This past summer, I participated in the Intensive Chinese Language Learning program in Suzhou, China for two months. I was in class for about 4 hours a day in the mornings and then was able to explore the city of Suzhou in the afternoons with my classmates and language partners. On the weekends, we were able to take day trips to various cities in order to get a wider view of China and Chinese culture.
Going into the program, I was nothing but excited for the trip due to the fact that I had been studying Chinese since my freshman year of high school and hadn’t ever been. The biggest change that I saw in myself after this program ended was a newfound ability to adapt to new situations and be self-reliant. Beforehand, I had always seen myself as a pretty independent person but, while in China, I realized that there are definitely degrees of self-reliance. Though I had language partners to practice my Chinese with and help me navigate around the streets, I ultimately had to rely on myself to make sure that I could be understood and make sure that my needs were met. Unlike learning Chinese in a classroom setting, I was forced to adapt and learn as I went, which I really enjoyed; compared to just memorizing vocab and writing papers, we were able to take what we had learned and apply it to real life, within real interactions. What I took to be a high degree of self-reliance before is nothing compared to what I think I have now.
Not only did I notice a change in myself, but I also realized my view of the world has expanded to the biggest it has ever been. Though I have been interested in Chinese culture for a while, nothing could have prepared me for what it is actually like to live in China. One of my favorite things to do when we had free time was to just walk around the streets of Suzhou and see locals’ houses. I liked getting to catch a glimpse of things that had existed for my entire life that I previously had no idea about. Now that I’m back in the US, I often wonder what all those people are doing at this exact moment and wish I was still there, experiencing the same things they are.
Going into this program, I was very excited about the idea of having language partners to talk to and help us understand what college students in China are like compared to us. What I didn’t expect at the beginning after first arriving in China was how difficult would be to communicate with them right off the bat. The first two weeks of the program were a little rough because I realized how much I didn’t know and how poor my speaking ability was. It took a little adjusting to realize that the whole point of the program was to work towards improving my language skills and not focus on all the things I didn’t know but instead work to build on the skills that I already possessed. Though it was easy to compare myself to the progress that my classmates were making, I had to work to just focus on myself and my own needs as a language learner. This realization definitely helped me become more self-reliant because I knew no one could make me truly understand unless I really worked at it myself. Being able to ask my language partners questions and have them as someone to practice talking with was one of the biggest highlights of the program.
The freedom of the program allowed me to explore Suzhou on my own terms and have genuine interactions with locals. Though we had class every day, in the afternoons we were pretty much able to do whatever we wanted. This gave us amazing opportunities to go out and observe Chinese culture in real-time. Being in a completely different culture to my own put the day to day trivial things that I had often spent time worrying about into perspective. It made me realize that I should focus my life more towards living and experiencing, rather than concerned about other peoples’ perceptions of me.
Not only was I able to explore different places around Suzhou, but I was also able to experience the food culture that makes up a major portion of Chinese culture. I loved the fact that food prices were so inexpensive compared to food prices in America so I really could afford to sample a whole range of different things. I discovered what now has become one of my favorite foods, Hot Pot, and all the different varieties of it that just don’t exist in America. In class, we often discussed the different styles of cooking and food preferences based on region and were able to sample different types of cuisine on our day trips to other cities. I tried some soup dumplings in the city of Nanjing that were the best dumplings I had ever eaten and then in the city of Hangzhou tried a meat mooncake that I still dream about now. This program really allowed us to immerse ourselves into Chinese life through interaction and samples of many different aspects of the culture.
After having lived in China for two months, I can honestly see myself going back there to work and even live for an extended period of time. This program opened up a whole new world that I had only ever imagined and I found myself really come to thrive in the environment. Seeing as I am now considering living there, I would say this program was a very valuable life experience that possibly changed the direction of where I want my life to go. Not only did I get credit for two classes while there, I also made friends with many people I met that I still talk to now. I have become someone who is able to take things that come in stride and adjust to challenges without having them negatively affect me as much as before. This program was a dream come true to me because I got to go somewhere that I had always dreamed of while learning about something that I am really passionate about.