This summer, I spend eight weeks in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China as a student at Suzhou University through the OSU Intensive Chinese Language program. My time in Suzhou helped to revive an old love for learning languages that have felt slipping away over the last couple of years. The program helped to remind me that the reason I learn the language is for a grade at university but for the change to get to know people whose lives exist in what feels like a world away.
For the six months leading up to the summer, I recall being more nervous than excited. This was not my first time traveling to China; I have returned to my birth country several times since my time in the orphanage. It was, however, my first time returning with the sole intention of immersing myself in the language as best I could. I have wanted to take the next step towards fluency and study in a Chinese immersion program for more than ten years, and yet I still felt unprepared. I was nervous and afraid. I was afraid of failure and judgment- from both my peers and the native speakers who I would practice with. I realize now that the judgment that I faced came more from myself rather than the people around me.
The program was exactly what I had hoped for in terms of intensity. I was ready to be challenged. I was ready to leave the classroom each day with a headache from the immersion and all of the new material that I had absorbed. I hoped that the program would be difficult, but I think that a small part of me also hoped that it would be a bit easy. I was so very afraid of failure. I was afraid that the summer would be like so many of my past experiences- that I would be othered. That I would be dismissed by a part of the Asian community and labeled as “not Asian” enough but also not “not American enough” because of something I lacked- in this case, communication skills and full knowledge of my birth culture. Or even worse, that I would be so far behind my Caucasian peers that I would be labeled as a bad Asian and still othered. The program was a pleasant surprise. There was a stronger focus on learning that grades. Of course, grades were still important, but the focus was placed on experiences and knowledge rather than how many mistakes were made. Everyone in the program was fully dedicated to learning the language in an applicable way. Class was something that I looked forward to rather than feared or dreaded. It reminded me that language is about the people that it allows you to connect with rather than a grade to add to your GPA.
The program forced us to immerse ourselves in Chinese to survive. We spent the majority of our time without an instructor by our side. If we were with a native speaker, said person likely understood a limited amount of English- so even if we wanted to cheat and use English, we couldn’t (just as an immersion experience should be). We were each paired with a 语伴, a language partner, to study and explore with. They were all near the same age as us, and most of them had never been to Suzhou either. I consecutively had two 语伴s; one of which I would now consider a very close friend. We became close within the first week of meeting… we just clicked. We studied, we explored, we laughed, … and we ate. Even if there was a bit of a language barrier, we worked it out until we each got our point across. We talked about our friends, our families, and the things that made us happy. She is the first friend that I have made speaking only Chinese, and it’s sad to think that I could have missed out on such a wonderful friendship if I had not had the skills or interest to learn the language.
During the trip, we had a few group excursions with our language partners to help us get to know a bit more about the culture that we were being thrown into for the summer. This part of the experience had both similarities and differences from my previous trips to China. I was able to speak with so many more people and do so many more things because my language skills had grown. I was able to explain to confused natives who I was, why I was in their city, and then explain again who I was- they were often confused by my very Chinese appearance and American accent. This was another aspect of the trip that I anticipated I would feel some judgment, but all of the natives who I spoke with were very excited to hear my story, and they all encouraged me to continue to learn more about my birth culture and its language.
This trip reignited my love for language after a few years of discouragement. I was reminded not only why I wanted to learn the language in the first place, but also of the people I could connect with and the opportunities that I could have because of my ability to communicate. I am not sure how I will use my language skills in the future- on a professional level, on a personal level, or maybe both- but I am so thankful that I was able to participate in this program and be reminded of a passion that I felt that I had lost.
Trouble linking photos: photos can be found at the URL below: