I Know For Sure: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Would Have Wanted You Fluent

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, that one day his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

He had a dream that one day we could live harmoniously with other races and not experience the pain of racism as in decades past.

Today we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day - a day we reflect on America’s history and how far African-Americans have come in this country.

For our dreams to come true and for the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come true, we need to challenge ourselves, learn new skills and take ourselves to a higher level.

We need to build character.

We need to challenge ourselves to reach higher ground.

We need to think big.

We need to dream big.

If we want to, we can think beyond the borders of the United States and tap into other opportunities that exist beyond America’s borders and explore the world.

In doing so, we even uplift ourselves to higher ground and improve our communities and become friendly ambassadors across the world.

In my experience, learning a foreign language can bring communities closer together.  Fluency in a foreign language can prevent misunderstandings, conflict, and maybe even wars. It can help us with so much more than we know.

It’s hard to describe just how magical of a feeling it is to get fluent in a foreign language...

It’s like suddenly discovering a doorway within the attic, and realizing that it lets you enter into a whole new world, like Narnia.

It’s like no other adventure.

It’s an adventure that I know for sure Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted more of us to explore.

In his 1959 essay in Ebony Magazine titled “My Trip To The Land of Ghandi,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

“For a long time I had wanted to take a trip to India. Even as a child the entire Orient held a strange fascination for me-the elephants, the tigers, the temples, the snake charmers and all the other storybook characters.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was also fascinated by the sheer vastness of our world and how much more of it there was to explore.

When we learn a foreign language, we are no longer limited to the boundaries of our community or neighborhood. It’s one way that we experience oneness within a seemingly segregated world.

It brings cultures closer together.

Not only that, but you can tap into new markets and new countries and never be limited at all ever again. In my opinion, fluency is the ultimate freedom.  

That’s why in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2018, I’ve spearheaded a new initiative called “The Fluent 500.”

I want you to see for yourself the goodness and the radical impact learning a foreign language can have on your own life.

It not only can transform your life, but it brings countries closer together, and we all as a global community benefit from it.

This is my dream.  

And this is my challenge to you.  

In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we should do just that.

Source: The Huffington Post, originally published here.

How I Went From Zero To Fluent

There’s a best kept secret behind getting fluent in a foreign language. In fact, in my opinion, it’s the single most important thing you must do if you really want to get fluent in a foreign language.

It’s re-imagining yourself as a speaker of that language. You need to actually visualize yourself as a speaker of this new tongue.

With my experience of mentoring and teaching students for over a decade, I’ve realized that a lot of people actually never think about this simple technique and don’t realize just how important this is.

When I started learning Chinese back in 2005, I realized once I mentally re-imagined myself as a Chinese speaker, I was able to hear more, speak more, and even attract more Chinese language speakers into my life.

I would even dream in Chinese, and I sometimes still do. But this happens more when I’m in China or around the language a lot. It still happens though.

Take, for example, if I’m talking to someone in Chinese on the telephone at night and then I drop off to sleep. There’s a chance I might have a dream about that particular topic or person.

Or if my mind recalls a particular event that occurred when I was in China, maybe my mind will process is and think about it in Chinese.

Sometimes I’ll even think, analyze, and decision make in Chinese, too - especially when I’m thinking of terms, topics, or concepts that I first learned when I was physically in China.

I believe the core reason why, to this day, I still think in Chinese is because of the visualization techniques that I begin in 2005. It set up for a strong foundation for me while learning a foreign language.

These are the same exact visualization techniques I teach learners of foreign languages in my zero to fluent programs. Because I honestly believe that in order to go from zero to fluent in a language, it’s not just about the vocabulary and grammar.  

You need more to really go all the way. And that’s what I help my students do.

My intention was to speak Chinese just like a native Chinese speaker. I set out for that goal, and I teach others how to do that to so that they can get fluent as well. I visualized myself as a Chinese speaker. All else followed.

If you seriously want to attain high fluency in a foreign language, you need to re-imagine yourself as having attained that outcome. This alone will help you get fluent faster.

This is precisely how I was able to speak Chinese more fluently and effortlessly as a black woman.

Because although people from the outside looking in saw me as an outsider, my self-image was far, far different.

I was the “insider.”

I became a speaker of that tongue.

You see, I didn’t imagine myself as a ‘black woman’ per se when I was learning how to speak (even though everyone saw me as that).

I was color blind.

I re-imagined myself as a speaker of a new language, and I fully embraced it.

I visualized it, and I embodied it.

This article was originally featured in the Huffington Post

What Everyone Can Learn From Hollywood’s Favorite Star, Jackie Chan

On November 12th, 2016, Hollywood actor Jackie Chan won an Oscar after 56 years in the film industry.

Jackie Chan is the first ever Chinese actor in Hollywood to win the award, and I was so thrilled to see him win it. Chan’s story symbolizes the power of grit and how far your dreams can take you if you never give up.

In pursuit of his dream, Jackie Chan worked tirelessly to learn a new language, a skill that ultimately helped his career flourish and reach new heights in Hollywood.

It is a wonderful story of triumph and proves that learning a foreign language can open so many doors you never thought could open.

I, too, learned a foreign language: Chinese.

More than 10 years ago, I decided to learn Chinese with the goal of reaching near-native fluency. I knew it would be hard, since I had no family or relatives to practice with or learn from. However, I knew I wanted to accomplish this goal. It took patience and hard work, but I eventually reached my goal.

You can, too!

Here are 3 surprising benefits of learning Chinese.

1. Gain keen insight into how our ancestors perceived the world.

One of the reasons I found myself drawn to studying Chinese is because of its long history. I am fascinated by history. The oldest versions of Chinese characters were pictographs that reflect how our ancestors once perceived the world. If you look at China’s ancient writing system, you can get a glimpse of our ancestors’ thoughts and feelings. For example, the Chinese character for “forest” is depicted as a combination of multiple trees. The Chinese verb for “rest” resembles an image of a person leaning against a tree, which encourages readers to visualize someone taking a rest. In a world without smartphones and tablets, this is how they perceived the world. They wrote in a way that reflected what they saw in nature, and that simplicity brings visual clarity in a way the English language does not. I think and feel differently when I speak and write in Chinese.

I can’t quite put my finger on it — it’s just different. It’s visual. It’s fun!

2. Boost your brainpower and memory skills.

Learning a second language can improve your memory, boost your brainpower, and keep your mind in good shape. Even the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is delayed because of bilingualism. In the UK, researchers conducted brain scans of English and Chinese speakers and found that learning Chinese requires the use of both parts of your brain, since it is a tonal language. Unlike English, in Chinese, the definitions of words change in accordance with the speaker’s tone. Scientists claim that English speakers rely mostly on the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas Chinese speakers rely on both hemispheres to interpret tonality and meaning.

3. You and your business can tap into a new market and seize exciting opportunities.

The ability to speak a language that 20% of the world speaks will open doors and broaden the trajectory of your professional career. Imagine being able to share your message with more people across the world. My life has completely changed since I started learning Chinese. Learning Chinese has allowed me to tap into another market and pursue new opportunities outside of the United States. The world is my oyster, and it can be yours too!

Jackie Chan’s extraordinary win is a story of grit and determination, and it is also a reminder that learning a foreign language can open doors in your life. You never know what the future holds. Maybe your biggest opportunity will be in an entirely different market. Learning Chinese has changed my life, and I encourage people to experience it for themselves.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

6 Lessons I Learned From Starting A Business Abroad

A few years ago, I was plagued with over $30,000 of student loan debt and had no idea how to pay it off. The last thing I wanted was to spend the next two or three decades in debt — I knew I wanted to pay my loans off fast.

Here are six valuable lessons I learned while tackling my debt and starting a business abroad.

1. The real currency you’re dealing with is trust.

With no ties to China, I knew that my dream of starting a business in Beijing would be full of challenges and surprises, but I still stepped up to the plate. I realized I would need to establish trust first. That was the real key to turning strangers into clients. I still remember my very first client back in 2014. At the time, I didn’t have an office, so we met at a coffee shop. An hour later, I received over a thousand dollars on the spot from this complete stranger. At the time, I thought it was all pure luck. In hindsight, however, I realize it wasn’t. It was trust.

Without trust, there wouldn’t have been a sale. Trust is the predecessor of any transaction, big or small. I can’t think of a single place in the world where this fundamental rule does not apply. Without being consciously aware of it, I was building trust with strangers and quickly showing them I was highly credible and reliable.

Two years later, I still continue to serve a 100% Chinese-speaking clientele. And, as ironic as it may sound, my biggest paycheck to date came not from the United States, but from the People’s Republic of China. But my entrepreneurial journey near the Great Wall was no crystal stair. I hustled to earn the trust of my clients, and the same is true for any entrepreneur who wants to create a lasting impact.

2. Be cognizant of how you spend your time.

Today is the youngest you will ever be, so it’s important to be mindful of how you spend each day. Think of your days in terms of minutes. There are 1,440 minutes in a day — one-third of which you spend sleeping. After that, you’re left with about 960 minutes. If you commute to work for an hour each way, then you lose another 120 minutes. Take away the time spent on an 8-hour work shift, and you’re left with only about 360 minutes. Oh, and don’t forget mealtimes. Now you’re left with only 180 minutes of free time per day. That translates to just 3 hours. So, how are you spending your precious time?

Your mindset will shift once you realize the instrumental value of your own time. I no longer watch endless hours of television, as doing so was a real drain on my time. Simple changes like leveraging technology to automate tasks and using a productivity planner have completely transformed the way I handle my daily obligations. Before I go to bed, I always plan out the next day in writing. I can even tell you my plans for the next few months. If you don’t leverage your time, growing and scaling a business will be an impossible feat. If you don’t give it all away, you’ll find that you actually do have enough time in the day.

3. Focus on activities that generate revenue.

As soon as you start your business, you’ll quickly start to identify which activities generate revenue. I found that live events and in-person activities focused on sales really impacted my bottom line. So, instead of focusing on the minutiae of creating a fancy website, I spent most of my days talking directly with prospective clients. Before long, thanks to my focus on revenue, I’d paid off all my debt and taken charge of my finances.

4. You are the average of whoever you associate yourself with.

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Those words definitely ring true. If you want to be successful, try to spend more time with people who you feel are successful. Join a community of people who have already achieved what you dream to accomplish.

The lesson here is to find a community where you can learn and grow professionally. Your vision should be propelled — not hindered — by the people around you. Don’t let others’ comments get in the way of what you want to accomplish. Instead of spending your time with people and things that hold you back, fire them and don’t look back. Uplevel your network by seeking out mentors, coaches, and peers who support your vision and goals.

5. Learners are earners.

For nearly two decades, we sat in a classroom, but the reality is that the streets of the real world don’t operate like a classroom. There are so many problems in life that can’t be solved on a blackboard. This is why the key to getting ahead and staying ahead is lifelong learning. Find a community where you can learn freely and think independently without fear of exploring new ideas. Create your own classroom.

Between 2014 and 2015, I read nearly 50 books because I was hungry for answers. I doubt I’ll need to go to that extreme very often, but I definitely needed to “un-learn” what wasn’t important and figure out what really mattered. I read everything from biographies of successful entrepreneurs, to history, business, and finance books. Warren Buffet, arguably one of the greatest investors of all time, once said, “The more you learn, the more you earn.” It’s true. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my income peaked when I became a voracious reader.

6. Begin with the end in mind.

Think about your legacy. Envision the impact you want to leave upon the world when you’re no longer here. What is the real impact you hope your business will have?

Write that burning reason down, and put it on your wall so you can look at it every day. It can be a daunting task to plan out years into the future, and that’s why most people don’t. When the going gets tough, look back at what you wrote down and remind yourself why you’re going after your dream.

If you aren’t clear on the reasons why you want to start a business, chances are you might lose hope and give up too soon. With a powerful “why” coming from a place of good intention, you’ll be fired up for your business for decades to come.

[Click here to learn more about the China Business Bootcamp.]