Burhan Azeem graduated from MIT in 2019 with a degree in materials science and engineering. He was elected to Cambridge City Council on November 2, 2021. Burhan ran on a platform that included the call for affordable housing, reduced MBTA fares, better sidewalks, bike paths, and bus lanes, universal day care, and action to address climate change. Originally from Multan, Pakistan, Burhan immigrated to the United States with his family when he was four years old. His campaign materials describe his memories of his childhood involving frequent housing insecurity and other challenges for immigrant families. He stated, “I’m committed to Cambridge and advocating for all our residents — ensuring no one is left behind.”

As an MIT undergraduate, Burhan Azeem focused his studies on the issue of climate change and also found the time to study Chinese, declaring his HASS Concentration in Chinese. Given his interests in solar panels and batteries, the two subjects fit well together, as China is the largest producer of both.

Senior Lecturer in Chinese, Haohsiang Liao recalled that he taught Burhan for Chinese I to IV. Liao told us, “During a class in Chinese I, the task was an oral presentation of one’s family in Chinese. Around the same time, students happened to learn the word tongwu which is the Chinese word for ‘roommate.’ When it was Burhan’s turn, he first introduced his father and then went on to say: ‘…and this is my father’s tongwu, my mother!’ A wording so simple and truly descriptive showed how Burhan was applying what he had just learned in class most creatively.”  Liao also described bumping into Burhan on campus one day, “With excitement, he told me about his recent trip to Taiwan. He had made several local friends and they took Burhan to see the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery and the Purple Bamboo Forest in Kaohsiung. Burhan appeared very joyful in telling this story.”

The importance of language study was evident to Burhan from his childhood, when his English abilities proved crucial for helping his parents and little sisters, as his immigrant family navigated life in Cambridge. At the same time he also maintained his native Urdu, enabling him to connect with a rich cultural heritage and community life.

We caught up with the new City Council member by email to ask him how studying Chinese has shaped his life and career.

Burhan told us, “I was born in Pakistan and grew up in the US. English and Urdu are my native languages. I wanted to learn Chinese because Chinese-speaking nations have a very different culture and it would present a new way to think about the world. Studying Chinese at MIT enabled me to work in Taiwan and make various trips to Hong Kong and Mainland China. This directly allowed me to see how different places organized their cities and made different decisions.”

He explained further, “Chinese has also allowed me to connect more with a section of the Chinese community in Cambridge.” Paraphrasing Nelson Mandela, Burhan noted, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’”