Looking back at my language experience, I find that one of the most interesting things I have found about learning a new language is the importance of outside the classroom interactions. As much as my language skills developed from attending lecture and drilling grammar structures, I found that possibly the greatest growth took place when I interacted with people outside of the classroom. Even studying vocab from a book is only helpful to a certain extent. Without being able to make use of it, and solidify it in one’s memory in the context of actual conversation, it does not do much good.
The language shock of going to China for two months can really only be compared to the cultural differences that were experienced. After spending so much time in a different country, one is bound to get accustomed to a lot of the different ways of doing things, but this is only after a long time, and there are still bound to be many things that one never gets used to. In China, even street manners are starkly different. One thing that I found funny is that staring is much more acceptable. Experiencing different cultures was an opportunity that the SLA grant provided me, as valuable as the language experience.
Going forward, I do not think that class alone is sufficient for sustaining the language level that was attained during my time in China. In addition to formal studying, I think that it is important to practice more informal conversation with other people in order to maintain the same type of fluency. After all, I feel as though that is one of the main benefits of studying in a different country; aside from studying language in the classroom, one can communicate in a more common way, which is bound to yield improvement in ways that traditional classroom settings simply cannot. These language skills are invaluable moving forward, as speaking any foreign language in any field of work opens the doors to a myriad of opportunities through being able to connect to more people in a more personal way.
As my time in China comes to a close, I cannot tell if the trip has flown by, or has felt as though it lasted a lifetime. On the one hand I cannot believe that it 2 months have already passed since I first arrive, but on the other hand, looking back to the first day being here, that seems like it was ages ago. Looking back I feel as though my Chinese definitely has progressed. I don’t necessarily think that I am fluent, but I would be pretty comfortable being on my own in China trying to figure out what people are saying. If there is ever a word or phrase I don’t know, I know enough to fill in the gaps with other phrases and descriptions.
For the second to last week we had our Chinese night and talent show. The program would not be a Notre Dame Chinese department event without one. I helped out as an MC and did a dance in a group. It was a little hectic since it took place on a Friday, which is our test day, but overall everyone rallied very well to make it happen, especially the teachers who all put an enormous amount of effort into it. I think people really enjoyed themselves that night, and to me it seemed even better than the typical Chinese nights we have on campus. We closed out with pizza, which was definitely not United States pizza, but after having so much Chinese food, you’re not picky. I am looking forward to going home, but I there are definitely aspects of China I will miss. I will especially miss the cheap food and having the chance to talk to random people out of the classroom in Chinese.
After coming back from Xi’An, everything is back to the regular routine again. Class is pretty manageable, and I’m still finding time to do other activities in the city and visit the places I want to go. Recently I took a trip to two very famous markets; the Pearl Market and the Silk Market. These are unlike anywhere I have ever been in the U.S. Infamous for their fake name brand goods, it would be completely ridiculous to go to one of these places without bargaining. The initial price that someone there will ask for is generally several times what they are willing to settle for. I actually really enjoy going to these places, not just because of the cheap prices that one is able to get. Although I was able to get a good amount of gifts for family members here, what I really enjoy is talking to the people there. I will often at the same time as bargaining talk to the workers about everything from where they come from to which country tends to have the most annoying bargainers. It is actually an excellent way to practice Chinese. Sometimes I feel as though my greatest progress in terms of language comes after going to a place like this and just talking to people. The people who work at places like this are also always thrilled to see a foreigner taking an interest in learning Chinese. I can’t believe that I’ve already been here over a month. The feeling is somewhere between a mix between I’ve been here forever, and I got here yesterday.
Marking the halfway point of our time in China, we took a weekend trip as a class to the city of Xi’An. Everything was very interesting, even the train ride over there was something to remember. Lasting about 11 hours, I was in a relatively small room with 4 beds and 6 people. Although it wasn’t the most comfortable night’s sleep, I was able to make friends with some young kids and their parents.
In Xi’An, we of course visited the city’s most famous attraction, the Terracotta Soldiers. The Terracotta Army was built according to the command of Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife. Built in the 3rd century BC, it remains one of the most greatest wonders of China. It was awe-inspiring to see the lines of thousands of soldiers, each with a unique face, each with its own uniform and weapon. One could only imagine the countless hours of expert work taken to create such a detailed display. The feeling of amazement was tinted by sadness for the incredible mistreatment of those who worked on the soldiers, all of whom were killed afterwords in order to maintain secrecy.
Among the other things we did was a bike trip along the city wall and attend a performance of a classic Chinese poem and piece of history, “The Song of Eternal Regret.” Everything was very enjoyable and was a good way to split up the time in Beijing. Afterwards, I am ready to continue studying.
Class is going well, it is definitely still busy but also manageable. Time is passing very quickly I can hardly believe that we already almost at the halfway point. I also am noticing a significant improvement in my speaking ability. For the most part I am able to get by pretty well with everyday interactions whether it be buying food, talking to a taxi driver or meeting a new person. By far the hardest thing that I find is understanding what some native speakers are saying, it sounds so different from the clear pronunciation we hear in the classroom. Our teachers say not to worry though, people’s accents from different areas can be so strong that even native speakers can have trouble understanding sometimes.
This week we went as a class to the Forbidden City. Originally a high security area for emperor and elite of China, it is now a major tourist destination, adjacent to Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City itself was pretty magnificent, but after honestly the buildings all looked very similar. After a couple hours we hiked to the top of hill which had a amazing view of the whole City. Next week we will be going to Xi’An which should be exciting, as fun as Beijing is it will be nice to see another part of China.
After the second week in China, I feel like I have a good feel for what daily life is going to be like. There is still not a whole lot of free time during the week just because of the workload, but its manageable. Our first trip was to the Great Wall, which was beautiful. There were quite a few other people there, but it wasn’t too crowded. It was a bit of a walk to reach the wall itself, but once there the view made it well worth it. The amount of effort and resources that it must have take to construct it is unimaginable even today, let alone hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It was also something to consider how many people must have died making it.
We have Friday activities that I’m not too much of a fan of, but it’s not the worst. They generally consist of familiarizing ourselves with Chinese culture in some way or another, whether it be talking to random people about the college entrance exam they have there, or just exploring campus. On the weekends Wudaokou is generally the place to hangout, it seems like its kind of tailored to college students. I also went to an area called Tuanjiehu with a lot of expatriates, where you can get some fairly authentic American food, just definitely more expensive than the dining hall.
Upon arriving in Beijing, I immediately realized I had a bit of ways to go in terms of language progress. Asking people for directions at the airport and on campus, I never completely understood what anyone said. As far as adjusting to the life at Peking University, there wasn’t anything too difficult. Class is a little overwhelming, not necessarily because of the difficulty of the course (though it’s not easy) as much as the sheer amount of time it takes in the day. I do wish there was a little more time to go exploring, but I’m sure I’ll be able to better manage my time for this in the future.
The food situation is interesting. There are many things that we’ve been warned against, such as cold dishes, fruit, and food carts on the side of the street. The dining halls and restaurants on campus are very reasonably priced, it’d be hard to eat more than . A lot of the other students complain about the food but I actually like it hahaha. Once late at night everything was closed and I was pretty hungry so I bought something from a kind of dicey looking place. I wasn’t really sure what I was eating, but I survived! The wifi is a little tricky and you have to use a vpn for some sites, but so far everything’s gone pretty smoothly, and still excited to be here.