For my STEP project, I spent seven weeks in Suzhou, China studying Mandarin Chinese at Suzhou University. This trip was through Ohio State’s Intensive Chinese Language in Suzhou program, through Ohio State’s East Asian Studies Center.
Spending two months in China reinvigorated my deep interest in, and appreciation of, Chinese language and culture. I started studying Chinese in 2013 during my freshman year of high school, but until this past summer, had not traveled to China. Spending seven weeks in China greatly boosted my confidence in speaking Chinese with native speakers, and daily exposure to Chinese people and culture in and outside of the classroom gave me a new perspective on China as a developing nation. Discussing the rapidly changing economic and political climate with Chinese nationals made me realize how drastic the economic, political, and cultural transitions within the country have been in recent decades, and made me consider the issues China faces in coming years as rapid economic growth continues to transform China’s cities.
While in China I also had the opportunity to become acquainted with the program’s coordinator, Xiaobin Jian. Professor Jian also happens to be the coordinator for Ohio State’s Advanced Chinese Language and Culture (Flagship) program, OSU’s master’s program in Chinese language and culture. Although all of my classmates in China were OSU undergraduate students, we also had daily contact with the current Flagship students. From talking with the Flagship students, I realized that there are a lot of opportunities through the master’s program to continue Chinese language studies while pursuing academic studies catered to each student’s interests. The underlying theme of researching in Chinese allowed for the actual topic of research to be open to nearly all subjects. Furthermore, I was thoroughly impressed by the Flagship students’ conversation Chinese. I quickly realized that the Flagship student’s conversational Chinese skills were far more advanced than that of just Chinese majors. During one conversation I had with a Flagship student, she admitted that my current level of Chinese was better than hers when she was participating in the undergraduate program I was a part of while in Suzhou. This sparked my interest in applying for the Flagship program after graduation, realizing that during the two-year program I could greatly improve my conversational Chinese. Since being back in the U.S., Professor Jian and I have already begun discussing potential thesis topics to research if I get accepted to the Flagship program.
Living in Suzhou for nearly two months provided my classmates and I the opportunity to get involved in the Suzhou community through activities such as dining at local restaurants, riding public transportation, shopping, and going out on the weekends and meeting residents of Suzhou. These experiences helped me become comfortably acquainted with many locals, such as a now good friend of mine, Longfei Li, who is a waiter at a high-end restaurant in Suzhou. Perhaps the bridging gap between my classmates and I, and Chinese society, was that OSU’s partner-school in Hebei province had sent a group of Chinese university students to Suzhou to tutor us every day after we were let out of class. Because this program’s intent was to provide us an environment where we would be forced to communicate in Chinese, many of our tutors had very basic knowledge of English, and those that did almost never spoke to us in English. The hours that we all spent together in the library on weekdays and the times that we all hung out together, whether it be over dinner or at karaoke clubs, these interactions contributed to our Chinese progression immensely, as the learning we were experiencing was engaging and personable. The relationships we built with the tutors, many of whom I still maintain contact with today, has helped bring a part of the immersive Chinese experience back with me to Ohio. I know that the next time I return to China, I will have many places to travel to and many friends to see.
Being immersed in Chinese society–especially in Suzhou, a city with much less of a foreign presence than larger Chinese cities such as Shanghai–not only forced me to use Chinese to communicate with everyone other than my classmates but also provided countless opportunities to learn about Chinese culture in a historic Chinese city. There were many instances in which I was required to step out of my comfort zone, but all of these experiences ultimately contributed to a very positive experience in China. For example, the lack of foreigners in Suzhou brought about many situations where people on the street would ask to take my picture, or ask me to hold their child while they take my picture. Although the first few of such experiences felt a little uncomfortable, I quickly understood how peculiar my classmates and I must have seemed to the people of Suzhou.
Besides classes, Xiaobin Jian organized a few field trips for us to local spots to learn about Chinese culture. These trips included a day of hiking in mountain town, where we helped local fruit farmers gather Yangmei fruit. Afterwards, we shared lunch with a local family in their home, where they served variety of local seafood dishes. We also had the opportunity to go to a tea school, where we learned the traditional Chinese way to prepare and serve tea; and go to a calligraphy museum and school, where we saw ancient calligraphy scriptures and were able to use an ink brush to create our own calligraphy.
One weekend, I traveled with some classmates to Shanghai. The trip only took about 30 to 40 minutes on a bullet train form Suzhou. Although we were only in Shanghai for about two days, and many people were staying indoors due to a typhoon warning, I was able to meet people from all over the world, including various regions of China, Europe, and Africa. On the second day I met a Chinese man, James Sun from Nanjing, who was staying in our youth hostel. After helping me find medicine for food poisoning I had acquired, James invited me to go along with him to his office, which happened to be down the street from the Shanghai Stock Exchange. I brought my camera and was able to interview him about his perspective on Chinese businesses and their rapidly changing role within the international community. This experience left a large impression on me, as I realized how different the Chinese domestic market is compared to the American domestic market, from marketing to the types of products available, I realized that many Chinese industries are just beginning to step onto the world stage.
While in Shanghai my classmates and I also met up with recent graduates of the OSU Flagship program who have been living in Shanghai either working, or doing independent research. Listening to their experiences of living independently and working in China made me realize that finding work in China may not be as far off as I initially had thought.
A few of the flagship students told me that they had put in more time studying, and attended class more, than the other flagship students that year. I noticed that the differing skill level between those students indeed very evident when observing them interacting with Chinese speakers. In a way, this made me realize my potential in being a Mandarin speaker, and furthered my drive to build and maintain contact with Chinese people. My study abroad experience in China put me much closer to my goal of becoming conversationally fluent in Chinese, and helped me realize that the work I put aside now to study, will undoubtedly pay off down the road once I return to China.
Since having returned from China, I have continued taking language classes and have sought out opportunities to practice my Chinese outside of the classroom. I have been able to befriend multiple Chinese international students who have been willing to speak with me in Mandarin rather than English. I have also begun brainstorming research ideas for the Flagship program, and meeting with Xiaobin Jian about how I can narrow down topics, and where I should go to begin collecting materials and sources. Since being back, I have been told on multiple occasions of how much my Chinese has progressed over the summer, and have personally noticed an increased motivation towards my studies. I have begun filling out the application for the Ohio State Flagship Program, and am committed to being an outstanding student if accepted. I look forward to future opportunities to not only return to China and build a career, but also be engaged with Ohio State’s Chinese program.
Link to a video I made about the trip: https://youtu.be/jTvk1urebpY