I Studied Abroad to Improve My Chinese; Here’s What I Learned.
On one day in August 2016, I sat alone at my gate at LAX, waiting for the boarding announcement for my flight to Shanghai. I was initially calm as my study abroad program drew near. I had been an exchange student in a foreign country before, so I was assured it would not be a big deal.
Hearing the staff at the gate quickly advising passengers in Chinese, of which I understood almost nothing, snuffed my false confidence.
As I panicked, I suddenly caught the phrase “Group 3” in Chinese and ran to the line with my boarding group.
Lesson 1: Don’t take the easy way out.
The flight attendants speaking Chinese to the other attendants, only to stop when they caught sight of me, was a sign for what was to come for me. Being in China as a “Western”-looking person, I was assumed to not speak any Chinese. Sometimes nationals would insist on speaking back to me in English, either because their English speaking was more developed than my Chinese or they wanted to practice their English conversation.
Even more, because of a very prominent “expat community” in Shanghai and the international campus I attended, I could have easily spent the whole time in Shanghai speaking only English by going to and from my college classes in the school shuttle, only talking to international students, and only eating at Western restaurants.
However, I decided to make my stay in China more worthwhile. I explored the city as much as I could and got a job as a volunteer English teacher at a school on the outskirts of Shanghai, co-teaching with Chinese nationals and other international volunteers. Because of the experiences I had and the people I met, I’m glad I strayed from what was familiar. In terms of language, my listening comprehension dramatically improved and I became more comfortable talking to native speakers.
Lesson 2: Don’t be discouraged by failure.
Learning and speaking a new language, you are going to make mistakes. If you do not, you’re not trying hard enough.
Before living in Shanghai, I had never spoken much Chinese due to the traditional academic methods of teaching foreign language. Upon arrival, I encountered something of a “conversation gap.” For example, in my advanced Chinese class, I prepared and gave oral presentations on economic development, urban pollution, and the like. However, in conversation when someone asked me about myself or my opinions, my mind would go blank.
In Shanghai, when I had gathered enough confidence and practice in class to speak more, I became frustrated when Chinese nationals were not understanding me. Then, I realized that for the past couple of years I had been taught exclusively by people who had grown up in Beijing. Listening more carefully to the Shanghai accent, I began to emulate it and people began to understand me with my weird American accent on top of it.
Without persisting in the face of failure, I wouldn’t have figured out what it was that I needed to improve. And there is nothing more empowering than struggling with something and finally having success. By the end of the semester, I finally learned to not be afraid of looking like the “silly foreigner.”
Through these experiences, I gained a greater sense of assurance in my ability to reach my goals. Attaining greater fluency in Mandarin not only gave me more confidence in learning and speaking another language, but also built my trust in myself. By the time I moved back to the U.S., I could read newspapers in another language to see another point of view. But most importantly, the experience reaffirmed my determination to challenge my ingrained beliefs.