Kovalik, Katrina


Name: Katrina Kovalik
E-mail: kkovali1@nd.edu
Location of Study: Beijing, China
Program of Study: Columbia’s Summer Language Program in Beijing
Sponsors: Justin Liu & Mark Shields


A brief personal bio:

I’m a freshman at the University of Notre Dame but I’m originally from just outside of San Francisco, California. Attending Notre Dame has really allowed me to branch out in my studies and in my extracurriculars. I am currently a Business/Chinese double major. I get the opportunity to learn from professors at the number one undergraduate business school in the country and learn the language of one of the fastest growing countries in the world. I spend my time outside of class as a coxswain for Notre Dame’s men’s crew team. Our rowing program is very competititve and I’m proud to represent my school on the race course.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

I am so thankful to have received an SLA Grant that will allow me to study Mandarin for 9 weeks in Beijing, China. The Grant has given me a wonderful opportunity that many other students never have. I know I have the independence and capability to pursue this kind of academic and cultural advancement in a foreign country. I’m prepared to take full advantage of any and all opportunities provided by this program. I want to improve my Chinese language skills and be able to gain a first-hand understanding of Chinese culture. Book learning and second-hand accounts can only go so far. I know that I learn the best through experience.

International relations has interested me since my freshman year in high school. China’s complicated evolution of industrialization over the past century is partially why I was drawn to the Chinese language. I’ve visited relatives in Europe and done conservation work in Central America. I’ve seen different cultures and am confident in my ability to thrive in a place far from home. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to experience more of the world and to learn about the language and culture of the nation that fascinates me the most: China.

My dream is to one day be fluent in the language so that I can communicate competently with Chinese-speakers in business transactions. I am currently a Business/Chinese double major and plan to integrate these two concentrations of study into my future career.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

Receiving this grant and being able to attend a summer study program in China will have a huge impact on my future. I fell in love with the Chinese language my first year here at Notre Dame and I am very motivated to improve my language skills. I hope that what I learn this summer will allow me to skip a classroom level of Mandarin so that I can place into 3rd year classes as a sophomore at Notre Dame. Not only do I have learning-specific goals for my progress in the Chinese language, I’m also looking forward to being in a position to see the world from another perspective. I’m very excited to gain a better understanding of Chinese culture. I feel that much of China’s culture is still somewhat misunderstood by the western world and I’m very interested in experiencing it for myself.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to carry out a simple, but competent and fluid conversation with native Chinese-speakers.

2. By the end of the summer, I will be able to speak, read, write and listen at a level of proficiency equal to two semesters of Chinese classes at Notre Dame.

3. By the end of the summer, I will  be able to explain the state of the People’s Republic of China from a civilian’s perspective in an academic setting (by analyzing the effectiveness of their government, and their effort to partially westernize their economy etc.) upon leaving the nation.

4. By the end of the summer, I will have formed relationships with native-Chinese speakers which I will keep up when I return as a student at Notre Dame.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I chose a program of study in Beijing that none of my fellow classmates chose. Although a number of my peers are attending the a different program together, I’m attending a longer, and supposedly more rigorous program through Columbia University. I want to force myself to branch out and step out of my comfort zone. I want to meet new people even if I’m afraid my Chinese doesn’t match up to par with native speakers’. My program allows me a little over a week of independent travel. I plan to travel to as many cultural centers in China that I can reach. Hopefully I also have the opportunity to either teach English to native speakers as a part time job, or take classes in the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

It’s the day before I drive to the airport to take a plane from San Francisco to Beijing and I’m sitting on the floor of my room staring at a massively over-packed suitcase. I’m having one of those pre-departure-why-am-willingly-leaving-my-comfort-zone kind of crises. In approximately 48 hours I will be in a foreign country with a foreign language and culture, with only one year of Chinese class under my belt, and no friends. I’m going to be a student in a Columbia University Program at Minzu University in Beijing. I’m really excited to work on my language acquisition outside of the classroom. I love learning Mandarin and can’t wait to use mine in an organic language environment. Hopefully I can pick up new words and phrases by talking to people on the street, in restaurants etc. I feel my inner-crisis subsiding because I’m sure my language skills will improve and that I’ll adjust to new people and places. But I have one last concern: can I really eat Chinese food for two months straight?

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

Chinese food is delicious! My worries were for naught! Before I left for Beijing a Notre Dame nurse gave me three very specific rules to follow: 1. If you can peel it you can eat it (referring to fruit) 2. Get any hot liquid to a boiling point 3. avoid Chinese dairy products. I broke all three rules on the very first day. However, I still avoid street food because I’ve learned that’s what will actual make you sick. Eating at any restaurant here in Beijing is really a cultural experience. First of all, you must speak and read Chinese (although some menus will feature english descriptions of the food items). Second of all, most Chinese restaurants in China feature the cuisine of a specific Chinese province, such as Sichuan which is known for extremely spicy food. Thirdly, you must use chopsticks! I’m still having difficulty with this task, but I’m determined to get it! And finally, you must resist the urge to tip since tipping actually insults the honor of the person providing you service. Many westerners have become accustomed to a few Chinese dishes including: Mongolian beef, sweet and sour pork or Mushu pork, General Tsao’s chicken or Kung Pao chicken and fried rice. However, most restaurants that I went to actually didn’t have these foods (or soy sauce) and so you had to branch out and try new things. One of the new dishes I tried and discovered that I really liked was called 西红柿炒鸡蛋, or stir fried tomato and eggs. It’s really simple, but really delicious. I beginning to realize that it’s important to make sure you keep a balanced diet and don’t order your favorite dish everyday. For example, my roommate and I always try to keep a few items of fruit in our room because we’ve found that fruit is not common in Chinese dishes. However, before you eat fruit here, you have to wash it with a special fruit soap to be sure don’t eat any dangerous pesticides. We also have to remember to not drink from the faucet and always carry bottled water.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

I came to Beijing planning on taking second year Chinese. However, after having a talk with Columbia University’s Chinese Department head, I’ve decided to take their first-year advanced classes. These classes are for students who have already taken Chinese, but who think second year might be slightly too accelerated for them. I was in Columbia’s second year classes for a few days, but felt like the curriculum of the Columbia course was too far ahead of mine to catch up. Also, because it’s been a month since classes at Notre Dame have ended, I’ve really felt my language level take a dip. I’m slightly disappointed that my course of study hasn’t turned out the way I planned, but I also see the bright side to having less assignments and projects and therefore having more time to spend exploring the city of Beijing.
While walking down the streets I’ve noticed a few things: trash cans and public restrooms are scarce in the area where I live, so the streets filthy. You would think this might deter people from enjoying the outdoors? But actually, the streets and sidewalks are teeming with people, especially at night, eating, socializing and trying to sell you pirated DVDs. Looking around I see a lot of T-shirts and clothing items with english on them. I asked one of my teachers about this and she said that people think english letters are “cool.” However, almost everything with english on it is completely wrong: either the words are spelled wrong, placed in an order that doesn’t make sense, or it’s just a random jumble of letters. English is so cool, apparently, that it doesn’t even matter what it says.
Although it was apparent from their T-shirts that many Chinese people do not speak fluent English, a lot of them have studied
English for many years. So when my roommate and I are in public spaces and need to say something privately we will occasionally speak in Spanish. My roommate is from Puerto Rico and is therefore a native Spanish speaker, and I studied Spanish for six years. Situations where this was helpful included when we were bargaining at markets and wanted to ask each other if an item was worth the price or whether the price was too high. Some Chinese people have also studied Spanish, but very few. Apparently, a native Chinese person who knows how to speak Spanish has the same “awe” factor as an American knowing how to speak Chinese.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Besides being immersed in traditional Chinese culture, I also spent the summer immersed in a Communist society. I find different forms of government very fascinating and I was excited to live in China for a short time and judge for myself the effectiveness of its current government from a civilian perspective. All around the city of Beijing, there are large banners and billboards that say “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness and Virtue.” This, apparently, is the new motto the current government has put out with important ideals for the population to focus on. Although many official groups and departments I have come across have the word “Patriotic” in front of it, I have found that the Chinese people I have encountered to be less patriotic than I expected. For example, every night that I go out to dinner, the restaurant is always showing the London Olympics on their TV screens and featuring all of the Chinese gold medalists. However, it seems to me that no one in the restaurant is ever excited to see their compatriots dominating in their respective categories. In fact, it doesn’t even seem like the restaurant-goers are even paying attention. From my experience during the Beijing Olympics while I was in the U.S., my fellow Americans were always cheering on our Olympic athletes, even in public places. Or at least interested in their performances. I have found it to be very interesting that the general Chinese populace is less than fervent about their patriotism, whereas the Chinese government puts on the facade of a country brimming with patriotism. My perspective has only come from Beijing, a huge urban center, and from within a civilian population, but I cannot speak for the attitude in the Chinese countryside or for the attitudes of government or military officials.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

One of the reasons I chose the program I did was because Columbia’s program in Beijing provides its students with a one week travel break! My roommate and I decided the two places we most wanted to visit with our allotted time were Xi’an and Shanghai. Besides the Great Wall, the Terracotta warriors in Xi’an have been the most memorable sight from my travels so far. Each warrior is unique and extremely detailed. The sheer number of statues is enough to make your jaw drop. An entire inanimate army just waiting for its chance at battle in the afterlife. My family and I like to watch a tv show called “The Amazing Race,” where teams race around the world completing tasks and deciphering clues they find in marked boxes with red and yellow flags. The Terracotta warriors site would have been a perfect place for the show to set up its clue box, so I always kept my eyes out for the red and yellow flag!
After Xi’an, my roommate and I went to Shanghai. The one bummer about traveling outside of Beijing is that every other city has its own distinct dialect. In Shanghai, the people speak Shanghainese. Although most people know how to speak standard Mandarin, almost everyone we’ve encountered so far is speaking what sounds to be a completely different language than Mandarin–so we assume it’s Shanghainese. When we go to stores for example, and speak to the person behind the counter in Mandarin, they will respond in Mandarin but with the following customers they speak Shanghainese. Some of the most gratifying moments of my language experience so far have actually been in places like the Beijing subway. Not many foreigners take the subway, so people like to comment on the foreigners they see. Because everyone has to stand together in a cramped space, it’s easy to overhear conversations, especially if they’re about you. Some of my best listening practice has been on the subway. However, in Shanghai, local people on the subway will speak Shanghainese to each other, which goes completely over my head.
If you were to Google “Shanghai” right now, you would most likely see pictures of The Bund. The Bund is the most famous area of Shanghai because it has large modern-looking skyscrapers and lots of lights. It’s beautiful at night, especially because it’s across a river and the lights of the buildings reflect on the water.
Foreigners aren’t the only people who come to see Shanghai. Many Chinese people from the countryside or other cities also come to be a tourist in China’s big cities. In my experience, as a foreigner trying to view tourist attractions in China, you become a tourist attraction yourself. Be prepared to take lots of pictures with small children and excited middle schoolers. At first it’s a little bit overwhelming to have people wanting your picture, but then it just becomes a fun experience that you probably won’t have anywhere else. Might as well live it up before returning to America and becoming a normal person again!

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

I’m finally back in the U.S. and not a single person has asked to take a picture with me! I had to fly straight from Beijing to Chicago then drive to South Bend to start up school again. As much as I loved my summer experience, I also missed my school a lot! There’s really nowhere else but Notre Dame. I truly believe that. Upon starting up classes again, I was set to take Chinese 2, which I thought would be my best option since I only took advanced Chinese 1 over the summer. However, after going through language testing, the Chinese department teachers decided to place me in Chinese 3. Although I took the less rigorous classroom course over the summer, I really think there is something to be said about having less academic work and more time to spend improving your language skills by exploring your surroundings. My roommate this summer took Chinese 2 and spent a lot of her time cooped up in our dorm room doing homework. I, on the other hand, spent a lot of my time bargaining at markets and going places with my friends or teachers. I believe that learning vocabulary can be done through memorization in any setting. However, picking up correct Chinese tones has to be done by listening to native speakers and what’s a better place to do that than in China!? As my teacher often tells my class, students can become as fluent in Chinese as they want, but without attaching the correct tones to the words you’re speaking, no native speaker will understand you. In fact, without the correct tones (Chinese has four tones), you may be saying words with meanings you didn’t intend. You could even be using offensive language and not know it. I think understanding tones has been one of my biggest takeaways from my summer language experience. I know my tones are not perfect, but I now have a better understanding of what I have to do in order to keep improving my language skills. The relationships I formed with my teachers and even my roommate will be something that I’ll treasure forever. I feel like I gained so much knowledge of foreign cultures (not just Chinese culture) this summer. This is truly an experience I will be forever grateful for. I really hope that my friends and peers can also one day have a study abroad experience as eye-opening worthwhile as mine has been.

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

As I said in my final blog post, my language skills improved more than I expected because I took advanced Chinese 1 this summer instead of Chinese 2. However, I believe that my interactions outside of the classroom are what most improved my language skills and caused me to be placed into Chinese 3. I know I’ll have to work hard to keep up with my classmates who had an entire year to study level 2 vocabulary and grammar, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I truly enjoy speaking Chinese and find a lot of satisfaction in improving my language skills. I plan on paying more attention to my tones and making my Chinese sound more authentic.
Many of the other students on my program experienced a negative culture shock while abroad. While I believe I did go through a bit of a culture shock, I understood that I would have to adapt to a new environment. For example, because there are so many people in Beijing, you have to get used to shoving, yelling and less personal space. A few of my classmates couldn’t handle this difference in culture and you could tell they were only dwelling on why these differences were bad. The best way to handle cultural differences like this is to take them in stride and realize that this apparent rudeness isn’t actually considered “rude.” “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” People have to shove in order to get where they’re going, don’t take it as a personal offense.
Besides gaining an appreciation for real Chinese food and the ability to use chopsticks, experiencing Chinese culture made me further appreciate American culture. It’s not that I don’t respect Chinese culture or think that American culture is perfect, but freedom is truly something to be cherished. I believe that in comparison to China, America fosters much more creativity in its young people. The Chinese population is so large compared to ours that it’s potential for creative minds is statistically so much greater than ours. However, I found there to be very strict expectations for Chinese kids about how they should go about their schooling, social interactions and finding a job. There’s essentially no room for failure in Chinese culture, which is why Chinese people seem to be so very good at the things they do. However, it seems to me that initial or even repeated failure ends up bringing about the greatest successes. Although this may seem like a very abstract line of thought, I think this is one of the core reasons why American industries–especially the industries that involve creative minds–are still very much “on top.”
Besides making language gains, getting first hand experience of Chinese society and then being able to juxtapose our culture with theirs has been the most interesting part of my summer.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

The following is what I believe I have gained from having a study-abroad experience: I will never really be able to explain to someone to what extent my summer abroad experience has changed me as a person. It’s very subtle, but I have a different outlook on life. I’ve realized that the times when you are spontaneous or step out of your comfort zone make the most worthwhile memories and experiences. It takes some guts to willingly throw yourself into a strange situation. But when have comfortable situations every made a good story? I remember writing a paper in high school in which I explained why I thought people were inherently selfish–and by default, bad. But now, I think I’ve changed my mind. I think people are inherently good. I admit that yes, there are some nut jobs out there in the world and some people with less than honorable intentions. I also think that not all human-made institutions are good. But if you take away politics, culture, and religion: everyone is just a person. Not everyone is going to get along or see eye to eye, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad, just confused. I would consider myself a very accepting person and it’s often so hard for me to understand why everyone can’t have an accepting mindset. But I also understand that not everyone’s minds process things the same way mine does. And that is also something that I must accept.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

At some point I plan on traveling back to China. Whether that means for a semester my junior year, or for a job in the future. I would love to spend some time outside of the big cities and visit the countryside. I also want to visit Hong Kong as well as Taiwan. I very much enjoy analyzing cultural differences and seeing how that correlates to economic and diplomatic success. I’m not sure what profession I want to pursue yet, but I hope it will involve my knowledge of Asian cultures and the Chinese language. If I have the opportunity, I would also love to travel to Tokyo and Seoul just to see more of East Asia.