Post-Program: Final Thoughts

I am deeply grateful for this summer’s experience in Beijing. It was my first trip to mainland China, and I am so glad to have had two full months of Chinese learning at China’s best university. I learned to think creatively, especially in situations where the language barrier became a serious inconvenience. Once I entered a store where there was not a word of English anywhere, and despite my limited Chinese, I used what basic vocabulary I knew to find help in getting what I needed. Body language, careful observance, and preparation are so helpful when getting around local places. Being fully immersed in this very Chinese city also helped me understand the importance of practicing speaking a new language. Hearing and speaking Mandarin daily was one of the most significant parts of the Chinese-learning experience. Right now, I am making it a goal to regularly watch, or listen to Chinese television and music to help keep the sound of Mandarin in my head. The friends I made in Beijing also encouraged me to find other Mandarin-speaking people at my home to practice speaking Chinese with.

Journaling throughout this program has also helped me to record the process of my adjustment to life in Beijing. Learning to be flexible and alert was necessary to interacting with a different set of people, but I found that patience and kindness were equally valuable. When I didn’t have the Chinese words to express myself, body language and attitude were more useful than I expected. Losing my way in Wudaokou led to conversation with locals that consisted of a lot of laughing and nodding.

The SLA Grant experience has encouraged me to continue looking for ways to make unique experiences more meaningful. During our various outings, I took notes in my journal for our blog posts. A little while passed, and I began writing journals for the sake of preserving and re-living my favorite China experiences. This summer was the first time I felt that I had truly gotten to know Chinese language, and my hope is to build on my study abroad experience by reading more on China. At Peking University, I learned the Chinese way of learning, and these are methods that I will apply to the coming years at Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish are a match for terra-cotta warriors any day

Just What I Didn’t Need

Beijing, for a long time, was known as a city of bicycles. Even now, armies of bicycles crowd the gray sidewalks of Beijing and roll down the streets alongside cars. In some places along the sidewalk, the space left for walking has been so narrowed by bikes that it feels the sidewalk is more a parking lot for rows of rental bikes than a convenience for pedestrians.

Encountering technological issues just when trying to pay for an Ofo rental bike

Unlike the recreational purpose most bike-riding has in the U.S., Chinese depend on their bikes as serious forms of transportation to get them to and from work, school, or wherever they need to go. Naturally, we had many long conversations about biking in Beijing, and often compared the biking culture of the States and China. In fact, bicycles are so important to Chinese life that a biking phrase has developed and become a common saying when you find yourself in an unfortunate situation. The phrase literally means “my bike chain has dropped.” It is typically used when you find yourself lacking the very thing you need most. For example, if you lost your bus ticket when in a real rush to get somewhere, this would be considered “dropping your bike chain”, because you lost the most necessary item at the worst possible moment. This phrase seems to be a very special Chinese saying, since biking has been a very important part of surviving and thriving in China.

I did hear a few younger folks use the phrase to describe an especially inconvenient situation but I did not catch the phrase on television or on the streets of Beijing. It is a bit more of an established saying, so a wider range of age groups are familiar with the phrase.

When I eventually decided to try my hand at city biking in Beijing, I had a literal experience with my bicycle chain dropping. Hoping to get to class quickly, I found an Ofo rental bike. As I tried to put my foot down on the pedal to move forward, I looked down and noticed that the bike’s chain had dropped and the bike was no use… it was exactly what I didn’t need at that moment, and truly a “dropped bike chain” situation!

On Shopping in China

I’m not a big spender, but I can easily pass the time with a few hours window shopping. This was harder to do in Beijing. In the oversized, shiny modern shopping malls, the shopping culture holds similarities with the U.S. but on the street or in places like the Pearl Market, the cultural difference is obvious. It’s atypical for people to just wander around the mall looking at things without buying them, and if you try, staff or vendors will pressure you to buy. This pressure to purchase is most pronounced at famous bargaining market locations such as the Pearl Market.

I was not overly familiar with Pearl Market before arriving in Beijing, but later I learned that it was an interesting place to bargain for cheaper goods. All of Pearl Market’s products are off-brand or fakes of pricier brands, so I decided to look around without buying anything. I did not expect the vendors to be so forward, and was certainly taken aback when one very determined lady seized me by the arm and quite literally dragged me into her stall. She hardly paused for a breath while describing to me the superior quality and pricing of her handbags, and as I tried to tell her I had neither the interest nor enough cash for her products, she threw a fake Prada bag into my arms and asked for 120 RMB. Other vendors had a gentler approach but I still often found my arms full of things I had no real interest in buying. They are very quick with putting their bags, or shirts, or whatever it is they’re selling into your hands. If you try to give it back just as quickly, they’ll almost duck away. I only ever felt less inclined to buy in such situations.

The alertness of the vendors is also rather startling; even a glance at their merchandise will have them smiling at you and scrambling to get you to buy their products. In the States, I wander in and out of stores without feeling the need to purchase anything, but in China, or at least Beijing, doing so will often get you decidedly unfriendly looks from shop-keepers.

Stores also use very interesting ways to promote themselves; more than once I saw the staff dancing in or outside stores to get shoppers’ attention. It is not uncommon to see vendors using megaphones to promote their products, even if it’s just tofu. Sometimes, vendors across the street from each other would try to shout over each other, and I ended up not understanding a word of anything. To attract shoppers, staff frequently stand outside stores and hand out flyers or demonstrate how their products work. Some of these can be interesting when a remote-controlled drone is doing loop-de-loops above your head, but others are funny because they’re as trivial as a man “demonstrating” the spinning capabilities of a fidget spinner.

I missed being able to leisurely drift from store to store without a sales clerk breathing down my neck. However, I realized that for many of these people, their income depends on selling as many of their products as possible. In some street stands, vendors had their children watching TV, working on homework, or even napping in the back. I certainly spent less time in stores I had no intention of buying from, but having gained a new perspective, I stopped resenting the attitude of the staff.

The Other Chinese in China

My roommate for half of this summer was a PKU international student from Malaysia. But, she was of Chinese descent; even her name is Chinese. She told me her grandparents had moved to Malaysia from mainland China. I didn’t see much of her at first, but after a while I got to know her a little better. One week, I thought I’d take a break from Chinese food, and she knew a decent Korean restaurant nearby, so the next day we went out for my first (hopefully not last) Korean hot pot. Over glass noodles and BBQ beef, we talked about college and how we ended up at our respective institutions. I asked her why she decided on PKU, and she told me that she moved to China for middle school with the intention of going to a Chinese university.

“Was it hard to learn Mandarin in school?” I asked, ignorantly. She shook her head, and I nodded admiringly, until she finished her mouthful of japchae and said, “But no.. I grew up speaking Mandarin, at home all we speak is Mandarin. I didn’t have to learn it.”

“You can’t speak Malay at all?” I pressed. She shook her head again, and said that all she knew was English and Chinese. Her family was the same way. In some sense, my roommate was an outsider to all nations. She didn’t know much more Malay than I, and Chinese face discrimination in Malaysia, yet she was not quite a true mainland Chinese either. Privately, I thought this a sad place to be, essentially being a foreigner at home as well as abroad. Even at PKU, international students are put in living quarters separate from the rest of the student body. Of course in the U.S., international students regularly live and interact with the rest of the student body.

Through further conversation with my roommate and her friends, I learned that the Chinese-Malaysian community in Beijing is a tight-knit group. My roommate’s boyfriend is Chinese-Malaysian, as are most of her close friends. Again, looking for a break from Beijing fare, we went to a Malaysian restaurant, the owner of which she knows well. She told me that the owner not only gives Chinese-Malay student big discounts when they eat there, but at times even assists Chinese-Malay students financially.

Apparently, food names are the extent of my roomie’s Malay. Though, perhaps those are the most important words to know.

My roommate expressed intense frustration with the attitude of some mainland Chinese towards her, despite her 100% Chinese background. She mentioned that some people are condescending, and even downright rude when dealing with her. When she ordered us a Didi (essentially the Chinese Uber) to return home, there was a bit of trouble with getting the driver to come to the right location on a backroad because he kept asking, “How can I trust you?”, apparently because he picked up on her Chinese-Malaysian accent. Although my roommate’s first language is Mandarin, it is immediately obvious that her way of speaking is not a Beijing, or even mainland Chinese, accent.

I asked her whether she preferred her home in Malaysia to Beijing, she did not express a clear preference for one over the other. She’s a marketing major, and said that she would feel comfortable working in China or Malaysia. Foreigners aren’t a rare sight in Chicago, or even smaller cities like Indianapolis, but Beijing is a city unused to foreigners, and if it becomes evident that you don’t quite fit in with the rest, you’ll draw eyes and may be treated differently. In my roommate’s case, this has, at times, proven to be especially trying. Empathizing with my roommate reminded me to be grateful for the diversity that America allows and celebrates.

China’s Sweet Side

To my initial sorrow as a sweet-tooth, I found that in the East, dessert is a minor affair and sometimes is even completely passed over. Traditionally, sweet items are lesser players in the world of Chinese eats. Northern China in particular is known more for its preparation of meats and noodles rather than desserts but Beijing has more to its culinary name than roast duck. To my intense joy, halfway through the program, I discovered the Daoxiangcun (稻香村) company, which roughly translates to “village of rice fragrance”, one of Beijing’s oldest and most famous pastry companies. Daoxiangcun pastries are unique to Beijing; there is a different Suzhou Daoxiangcun company, but these pastries apparently cannot be found in Hong Kong, and even in Taiwan, people are not as familiar with them as in Beijing. Daoxiangcun is known for its mooncakes, which are a traditional dessert of the Mid-autumn festival, also called the moon festival. However, Daoxiangcun’s most popular products are its wide assortment of traditional pastries, and are eagerly bought up by Beijingers year-round. These pastries, which come in hundreds of varieties, are quite popular with the older folks, but people of all ages enjoy them. The company also sells a variety of cooked meats.

I visited several Daoxiangcun stores, and it seems that most are set up generally the same way. At the counter, you may choose from a wide range of pastry boxes, but you can also pick which pastries you want to put in your own, custom-made box. Some stores have several separate counters for meat, pastries, and other sweets. Set up in the center of the store is an assortment of individually wrapped candies, dried fruit and other uniquely Chinese sweets. If you’d like to try specific pastries without having to buy a whole box, you can also order them individually at the counter. It’s a heaven of goodies with something delicious for just about everyone.

I went to a Daoxiangcun bakery just a ten-minute walk down the road from our quarters at PKU to buy some pastries. I had visited the store before, and they had had prepared boxes of daoxiangcun pastries laid out on the counter. But this time, there were no such boxes, no one knew a word of English, and the only thing I could read were the price tags, so I had to figure out how to order pastries with my limited Chinese. I had no idea where to begin with ordering pastries (there are literally hundreds of options), I decided to befriend the staff and ask a few questions. Communication was a challenge; thankfully they seemed to understand me quite well but I had trouble making out exactly what their responses were. I went ahead, however, and started out with asking about the process of making daoxiangcun pastries. The staff informed me that the Daoxiangcun bakery company sends the pastries to its various branches around the city. And, it turns out that the company is a bit secretive about the process of making the pastries, so the staff did not know too much about the process, or even the length of time it took to make the pastries. So, I just talked with them a little about which pastries were especially delicious, and which are most popular.

One of the ladies was said that her favorite Daoxiangcun product are their meat products, and said that the pork was especially good. When I asked her if she had any favorite pastries, she said “They’re all great to eat!” The other staff member I talked to was very friendly, and gave me more specifics, but my limited Chinese made it rather difficult to follow. I did manage to catch that she enjoyed more traditional selections like the round lotus pastries. After she finished rattling off an incomprehensible list of “top ten” pastries, I decided that it might be better to get up to the counter and get a visual on what she was talking about. I explained apologetically that I really had no idea what any of the pastry names were, but was looking to order a box of pastries most unique to Beijing. To my surprise, and delight, she offered to help me order. The twelve types of pastries I ordered included pastries in shape of shells, pig heads, and flowers. Some were a little salty, others were very sweet, some were light and flaky, and others were very dense. The fillings ranged from jujube, to pumpkin, to red bean, to chestnut. I also learned from a few Beijingers that these pastries also play a role in social interaction. Like mooncakes, many pastries symbolize long life, good health, prosperity, or happiness, all of which are very important in Chinese culture. These often have characters marked on them.

The Chinese seem to prefer more subtly sweet pastries such as the jujube flower cake and the ox tongue pastry, but my personal favorite is the almost overwhelmingly sweet golden pig cake. It contains a dense pumpkin filling, is shaped like a pig’s head, and tastes even better than it looks. I suppose I’d really have to agree with the first lady I asked about daoxiangcun; you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

Set boxes of pastries waiting for the final addition of the salty-sweet “ox-tongue” pastry. These pastries are delicious, but one box feels heavier than 15 lbs..

Chinese Thoughts on America

It is always interesting to hear what people from other countries think about the United States. Sometimes people outside the US have the funniest things to say about Americans, and sometimes their opinions cause me to reconsider my own take on things. In China, a vast country of long tradition, most of the people you see are the Han Chinese. China is not as diverse as the States, or even the United Kingdom. As a result, foreigners, or “wai外 guo国 ren人”  in China visiting famous sites often themselves become attractions to the locals. In a sea of silky black hair and dark eyes, blue eyes, blond hair or anything that is evidently not Chinese is an unusual and interesting figure. Foreigners are sure to stand out a great deal more in China than many other nations, and so it is common to find people taking your picture. In better situations, they sometimes ask first, but stares and shameless picture-taking of foreign strangers is commonplace.

The first person who gave me his opinion of America volunteered his opinion without me even having to ask. He was about a middle-aged gentleman at a small street clothing store, or a xiao小 tan摊, where I was shopping around for a pair of pants. He was really a lively individual and never stopped talking; he seemed to be either praising every pair of pants I picked up as the perfect fit, or making very random, general statements about America. If I so much as eyed a pair of pants, and he’d immediately pick it up and pat it authoritatively, press it into my hands, and pace around me. While doing this, he would repeat three or four times, “This design is very beautiful, it would look very beautiful on you,” then would say in broken English, “America! Everything! Big!” or “America! Guns!”, and would conclude with a good laugh. Despite this interesting accompaniment, I managed to select my pants, and eventually turned to the conversational gentleman and asked if he knew anything else about America. He laughed a great deal, but made a remark about the States that to me, an American, was disappointing. He said that America was dangerous because of the many guns, and I later learned this view was not one unique to him. The vendor also added that Americans eat too much. He was not the last person to express disapproval for American eating habits.

Several weeks later, I had the chance to speak with a schoolgirl around 13 or 14 years of age. “What’s your opinion of America?” I asked. Her first response was one word: “independence.” This was cheering for about five seconds until she followed up with another word “lazy.” Her take on America seemed somewhat more favorable than the previous interviewee; she’d named the pros and cons. But then again, I thought, perhaps she named these two qualities as a way of saying that Americans enjoy freedom without taking responsibility. Chinese culture holds a high regard for faithfulness, placing duty above individual rights.  I pressed her for more information and asked her what she thought Americans did with their lives on a daily basis. Her answer was once again simple, but less complimentary. “Fat,” she said, with a giggle. I again urged her to elaborate. She finally said that we must be so fat due to living off of burgers and fries. I smiled, and thanked her for her time. So far, all my interviewees had knocked American health habits.

The third group of people I talked to were my Chinese teachers, a group of women from different parts of China, all very fashionable, all graduate school-aged, and all under 5 ft 3 in. Like the voluble vendor, they expressed concern over the amount of guns in America, but were also curious about the American fondness for cars, especially those on the larger side. “Why do you need such big cars?” was the question, which began a discussion of gas-guzzlers, Jeeps, and monster trucks. This “car talk” revealed that, for the most part, Americans don’t really need the big cars, it’s just that we like them, which then led to “Why do you like the big cars ?” And, despite almost never touching the topic of Chinese politics, the teachers are often ask our opinion on American presidents, both past and present. Like my first respondent, several teachers have an impression of America as dangerous nation because of the easy access to firearms. It was disappointing, because I would have hoped that America could project a more refined image to the world. At the same time, I could not be surprised; on the subject of guns, many from other nations express similar views, and mistake most Americans to be gun-toting citizens who like their cars like they like their food servings: big and full of oil.

Overall, I gathered that many Chinese have a rather poor regard for America. One of my teachers did note that American men seem well-mannered, in terms of opening doors. The only other thing that might be considered favorable was that most everyone seemed to have a high opinion of McDonald’s, which I do not share, to the great surprise of some of my teachers. “The burgers are so good!” she exclaimed, “How do you not like them?” I just wish I could’ve brought them a real, homestyle burger from a family-run cafe to show that there’s more to American burgers than just McD’s, and, perhaps, introduce a different side of the U.S.A.



A Golden Moment in Gray Beijing

I was reassured that Beijing’s air pollution would be more manageable
in the summertime. The first morning, however, I was surprised by grimy gray skies and a horizon hazy with pollution of ambiguous origin and nature. Even nearby buildings were partially obscured from sight. Here, blue skies are a rare occurrence.

Initial excitement for life in a truly different city began to wear off as I started to fall into the routine of the summer program. Nearly non-stop studying was becoming increasingly wearisome, and the constant gray sky was just starting to get to me when one day, I took a wrong turn and found myself on the edge of the gardens around PKU’s Weiming lake. Most of what I had seen of the campus was gray buildings, gray sidewalks, and funny gray trees, so turning the corner to suddenly walk right into gardens overflowing with green was a most pleasant surprise. It seemed almost like a green jewel right there in the heart of PKU (locally known as Bei Da). The gardens are well kept but not overly structured, and diffe

rent parts of the park have grown and developed in their own way, just as they were not originally designed or created uniformly. The buildings I first saw are wrapped in ivy that climbs freely up the brick walls and over the edge of the traditionally curved, ridged roof. Windows with frames painted in the classic Chinese red peep through the ivy and slender trees sway above the roof. Bushes growing all around the buildings stretch up the walls and conceal most of where wall meets earth, so the buildings seem to have become part of their natural surroundings. Small pathways wind in and out of monuments, wander down between cool wooded areas and moon gates, eventually taking you around to the lake. Everything seemed so very alive and growing.

This oasis of green in an expanse of gray concrete was a remarkably refreshing break from crowding atmosphere of urban life. As I made my my way further in, others were also taking their time strolling along the pathways and enjoying the natural charm of the gardens, giving their attention to their surroundings rather than their phones. Many families seemed to be just wandering around the lake, reminding me of my own family’s fondness for walks around the canal in my hometown. I took my time following garden paths wherever they turned, appreciating the lull in the typical racket of Beijing. And then, just as I walked out of the bamboo garden back into the open space, the cloud of pollution thinned and the blue sky was again visible. Sunlight reached through the hole in the clouds and brightened the already rich colors of the gardens.

My walk around the lakes showed me a little more of the ways in which modernity and tradition thrive together in China. Formerly the site of Qing dynasty imperial grounds, PKU’s imposing modern architecture seems to be its most visible characteristic from outside campus. There is, however, a regard for tradition and history alongside this emphasis on modernization, partially expressed in the care for the traditional architecture and the surrounding grounds inside the campus.





My name is Chaya Cassell. I am a rising sophomore from Indianapolis, Indiana and I live in McGlinn hall here on campus. Currently, I am majoring in Chinese and Political Science here at the university, but my studies in both these areas began long before even high school. My parents home-schooled me all the through middle school and I spent many of these years learning Chinese off and on from a variety of teachers, including my mother. In high school, I developed a deeper interest in studying Chinese and decided to make it my focus in college. Outside of my studies, I enjoy spending time reading, swimming, and having great conversations with friends. As this is my first visit to mainland China, I am very much looking forward to this experience and am extremely grateful for the opportunity.


I began taking Chinese learning more seriously once I realized that a complete grasp of the Chinese language and culture was necessary for full engagement with China. China’s global influence is growing and I would like to be in a position to build on my understanding of China. The SLA grant is important to me because it provides a wonderful opportunity to accelerate my Chinese studies through the full-immersion experience. This summer session will bring me closer to fluency more quickly. Additionally, as a political science major, it will be helpful to get an inside perspective on its current society, history, and government for the purposes of analysis and further studies of East Asia.


My primary hope is to achieve a greater level of ease with speaking and reading Chinese. I am sure that the rigorous curriculum will help me get there. My secondary aim is to observe and learn about the culture and environment of Beijing through our cultural excursions and visits to Chinese companies. Through these experiences, I hope to come to a better understanding of the local Chinese perspectives on work, civil society, and global events. This may be ambitious for a first year student, but my hope is to at least begin exploring the traditional and modern Chinese attitudes, as well as their influence on the systems in place.

Finally, I hope to form and establish connections in China in the further hope that I can revisit these in the near future. I am considering devoting a greater portion of my undergraduate (and perhaps graduate) studies to China, and having connections there will allow for more rich and efficient dialogue.


1. At the end of the summer, I will have acquired greater Chinese speaking proficiency by fully engaging in conversations in the language curriculum and outside of it in all daily activities.

2. At the end of the summer, I will have familiarized myself with Chinese culture and society (at least within the Beijing region) through careful observation and questions.

3. At the end of the summer, I will be able to read and write more extensively in Chinese by reaching at least the second-year level.