10×10: Oscar

Oscar Portillo

LearnServe China 2007


Even though I was born in DC, I grew up in El Salvador until I was 16.  My parents came to the U.S. in the 1980’s escaping the civil war in El Salvador – but this is another story for another day, when I start writing my book.

I came to the U.S. in 2006.  I had spent the previous year on my grandpa’s farm helping him milk cows, and racing horses.  I didn’t speak much English – I knew how to say some colors and a few adjectives.

My teachers in high school became more than my teachers; they became my mentors and my friends.  They got to know me well.  And they knew about my interest in Asia.  I had always wanted to go to Asia, but I thought I would never be able to.  Financially, that was impossible.  But I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the students for the 2007 LearnServe China program, and this is how it all started.

The theme of our program was water and environment.  We visited a water reservoir and a purification plant.  Perhaps what impacted me the most was a cube modeling how much water we have on this planet, and how much of it is potable.  Imagine a 1 m3 (sorry, I grew up in Central American so I think in standard metric system) with a 10cm dot that represented our entire planet’s drinkable water.  It was scary.

I became friends with the Chinese students who were accompanying us.  These college students spoke English and none of us spoke Chinese.  I noticed that I understood them better than other people in our group.  We spoke the same language: “I-am-still-learning-English English.”

Through those two weeks, I started to see Chinese people more like me and my family.  They washed rice before cooking it, and they would use that water to water their plans, and their fried rice with eggs was strikingly similar to what my mom used to cook.

Let’s fast forward some years.  I was about to graduate from high school and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to study Japanese.  A teacher encouraged me to consider taking Chinese, as it was becoming an important language.  I thought I could take a year of Chinese, and then use that knowledge to take Japanese.

I never took Japanese.  I started taking Chinese during my freshman year at Middlebury – with support from the Gates Millennium Scholarship – and stuck with it for the next three years of college.  By my junior year, when I finally could speak a little Chinese or hold small and simple conversations, I looked for the friends I had made in China back in 2007.  I found two very good friends and added them on QQ (an instant messaging and chat program).  I was very excited to finally talk to those friends I made in China using their language.  During my junior year I studied a semester in China and grew as a person.

I graduated from Middlebury this past year and now – ironically – I am about to start my job teaching English in Heilongjiang (Northeastern China).  I want to work in China to improve my Chinese and to continue learning about this country’s culture and history.  Since English is not my mother tongue, perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching it.  But as people say in Chinese “是没办法的办法” – it is the “there-is-no-other-way way”)

This is my third time in China.  I am starting to see a pattern.  I am interested in migration or the flow of peoples from one place to another.  For now I need a job that pays me so that I can start supporting my family back in El Salvador.  I am the oldest of 8 siblings.  I have been fortunate to go to college, and travel to China.  One day I hope to continue working on migration and refugee issues.  Only time will tell.

Oscar Portillo graduated from the LearnServe China and LearnServe Fellows Program in 2007. Oscar is a graduate of Wheaton High School and Middlebury College. He is currently teaching English in Heilongjiang in Northeastern China.

LearnServe 10×10 interviews and profiles compiled by Melanie Barlow (Fellows 2010) and Julia Peck (Fellows 2011) to commemorate LearnServe International’s  10th Anniversary.

3 thoughts on “10×10: Oscar

  1. i think you are carrying a great message and i hope you manage to support your family and continue your project and help other people as well,it’s a big and difficult project but i’m sure you’ll manage to do it.

  2. Hello Oscar.
    your story Inspired me and gave me motivation to continue learning and never lose sight of my goals , I noticed that the most Successful people has suffering past and it is a motivation to reach your goal, liked how you didn’t gave up in education although your English is bad , every person should not give up on his dreams and goals , immigration and refugee is a global issue that causes negative effects in several sides , i hope you continue working with this Issue and contribute solutions to the whole world .

    Thank you for making the world a better place .

  3. 你好,

    I found your story to be quite interesting and it reminds me a lot of my own experience. I have been studying Chinese for three years and last summer I was fortunate to be able to go to China as an exchange student. Although I am undecided as to what I want to study when I go to college next year, I know that I want to use my Mandarin. That being said, I wanted to ask you how your knowledge of the language has changed your perspective and world view? How have you been able to utilize the skill to make a difference in the issue of potable water? And I was also wondering if you had any advice for someone like me?

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