A Travellerspoint blog

Two Years Later

Reflecting on my time in China

This year I am serving as a student ambassador for the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a foundation that seeks to “strengthen US-China relations through educational exchange and the study of Mandarin language” by encouraging more American students to study abroad in China. Throughout the coming months I will be completing three projects to share my own experience studying in China and encourage others to do the same. This blog post, a reflection on my experience in China and the almost two years since I have returned, is my first project.

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I've been back from China for just a few months less than two years, but if you ask any of my friends at school, they'll tell you that I still talk about China way too much. I love talking about my experiences in China, and sharing stories whenever I can, but I rarely take the time to reflect on what I gained during my time in China and how my life is different now than it would have been otherwise. This project is the perfect opportunity for me to think about what my experience in China means for me, and why I believe so strongly that others should also take the opportunity to study abroad, learn Chinese, or visit China.

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To start, I'll make a list of things I miss from my time in China:

1. My host family. I always tell people that one of my favorite parts of my time in China was the opportunity to live with a host family. My ten months in China were made even more meaningful by the opportunity to spend them with an absolutely wonderful Chinese family.

2. Speaking Chinese all day, every day. I have opportunities to speak Chinese now that I'm back in the US--I'm taking a Chinese class and have friends at school with whom I can speak Chinese--but there is nothing as exciting as being fully immersed in the challenges of learning a totally new language.

3. Chinese food. I think this one is pretty self-explanatory; Chinese food in the US just doesn't measure up.

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4. My friends, not only from China but from all around the world. By studying abroad with NSLI-Y/AFS, I was given the unique opportunity of studying alongside my Chinese classmates in their own high school but also alongside other exchange students from around the world. I still keep in touch with some of my friends from my time abroad, and I really enjoyed getting to know even the friends who I no longer talk to often.

5. Being able to commit myself fully to learning Chinese and learning about China. While I love college and I love having the opportunity to be involved in a million different things at once, it was refreshing and exciting to be able to devote myself fully to one thing that I am passionate about. There is certainly a lot I don't understand about China and a lot of Chinese I still don't know, but I certainly learned a lot in the nearly one year I spent in China.

6. Travelling. I absolutely loved visiting places like Xi'an, Yunnan, and Beijing, and I would love to see more of China. China is an incredibly diverse place with an immensely long history, and it was amazing to have the opportunity to see its wonders firsthand.

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In many ways, I think that my experience in China has significantly affected who I am today.

Academically, since returning from China I have been able to maintain my interest in China and excitement for the Chinese language by taking Chinese classes or classes about China every semester since beginning college. While I certainly could have taken these classes even if I hadn't gone to China, I don't think I would have, and I also wouldn't have had the rich experiences from living in China that have helped me to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese history and the Chinese language. In my Anthropology of China last semester, it was exciting to be able to connect the trends we studied in class to my own experiences with my host family, classmates, and teachers.

Personally, I think I benefited from studying in China in several ways. By going abroad for a year just after graduating high school, I think I was pushed outside of my comfort zone and therefore gained maturity and independence that I would not necessarily have developed had I gone straight to college. At the same time, being pushed out of my comfort zone was fun. I swear. I don't think I can possibly overstate how much I enjoyed the challenges of travelling to my host dad's rural hometown, eating scorpions in a night market in Beijing and chicken feet in my school cafeteria, studying dozens of new vocab words every day, and giving speeches in Chinese in front of Chinese students and their parents.

That's not to say that every challenge I encountered in China was fun. When I first got to China and was confronted with incredibly long school hours and a lack of flexibility, I certainly didn't feel like I would gain anything by persevering. Still, despite the times I was unhappy or wished I was home, when I left China ten months later I wanted nothing more than to find a way to go back.

When I think back on my experience in China now, my reflections are overwhelmingly positive: I loved the experience. I want to continue learning Chinese. I want to find a way back to China. I want to share my experience with others. More than anything else, I feel that my time in China was undoubtedly worthwhile.

I think the fact that most attests to how much I value my experience in China is that, after returning home from my first six-week study abroad program, I chose to go back for another year. Plus, it makes a great fun fact for introducing yourself at club meetings in college.

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Posted by ccole 19:05 Comments (0)

2nd Semester

My life at a Chinese high school, part 2

It’s funny how easily a fourteen-hour school day becomes just a normal part of your routine. If you had asked me in September what I thought of leaving for school at 6:30 every morning and getting home at 8:30 at night, I would have told you that I was sure I’d go crazy by June. At the beginning of the program, I spent hours every day in classes I didn’t understand, so I had nothing but time – I could read all the books I wanted, study as much Chinese as I could (which at the time wasn’t much, since I could only memorize so many characters in one day), and write blog posts. Now, though, I always have to budget my time to make sure I’m getting everything I want out of my experience in China – I have to find time to study Chinese, chat with my Chinese friends and host family, see all the cultural and historical sites in Changzhou, hang out with other exchange students, do all my homework… the list goes on. I’m really glad that I feel like I’m getting the most I can out of my program, but it’s also hard to believe that I’m going home in four weeks; I’m running out of time to do all the things I want to do in China (but I’m writing this on the train to Beijing, so I think I’m doing a pretty good job of fitting everything in!).

This semester I still have four Chinese classes every day, but other than that my school schedule is totally different. We spend the mornings from 7 to 7:30 in morning reading with our Chinese classmates, which means that I study Chinese or finish my homework from the night before while the Chinese students either read aloud from their English or Chinese textbooks or do English listening quizzes that are broadcast over the loudspeaker.
The rest of the morning, from 7:30 to 11:20, we have our four Chinese classes. We spent most of the second semester preparing for the HSK, and then the oral HSK once that was over, but now that we’re finished with our tests we’ve gone back to studying from a textbook. It’s more interesting than first semester, though, because our Chinese is good enough now that we can use more authentic and interesting study materials; this week we watched a few lectures about Confucius’s connection with modern Chinese life, and I’m currently working on a research project on China’s ethnic minorities.

From 9:10 to 9:40 we have “big break,” during which Caroline and Kaori and I go to a sort of dance class in the square in front of the school with all the girls in “senior 1” (like 10th grade, but the first year in high school). I really like this dance class partially because the dances are fun, but also because I don’t get a lot of chances this semester to spend time with my Chinese classmates besides lunch, dinner, and gym class.
We have lunch at 11:20, but at least a few times a week I study alone in our classroom and then go to lunch at 11:40, when all of the senior 1 classes go to lunch. Since I spend so much time with the other foreign students, I try to take every opportunity I get to spend time with my Chinese classmates and friends. After lunch I usually have an hour and a half until class starts, which I like to use to either do my homework or walk around Changzhou.
Our afternoons are the biggest difference from last semester to this one. From 1:30 to 3:30 every day, we go to Chinese culture classes with all of the AFS students in Changzhou. Each week is at a different school and has a different topic – we’ve studied Chinese painting, knot tying, taichi, music, and calligraphy. My favorite class by far is calligraphy, but I really like all of the classes except for taichi (which gets really miserable in the heat, but would probably be fun otherwise) and music (which I only don’t like because about half of the time we end up watching movies like High School Musical).

Here are some pictures from our various culture classes:

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After our culture class, we go back to school and either have gym class, more Chinese class, or self-study time until dinner at 6:00. Like last semester, I eat dinner in the cafeteria and then stay at school with Caroline until 8. For the past few months we've been eating dinner every day with the same 4 Chinese classmates - now that we can comfortably talk to them in Chinese, it's a lot of fun! I like the culture classes we take this semester, but it's a little disappointing that we don't have more time together with our Chinese classmates. First semester we were with them all the time, but couldn't really understand or talk to them, so I spent a lot of time having the same conversations over and over again or taking classes that I didn't understand. Now I try to find every opportunity to hang out with my Chinese classmates at lunch or dinner or during gym class, because I can finally have interesting conversations, but I don't have a lot of time because I spend the mornings in Chinese class and the afternoons in culture class. Other than that, though, I'm really loving my second semester here in China. I've gotten very comfortable living here and speaking Chinese, so the year just seems to get better as it goes!

Posted by ccole 23:43 Comments (2)

HSK and Harry Potter

Language Progress

In the four months since I last posted on my blog, I've spent a lot of time studying Chinese, all of which (sort of) culminated three weeks ago with the HSK, a standardized test for Chinese language learners. From the beginning of my program, the HSK symbolized the end goal of my Chinese studying this year, so it feels pretty strange now to be done with the HSK and have only a month and a half before I go home.

It's really exciting to learn Chinese in an environment where I'm studying fast enough and in enough different ways that I can objectively measure my own progress. When I got here eight and a half months ago, I only knew a few of the 150 words tested on the HSK 1; now I've taken and hopefully passed the 2500-word HSK 5. I remember a time around January when I thought my Chinese had reached the point where I was comfortable in my day-to-day conversations, so my progress would have to slow down significantly, but it turns out I was totally wrong, because the conversations I can have now far surpass the ones I was having in January. It's really interesting and kind of funny to be able to specifically remember the first time I learned words that I now can't imagine not knowing, but I guess that's the nature of learning a language in the span of a year. I really love learning Chinese this way, especially because it's such a hard language, and I definitely couldn't learn it nearly this fast in the US.

Today I hit a language learning landmark that was particularly exciting for me: I finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in Chinese. It might not seem that exciting, but it was for me because it's the first full book I've read in Chinese and now the third language I've read Harry Potter in. I'm especially proud because I spent about seven months reading the first 35 pages, but in the last month and a half I managed to read about 150 pages. My next challenge is to read a novel originally written in Chinese, rather than one that I've already read many times in English!

Hopefully I'll be able to keep up my language learning progress over the next month and a half, because I know I'll probably never have another opportunity to learn a language like this.

For anyone not interested in my language learning (and everyone else), here are some pictures from the past four months.

1. Teaching my host mom to bake cookies
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2. Visiting Shanghai over Chinese New Year vacation
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3. Making dumplings with my host grandma
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4. Visiting Nanjing after the HSK
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5. Visiting the Terracotta Warrios in Xi'an
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Posted by ccole 03:31 Archived in China Comments (3)

Mountains and Mastiffs

AFS China's culture trip to Yunnan

In mid-December, almost all of AFS China took a trip to Yunnan province in southern China. Initially, about 170 of AFS China’s more than 200 students were supposed to come on the trip, but not everyone ended up being able to get to Yunnan. We were lucky that we made it at all, and we got to visit another city on the way (although at the time that certainly didn’t seem like a good thing).

Benj (another NSLI-Y student) and I happened to be placed next to each other on the plane, and we’re both very enthusiastic about studying Chinese, so we spent the entire flight reading Chinese translations of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter respectively. Reading is exhausting when it takes about 45 minutes to get through every page, so Benj and I weren’t really listening to the announcements on the plane. When we landed, relieved to finally have arrived in Kunming, we discovered that we weren’t in Kunming at all. The week we happened to go to Yunnan was one of its coldest weeks in recent history, and even though it is in one of China’s southernmost provinces, we couldn’t land in Kunming because the runway was covered in snow. Instead, we were in Guiyang, in Guizhou province, stuck for the night. We later found out that Guiyang has almost twice the population of Changzhou, but at the time we felt like we were stranded in the middle of nowhere.

We ended up being stuck in Guiyang until the next evening (which was actually lucky, because if we had to wait any longer we probably would have ended up going back to Changzhou instead of continuing to Kunming). We weren’t really supposed to leave our hotel except to buy food, but while we were out buying food we walked around the city for a while. We saw a museum with a huge statue of Mao Zedong in front of it, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays, so we ended up just going to a small music store, walking around a park, and buying snacks at Walmart (I bought Craisins, and I’ve concluded that they taste like America).

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By the time we finally got to Kunming, the students who arrived on time had already moved on to another city; we were alone there with a few AFS staff and four or five students from Lanzhou. Tuesday morning, we still hadn’t caught up to the rest of the group; we were supposed to drive six hours and meet them for lunch, but we got stuck in traffic in the middle of nowhere for so long that we all got out of the bus and walked around while we waited to hear that cars further ahead had started moving. Tuesday night, we finally caught up with the rest of the group in a city called Dali.
We visited the old city of Dali, an area that might actually have been historical at one point but now is mostly made up of a lot of tourist shops selling local souvenirs. Yunnan is known for its population of minorities; 92% of people in China come from one ethnic group, and rest are made up by 55 ethnic groups, 25 of which live in Yunnan, so many of the souvenirs sold in Yunnan are traditional objects from its ethnic minorities. We also went to the Zhang family garden, a huge house modeled after traditional Chinese houses that, according to our tour guide, was built by one of Dali’s wealthiest people in an attempt to give people in Yunnan their own version of Disney World. Dali’s most prominent minority is the Baizu, or the white minority (named for the color of their traditional clothing), so at the Zhang family garden we watched a performance about the lives and traditions of the Baizu people in Dali.

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The last city we visited was Lijiang, where we spent two nights because there was so much to see there. We went to two old city areas like the one we had gone to in Dali; they would have gotten boring by the end, but the first one we went to was much bigger than the one in Dali, and at the last one we got some very interesting chances to practice our Chinese. At a store in the last old city we went to, Caroline and Kaori and I had a conversation with a man named Tenzin. He started by telling us in very good English about the trip he had recently taken to the US. As we talked to him we switched to Chinese, but I think his English might actually have been better than his Mandarin. He told us that he was Tibetan, and came from a region in Sichuan province where people are nomadic and there are no schools, so he actually didn’t start studying standard Mandarin until he was 17 years old. His English was only so good because he later spent three years studying it in India. It was amazing to be able to use Chinese, which Caroline and I have only studied for five or six months total, to talk to local people about their culture and the unique aspects of their region of China. I hope that I get more opportunities like this.

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Lijiang is home to the Naxi and Mosuo minorities; the Mosuo minority is known for its matriarchy and its complete lack of marriage. The Naxi people have their own religion, the Dongba religion, and we visited two places in Lijiang that were meant to show off its special characteristics to tourists. First we went to a small park in the mountains, which included a Dongba temple (as well as a statue of the Dongba god, which I believe is half human and half snake). It was beautiful, and it was amazing to see and learn about a religion that I had no idea even existed. Also in that park, we got to see a yak (which was pretty cool looking) and a Tibetan mastiff (which was huge and fairly terrifying). Later that day we went to Dongba valley, which was just another chance to see the buildings and art particular to the Naxi minority and the Dongba religion, which I thought were beautiful.

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Our final stop was at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a mountain outside of Lijiang that is 5,596 meters tall. The mountains we saw in Yunnan were absolutely beautiful. I’m pretty sure they’re considered the foothills of the Himalayas, so I guess they don’t even count as the real mountains, but they are huge and they are gorgeous. At the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we watched an amazing performance about the minorities of Yunnan province, created and acted by people from those various minorities. The show reminded us that each group has its own rich history and traditions that deserve to be remembered, no matter how small or unimportant that group seems in the context of China’s huge population. The show was supposed to take place with the mountain as its backdrop, but it was foggy that day and we only saw the mountain for a few minutes at the end.

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More than anything else, my week in Yunnan made me hope that I can come back some day and see it again. I was amazed by the Yunnan’s beauty and how different it is from Changzhou, but I only really got to see it from the perspective of the most popular tourist attractions in a group of 150 people. I hope that someday I can go back and learn more about it and appreciate it more, and I also hope that I have many more chances this year to see the rest of China.

Posted by ccole 07:00 Comments (2)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Celebrating American holidays in China

Since coming to China, I've had plenty of opportunities to experience and learn about Chinese holidays. I celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival with my host family, traveled to Jiangxi Province for Chinese National Day, and learned about singles' day (11/11) which, not unlike Black Friday, is a time for people to shop online at extremely discounted prices. Celebrating American holidays, though, is a little more difficult.

Last Thursday for Thanksgiving, the other foreign students at Changzhou Senior High School and I celebrated by leaving school at 6:00 instead of 8:00 and going to KFC for dinner; we figured it was the closest thing we could find to a Thanksgiving dinner without going to an extremely expensive Western restaurant. For Kaori and Andrea, it was their first Thanksgiving, but Andrea also pointed out that it was therefore the best Thanksgiving they had ever celebrated.

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We ordered the things we could find that best approximated a Thanksgiving dinner, but that was kind of difficult, so we ended up eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes, french fries, corn on the cob, and something that vaguely resembled coleslaw with a lot of corn in it. We joked about how long it had taken us to make the food and how much work we had put into setting the table, but we also talked about the things we were most thankful for, like our opportunity to be in China together. For a Thanksgiving that was nothing like any I've celebrated before, this one was pretty good.

In October we also celebrated Halloween, by attending a party put on by the school's international teachers for the students in their classes. We all at pizza for the first time in months, watched the international classes act out Cinderella and Snow White, and played games. It was a fun opportunity to talk to some of the international teachers and meet more of the Chinese students.

Christmas is still almost a month away, but even in Changzhou Christmas trees and decorations have started to go up around the city. At this point I have no idea what Christmas in China will be like; I've hared we have school that day, and I've also heard that the international classes will hold another party. Maybe we'll come up with a creative way to celebrate like we did for Thanksgiving. I'll have to wait and see!

Posted by ccole 05:39 Comments (1)

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