Post-China Reflection

I’ve now been out of China for about one entire month. It feels very odd to be back in the United States and have to go through the whole jet-lag adjustment process again. Overall, I am very satisfied with the experience that I’ve been so fortunate to have these past two months living in such a different culture.

During the eight weeks of the program, I did not miss class once, which I think greatly helped my learning, as so much can be learned in one day of class at NDIB. Each day we learned a little less than 100 words and 20 grammar concepts a day, and the four hours of drill class as well as the individual discussion sessions with a teacher definitely drastically aided in my learning. I met all of my goals for language learning that I created prior to my start of the program, which makes me feel accomplished. Sometimes it can be hard to see my own progress with the language, but it’s easy to measure my progress by my fulfillment of my language goals.

If I were to give advice to someone going to study in China in the future, I would tell him to not be afraid to travel around Beijing by himself. A lot of times, it was difficult to coordinate daily travel or eating with friends, due to the small size of the program and the differences in study habits. By exploring the very safe city by myself, I was able to experience more of the city and more of what I wanted to see in China. In addition, I wasn’t tempted to speak English with anyone while sightseeing, as everyone around me only spoke Chinese. By exploring by myself, I was forced to figure out a lot of the city by myself, which was a challenge I really enjoyed.

I plan on continuing to study Chinese in the future. I am currently spending the fall semester studying Spanish in Toledo, Spain, which makes maintaining my current level of Chinese a bit difficult. I speak both Chinese and Spanish pretty well, and although they may see like they have nothing in common, I often get the two languages confused in my head. I hope to take an online class in Chinese while I am abroad so that I can continue on in the second half of 4th year Chinese when I return to Notre Dame in the spring. It’s crazy to think that I started learning Chinese about a year and a half ago, and I’ve already reached senior level Chinese classes. I hope to use my language skills in combination with my business major to work abroad in international businesses.

I’m so fortunate to have been awarded the SLA Grant to study abroad in Beijing China. The experiences that I have been blessed with have been unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my life. My Chinese language level has increased immensely, and I finished the summer program with an A. I am very proud of the work I have accomplished in China and feel that I have matured a lot by immersing myself in such a different but vibrant culture. I hope to continue my Chinese language study in hopes of one day becoming completely proficient in a language that I love so much.

Final weeks in China- Week 7 and 8

As I entered my last two weeks of NDIB, I buckled down and made the most of every moment in class. Week seven was very challenging, not only due to the material (we were learning how to discuss complex economic and political topics that I find difficult to discuss in English, much less Chinese!) but also because the hope of seeing our families was becoming closer and closer. China and my hometown of Chicago are 13 hours apart, and finding a time to talk to my friends and family was difficult. As much as I love China, I also missed my loved ones immensely.

Week seven, on Friday, I hosted and performed in Notre Dame’s China Night. In addition to singing a song with my classmates, I created a rap about my weeks here in China studying and experiencing the culture with my friends, making sure to thank my teachers who have worked so hard every day preparing the next day’s class. They have so much patience with us, which really shows as they answer our 100th question of the day. I also performed with my classmates in a skit parodying a game show in which I asked the contestants who were vying for my heart Chinese cultural questions in order to see if we were a good match or not (none of us were a good match, and I ended up choosing myself in the end). The whole night was tons of fun, and this wouldn’t be a Chinese program without a Chinese talent show!

On Saturday, I headed to the Lama Temple, a nearby hutong filled with restaurants, shops, and small cafes, and the Temple of Confucius. Although every temple is different, they are all treated with the same high level of respect and care from every visitor. For dinner, I met up with my Chinese teacher from last semester at Notre Dame, and it was so nice to see her in her hometown. She’s one of my favorite people ever, and for her to comment on the large progress in my Chinese proficiency meant a lot to me, especially as I was able to carry on a fluent conversation with her all night. On Sunday, I went to mass and bargained at the Silk Market, which was fun to use my Chinese to make up elaborate stories for why I absolutely needed silly items, but was unable to pay the ridiculously high asking price.

During week eight, despite becoming sick in the beginning of the week (no matter how careful you are, the water and food in China will still make you sick sometime!), I still managed to make it to the Temple of Heaven, the Old Summer Palace (which was filled with ruins of the original Summer Palace that was destroyed by the French and English), a few neighborhoods, the Pearl Market, and the Silk Market (Couldn’t forget those last minute souvenirs!). After giving my final oral presentation and finishing my last written final, I was sad to see the program ending. On the first day, I had given a speech to a few directors of Peking University during the welcome banquet, and now on the last day I was giving a closing speech to the same directors. My progress was evident in the sophistication of my second speech compared to my first speech, and I’m so proud of the progress that I’ve made with the help of my awesome teachers.

I’m so thankful that Notre Dame and the SLA Grant gave me the opportunity to study in the native country of my favorite language, and I can’t believe that it’s finally time to return to America. I’m so happy for all of the cultural and educational experiences that I have been afforded, and I hope to return to China in the future to continue my educational pursuits. I can’t wait to see how much more my Chinese can improve!

Reconnecting with my faith in China- Weeks 5 and 6

Returning to the daily homework, quizzes, essays, and oral presentations of class was difficult after such a fantastic weekend touring Xi’an, but I was glad to dive back into learning more and increasing my Chinese proficiency.

The weekend of week five was rather mellow, as we were able to choose what we wanted to do and go exploring ourselves. On Saturday, I headed to the Summer Palace, which is also Beijing’s largest garden. Filled with temples and winding paths, the Summer Palace truly was a site to behold. From the Summer Palace, I headed over to the Olympic Stadium. Beijing hosted the 2008 summer Olympics, and with the 2016 Summer Olympics coming up, I wanted to see the stadiums in Beijing. I toured the Bird’s Nest, the huge track and stadium that now hosts soccer matches. I was also able to enter the Water Cube, and was shocked at how small the stands were that surrounded the swimming and diving pool.

On Sunday, I went to mass for the first time in Beijing. It was so interesting to see how similar yet different a Catholic mass was in China. There was a bit of an issue with communion, as a non-Catholic accepted the host and then discarded it, but the priest handled the situation with grace. The mass was held in English and French, and it was nice to see people of all nationalities coming together in such a unique place to celebrate their faith. I definitely plan on returning every Sunday for the remaining weeks, and I really enjoyed reconnecting with my faith.

Week six came and gone, new vocabulary and grammar structures learned and ready to be tested during the weekend with conversations with locals. Friday for lunch, we were treated to hot pot again, and this time the meal was complete with performances. A man came and stretched noodles in front of us while a traditional mask-changing performer gave us a very unique show. After lunch, we headed to a movie theater to watch an animated Chinese children’s movie. It was amazing and empowering to be able to understand the entire movie’s dialogue, and it felt like my Chinese study was definitely paying off!

On Saturday, I headed back to the 798 Arts District, excited to be back in my element. It was even better than I remembered, and I loved exploring and finding all of the quirky art plastered across alley walls. Saturday night, we were treated to a traditional Chinese acrobatic show, and I was absolutely floored by how the performers made every insane act look like the easiest thing in the world. Sunday, I headed back to Church and stopped at the Silk Market on my way home. The Silk Market was an exciting place to be, as it was fun to use my Chinese to bargain for goods. The shopkeepers are very good about being patient with our Chinese, and it was really amusing to have fluent conversations in Chinese explaining why exactly I absolutely needed to buy a silk pillowcase, but could definitely not meet the asking price, as I was a poor college student.

I can’t wait to experience more of China, and I’m sad that next weekend will be my last weekend in one of my favorite cities! I’m so thankful for the opportunity to study the language I love in its home country, and the benefits of language immersion are becoming more and more evident every day.

China Week 4- Cultural Weekend in Xi’an!

The completion of week four means the halfway point hitting the halfway point of the program! I’m so happy with the language progress I’ve made so far, and I can’t wait to see how much more my fluency can improve in the coming weeks!

After we finished our semester midterm, we boarded an overnight train to Xi’an, a city right outside of Beijing. On an overnight train, you can either sleep in a soft double bunk bed with three other people in the room, or you can opt for the cheaper hard bed, in which you sleep in a multiple bunk bed in a communal room. We were fortunate enough to have soft bed tickets, and we made it to Xi’an in about twelve hours! Once we arrived, we stopped at the hotel to check-in and began our Xi’an adventure!

At lunch, we met the directors of the University in Xi’an that had organized our trip, and we were served local and traditional Xi’an specialty dishes. It was all delicious and very different from what we had experienced in Beijing. After lunch, we traveled to tour the Terracotta warriors, which were created to protect a Chinese emperor in the afterlife. The three tombs filled with the reconstructed warriors that were uncovered were massive, and it felt like a right of passage to see the amazing cultural phenomenon. After touring the warriors, we saw the coolest show I have ever seen that told the story of an emperor, his wife, and the enemy army, which was beautifully portrayed complete with special effects such as fire and water canons.

The next day, we biked eight miles around the Xi’an city wall, from which we were able to see views of the entire city. After the bike ride, we headed to lunch and a tour of Muslim street, named as such due to the high population of Muslims in the area. Although I wish we could have spent more time experiencing the different traditional food vendors and bargaining for cultural souvenirs, the museum that we headed to next was a very educational insight into Xi’an and its history as a city. At night, we wandered around the city center, taking in vibrant atmosphere and seeing all of the fountains and statues on our walk back to the hotel.

Our final day in Xi’an, we toured a series of Buddhist temples and were treated to a lunch of hot pot, which is like the Chinese equivalent to cooking your food using fondue. The meal was fantastic, and before I knew it we were back on a bullet train, heading back to Beijing, writing essays and preparing for Monday’s class. Xi’an was a nice break from the difficult weeks of class, and I’m so happy that Notre Dame organized the trip so that we could see one of China’s most important cultural cities.

4th of July and 798! China Week 3

Week three was probably my favorite weekend in China! Monday was the fourth of July, so all of the students gathered together to celebrate being an American in China. We all wore red, white, and blue, proud to be representing our country as we studied at the most prestigious university in China. At night, we took the subway to Tuanjiehu, which is considered the Soho of Beijing by many foreigners. There, a barbecue restaurant was hosting an Independence Day celebration for all of the Americans in Beijing. It was one of the only times I haven’t felt like I was the only American person in a Chinese location. Many Chinese people from all over the country visit Beijing, as it hosts many important cultural and religious sites, and it’s very rare to see people of other nationalities at most of these tourist destinations in Beijing. It was really interesting to see how people of all ages from all different parts of America had somehow made it to Beijing, could speak Chinese, and yet were still celebrating their home country. We took the subway home and were still able to go to bed early, ready to continue working hard and studying!

On Saturday, we headed to the 798 Arts District, a hipster district in China full of contemporary art galleries, small shops, and intricate street art. Walking through the maze of alleys and streets was exciting, as it seemed that around every corner was a new sculpture or graffiti art that provided awesome photo opportunities. Some of the art criticized society, and other pieces of art provided an insight into traditional Chinese artisan practices. One of my favorite pieces was an art piece about the size of a three-story building. It consisted of three stacked cages with dinosaurs in them and was found on the main street outside of the main art exhibit, which boasted colorful contemporary artwork.

Local artists had also set up small booths along the streets, showing off their talents that ranged from pencil portraits to small wire car statues. I fell in love with two paintings by a man who only used his fingers and ink to paint beautiful depictions of waterfalls. You could see the fingerprints in the art, and I watched in amazement as he created one of the masterpieces in front of my eyes. As I waited for him to finish “finger-painting” my complex nature scenes, I sipped on freshly squeezed orange juice, which can be found all over China, and is made right in front of you as a man squeezes fresh oranges and bottles the juice.

I loved the 798 Arts District so much that I cannot wait to go back, as it’s so big and I feel like there is so much more to explore! The arts district will always have a place in my heart, and I felt like I was finally finding myself in Beijing. Being able to learn and speak Chinese, celebrating the fourth of July, and visiting arguably my favorite place in China? Absolutely amazing, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity!

故宫,天安门广场,和后海 China Week 2 Part 2

Our cultural excursion for week 2 was to visit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As we entered the square, we saw hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese people lined up to see Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. Something that’s really interesting about China that’s different than most of the other countries I’ve visited is that at every tourist destination, mostly Chinese people are found being tourists in their own homeland. It seems to me that it’s almost as though because Beijing is the cultural hub of China, many Chinese people visit Beijing as almost a pilgrimage of some sort, whether they’re touring beautifully ornate Buddhist temples or climbing the Great Wall.

Tiananmen Square, famous for having a huge picture of Mao on the outside as well as being the site of the famous picture of Tank Man, leads into the Forbidden City, essentially a small village composed of 9,999 traditional architectural buildings for the leader of China and his 3,000 concubines. After wandering through the maze of buildings that all seemed to blend into each other, we stumbled upon this huge manmade structure of a rock that had every Chinese zodiac animal carved into it as statues. In my opinion, this was the coolest part of the Forbidden City, as it was interesting how the artist chose to depict each zodiac symbol. As we left the Forbidden City, we hiked up a small mountain that provided us with a spectacular view of the entire city as well as a huge gold Buddhist shrine.

Although I enjoyed learning about the history of China throughout the day, my favorite part of the day was exploring Houhai, a small neighborhood of traditional hutongs, bars, and shops organized around a calm lake filled with paddle boats. The scenery was breathtaking, and I ate the most elaborately constructed and most delicious flower-shaped cotton candy I’ve ever eaten. I plan to return to Houhai and experience the magic of the neighborhood at night, as one of my Chinese teachers recommended experiencing Houhai’s vibrant nightlife.

Learning Chinese is ridiculously difficult, and every day I’m reminded of how rare and hard it is to achieve near-native proficiency in the language. However, with the help of my very patient teachers and eager classmates, I’m able to quickly learn new vocabulary and grammar structures, which I’m later able to test out in real situations like in restaurants or shops. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to study in China, and I think it has helped my Chinese proficiency grow in such an enriched environment.

P.S. Good luck to my fellow ND classmate, Dino Swan, as he embarks on learning Spanish!! 加油!

民以食为天!China Week 2 Part 1

…Resources and energy are depleting, send help…

My stash of American granola bars I brought may have slowly disappeared, but I’m mostly kidding.

Week two was definitely a lot harder than week one, as I struggled to come to terms with just how different the food is in China from America (the Chinese version of an American breakfast sandwich is a fried egg inside of a Taiwan pancake). However, I was able to find some foods I enjoy, such as authentic Kung Pao chicken, 煎饺子 (fried eggs with meat and vegetable filled dumplings), and 香辣鸡汉堡 (the Chinese version of a spicy chicken sandwich). Living in the suburbs of Chicago my whole life, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of authentic Chinese food, so fully immersing myself in the Chinese culture and eating traditional Chinese food took some getting used to. Every Friday afternoon, our Chinese teachers take us out to a traditional Chinese restaurant, which really helps to understand the Chinese culture’s approach to food as well as try more different types of Chinese dishes, the names of which are all conveniently composed with the ingredient used in the dish as well as the way the dish is prepared.

The Chinese culture places a large emphasis on sharing food when actually sharing a meal. In most Chinese restaurants, a Lazy Susan sits in the middle of the table, allowing for easy access to every food and drink that is brought out in staggered time intervals. Unlike in America, you’re able to try a wide variety of foods in one meal, broadening your tastes with each unique bite. Because you try so many different foods, it’s easy to become full quickly without realizing it, but your Chinese teacher will still urge you to take that last piece of eggplant. Chinese people are very selfless when it comes to sharing food, always offering others the first and last bite of every dish and encouraging you to eat as much as your heart desires and your stomach can hold. In China, one of the absolute worst things is to be wasteful, so it’s important to try to finish every plate that you’ve ordered.

As far as drinks go, it is very rare that a restaurant will have cold or even room temperature water. The water quality in China very easily causes foreigners to get sick, so many of the restaurants only serve hot tea and soda. The two most common sodas to drink are Sprite and Coke, and a liter bottle of each is typically placed on the Lazy Susan at the beginning of the meal, only to quickly disappear as eleven thirsty Notre Dame students each guzzle down a glass. In some restaurants, a small glass with the cup not more than the size of a thimble, which is meant to hold 白酒, essentially the equivalent of a really strong vodka, is placed next to each guest’s plate, soup bowl, spoon, chopsticks, and tea cup. Of course, because we’re part of a school program, we don’t partake in the tradition of drinking with any meals, but it’s interesting to see the Chinese culture’s approach to alcohol with meals.

My ordering in Chinese has slowly but surely developed from pointing at menu items and asking what meat is the main component of the dish (side note: for some reason, the workers at the dining hall enjoy telling us that the dish is composed of chicken or beef when really it’s made of fish L) to being able to pronounce full names of food and successfully order for myself. I still have a long ways to go when it comes to getting used to eating and ordering Chinese food, but I’m so lucky and fortunate to get the opportunity to practice every day.

Chasing China Week 1

When someone asks me what I’m studying at Notre Dame, I respond by saying, “Finance, Spanish, and Chinese” as I watch their expression shift from mildly interested to very confused. After asking me to repeat myself at least once, they almost always respond with, “Chinese?! Really?! Isn’t it hard?! Have you ever been to China?!” I smile politely and answer their questions with “Yes, yes, it is, and no but I would love to go someday!” Little did I know that, when the time finally came for me to take the 13.5 hour flight over the ocean and finally get to experience authentic Chinese culture, being in China would be one of the hardest and one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced.

Generally speaking, Chinese class in China is about the same as in America. We have homework, oral reports, essays, tests, daily quizzes, and wonderful teachers. However, every single day we have four hours of class followed by forty minutes of one on one conversation with a teacher. Learning Chinese makes one ridiculously tired, whether its from painstakingly trying to learn 250 new words a week that all sound and look about the same or from struggling to understand difficult grammar concepts that only exist in Chinese but not English. Because I signed a language pledge that I would only speak Chinese for eight weeks, I’ve been trying my hardest to learn as much of the language as quickly as I can in order to communicate as clearly as possible. Furthermore, speaking English in China practically has no use because it is seldom to come across anyone who can understand English.

Although becoming fluent in Chinese often feels like an impossible task, little breakthroughs and simple triumphs throughout my time here have pushed me to keep going. When I successfully obtained a card from the lady at the subway desk and navigated my way from my home at Peking University 2 lines and 17 subway stops away to a restaurant for dinner where I was able to successfully order food in Chinese, it felt like I could actually become accustomed to living in China. 8 weeks in a foreign country with foreign customs and a foreign language? I can do that! …can’t I?!

My first weekend in Beijing was spent getting situated in my dorm, learning about the program during orientation, and meeting my Chinese language partner, a Chinese Peking University student named Lily who has already taught me a few popular slang phrases in Chinese. On Sunday, June 19th, I also got to celebrate my birthday! The Notre Dame coordinator and Chinese teacher, Ye Laoshi, truly cares about the well-being of his students, and he bought two cakes to help me celebrate turning 20 in Beijing! Ye Laoshi calls himself our yeye- ye in Chinese can also mean grandfather, and Ye Laoshi’s caring nature has definitely turned him into our Chinese grandfather, even though he’s a young teacher. It was definitely a unique birthday, especially considering the two cakes were made of vegetables, as Chinese people traditionally do not enjoy sweet treats.

The second weekend in Beijing, Notre Dame took us on a trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. After taking an almost two hour bus ride out of the city of Beijing on Saturday morning at 8 AM, we finally arrived at the entrance to the wall. In order to reach the wall, we climbed about 80 flights of stairs up to the sixth guard post of the wall. We quickly realized that the Chinese version of hiking was really climbing stairs instead of walking up inclines. It was one of the most physically tiring things I’ve ever done, especially considering it was over 100 degrees outside in the sun. Once we reached the wall, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and greenery. We “hiked” from the 6th guard post up to the top of the 12th guard post, taking in the breathtaking scenery and coming across a few Notre Dame alums along the way, just proving how ridiculously widespread the Notre Dame network truly is. After finally getting to the top of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, we hiked back down to the 4th guard post where we were able to take a slide down the side of the mountain. It was one of the more dangerous and most fun things I’ve ever done. I was so fortunate to visit one of the wonders of the world, and I’m so thankful for such a great opportunity! On the way back from the Great Wall, we stopped at an art gallery opening and were able to meet the owners and artists. It was so interesting to discuss the art work with its creators in Chinese, and it was cool to see how even though people may come from different cultures, they all experience the same feelings of hope, sadness, and confusion that can be expressed through their art.

On Sunday, we were on our own to explore the city as we pleased. We decided to take the subway to the Hongqiao Pearl Market, one of the largest counterfeit markets in the city. All though none of the items in the 7 floor building were real, they were all so realistic looking some tourists were getting fooled into paying prices one would pay for the real thing! It was so fun to barter with the shopkeepers, and negotiating a good price is definitely an acquired skill that takes a bit of practice. The different shopkeepers have bartering with foreigners down to a science, using flattering English phrases and huge calculators to negotiate fair prices. Being American and being able to speak Chinese was definitely a huge advantage, as most of the shopkeepers immediately took a liking to us and wanted to know how and why we had undertaken the challenge of learning one of the most difficult languages. After getting ripped off a few times and finally figuring out the best way to get the lowest price possible, I walked out of the market with basketball jerseys for my brother, two purses for myself,  two touristy shirts with funny sayings, and a traditional Chinese shirt. It was overall a very fun and light-hearted day. However, I couldn’t relax for too long as I had to go to office hours to prepare a 700 word essay and study for my quiz the next day!

Even though I’m in third year Chinese and am learning how to engage in discussions about complicated topics such as the no-longer-existent One-Child policy and the governmental restrictions on NGO’s, I am definitely realizing how long and winding the road is to even come close to speaking fluent Chinese. For right now, I’m just trying to keep up with the hustle and bustle of everything going on around me as I struggle to put together bits and pieces of what I’ve learned in class and apply them to the situations that I engage in around me. For right now, I’m still chasing China.