Tevinn Richards, 19, was raised in poverty by a single mother in Saint John, New Brunswick.
"We've had a hard life. Not everyday we were guaranteed food, nothing," Andrea Richards, Tevinn's mother, told CBC News.
Richards hopes Mandarin will help him escape a life of social-assistance dependency and minimum-wage jobs.
The teen started learning the language while he was attending Simonds High School — and doing poorly there. After school, he'd spend hours in his room teaching himself Mandarin by chatting online with people from China.
"When I first started learning Chinese, I was really not doing well in high school," Tevinn said.
Tevinn quickly excelled in the language, so much so that his online teacher encouraged him to visit China.
He is now on full scholarship at Qufu Normal University in Shandong province — friends and neighbours chipped in the $3,000 in airfare costs to get there — and is confident he has a bright future in teaching.
"I have been studying Chinese for a year and a half, so my understanding of the Chinese language is not bad. I can read and write many simplified and traditional Chinese characters, along with many Japanese Kanji," he wrote on his Livemocha profile last spring.
"I love to learn to new things and meet new people. Languages and art are my passion, and expression is my tool. I believe communication is the link that every idea needs to be a success and that language can both divide and bring together the ever learning members of the human race," Tevinn wrote on Facebook.