As a Chinese major planning to work in China following graduation, I never intended my study abroad experience to be an extended vacation or some sort of enlightenment episode. My priority was more practical: I wanted to learn to speak Chinese well so I could work there effectively someday.
With this in mind, I chose a program specializing in language instruction and cultural immersion. I was drawn to it because it avoided superficial tourism in favor of a practical focus. With a language pledge that required us to speak Mandarin at all times, a rigorous course schedule consisting entirely of classes taught in Mandarin, and the opportunity to live with a Chinese roommate, it promised to provide the training and preparation I sought.
While in China I studied through two programs. The first was a January language intensive stint in Beijing, and the second was a spring semester in Hangzhou, a smaller city about an hour southwest of Shanghai.
The Beijing program was a crash-course on life and language in China. In addition to several classroom hours each day, we spoke with Chinese people throughout Beijing and the surrounding area, including interviewing elderly Chinese in a city park and rural Chinese families.
In mid-February I arrived at Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou, where I’d spend the next four months. The program quickly proved itself to be demanding—almost overwhelmingly so—both academically and culturally. Three hours of daily classroom language instruction were followed by nightly memorization of dozens of characters, plus weekly tests and papers.
We were expected to display in-depth understanding of our subjects both verbally and in writing.
Perhaps the most demanding part of the curriculum was the tutorial, in which we discussed a topic of our choosing in one-on-one conversations with an instructor. We were expected to display in-depth understanding of our subjects both verbally and in writing. My topic was China’s economic reform since the 1970s. This challenging class, coupled with extensive requirements from other courses, improved my language skills exponentially within a brief period.
We 17 American students were also encouraged to be independent outside the classroom. During our first week on campus we were given a dorm room, a meal card, and a brief tour—and then we were on our own. Although the program director was available in case of trouble, we were expected to solve our own problems. This self-sufficiency forced us to confront our outsider status and brought us face-to-face with language and cultural barriers, preventing us from forming an idealistic view of China.
Through our daily interactions with our roommates, teachers, other students, and locals, we confronted many jarring contrasts between Chinese and American culture—both pleasant and otherwise. The positives included the amazing variety of delicious cuisines as well as the friendliness of the Chinese people. The negatives included the prevalence of smoking, spitting, and butting into line. Though some of these matters were tough to get used to, our Chinese roommates helped us acculturate. I spent much time with my roommate, with whom I quickly formed a close bond. With him as my guide, I began to make sense of my surroundings and settle into the unfamiliar environment.
By the end of my months in China, the intensive immersive experience had paid off. My language skills had improved beyond recognition, and my understanding of Chinese culture had also increased. Just as importantly, I’d learned what it’s like to be an outsider, trying to understand and grow accustomed to an unfamiliar society—an experience that will serve me well in the years ahead.