by Raul Menchaca
HAVANA, May 10 (Xinhua) -- Cubans Carmen Laura Contreras and Elizabeth Zambrano fell in love with the Chinese language for different reasons, but their paths crossed on Friday when they won the Chinese Bridge Contest 2019 for university and high school students.
Contreras, 24, is pursuing a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Havana. She was the winner among the university students, while 15-year-old Zambrano triumphed in the high school category.
Both will be defending the Confucius Institute in Havana at the end of next July in China, where the semifinal and the final of the contest will be held.
The contest has been sponsored since 2002 by Hanban, the General Office of Mandarin Chinese.
The two young women had to overcome a dozen contestants at the theater of the University of Havana, where they were evaluated by a rigorous jury.
The language proficiency of all contestants were examined according to their speeches, knowledge about China, and artistic performances, such as calligraphy, traditional songs and dances.
Contreras said that her first experience of the Chinese culture and language was through the TV series she watched when she lived in Spain.
"At that time, I was very young. I was 16 or 17 years old and I simply thought the language was very melodic and then I decided to start studying Chinese," she told Xinhua.
Her interest led her to enroll in the recently-inaugurated China Cultural Center in Madrid, where she studied an introductory course of Chinese for four months.
Upon returning to Cuba in 2014 to study at the Havana University, Contreras also enrolled in the Confucius Institute to continue deepening her knowledge of the Chinese language and culture.
When studying at the Institute, she had a good mastery of the language so that she served as an assistant student, and earned a trip to China organized by the institution last year for a summer camp.
"In China, I hope to do my best for Cuba, the Havana's Confucius Institute and take our country to the highest place as possible," she said confidently.
She also hopes to spend time with her colleagues from other countries, and see how they learn Chinese.
Zambrano had more direct contact with the culture and the Chinese language.
When she was ten years old, she lived in Beijing with her parents, two scientists with the Molecular Immunology Center in Havana, who worked in the joint venture Biotech Pharmaceutical Ltd, a Cuban-Chinese company dedicated to the manufacturing and trade of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
Zambrano said that at the beginning, she was very afraid, because she did not know anyone and had to study in a public primary school in Beijing, where she went from fourth to sixth grade.
"I was lucky that I met a very good teacher, who is called Yife, motivated me, taught me the Chinese culture and guided me to love it," she said with a touch of nostalgia.
Now, she's studying in a high school in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, and perfecting the Chinese language at the Confucius Institute, without forgetting her first Chinese teacher.
"The main thing that I wanted was to win this award and thus show my teacher that all the efforts she made were not in vain."