Mah had always wanted to study French, but her mother had voted against it because of her dislike for her half-French stepmother. "Why would you want to learn French?" Mah's mother asked her when Mah suggested it. "No one speaks French." Instead, Mah took Spanish in high school and Mandarin in college. "At age twenty I spent a summer on [Middlebury College] campus in a nine-week Chinese-immersion program, gazing jealously at the French students.... while I stuffed another five hundred Chinese characters into my brain," Mah wrote. But before leaving for Paris, she returned to Middlebury again – this time to enjoy an immersion program in French.