by Jennifer Whitener
My decision to study abroad in China for an entire year was easily the best choice I have ever made. Through West Virginia University’s student study abroad program, I was lucky enough to be given the incredible opportunity - one that both shocked me and shaped me - to study intensive Mandarin Chinese language at Ocean University of China, a well-known university in Qingdao, China, which is only a 5-hour bullet train ride away from the capital city of Beijing. After two years of study at WVU, I decided to truly challenge myself. In the blink of eye, I was accepted to study at OUC, got my entry visa, and booked a one-way plane ticket.
Located in the eastern province of Shandong, Qingdao is a port city bordering the Yellow Sea. Though it is not as modern or overcrowded as bustling Beijing or neon Shanghai, it is still a highly-rated city and a tourist destination for those interested in sailing, the detailed architecture of German-built castles, prisons, and churches, and the famous Tsingtao beer— legacies left of the German occupation from 1897 to 1914. Perhaps the most well-known attraction in the city is the Tsingtao Beer Museum, founded by the Germans in 1903. There is also an annual event that draws crowds from all over the world every August — the Qingdao International Beer Festival. Although Qingdao is certainly an interesting and beautiful coastal city, the environment is still just as hazy, polluted, and dirty as most modern cities in the country. I can’t say I was totally ready for that.
Prior to departure, although the minimal details I knew about my program were fuzzy, I was somehow confident that I was content with leaving my world —my parents, little sisters, very best friends, and serious boyfriend— behind for the upcoming two semesters; it wasn’t until I touched down in my new home base of Qingdao at half past midnight, exhausted, confused, and constantly wiping away tears, having paid my taxi driver triple the amount he earned due to the fact that I couldn’t understand a word he said, that I realized I was completely alone and simply terrified. The excitement that I had felt before boarding the plane was replaced with immediate homesickness.
My housing situation was a small, Chinese-style dorm room shared with a female roommate from Germany, complete with two wooden beds, one dresser and one desk, situated quite inconveniently on the first floor of an 6-story international student dormitory, where a loud mix of drunk Russian conversation and Korean pop music floated through the thick crack under the door, along with plenty of mosquitos and creepy crawlies. A few meters down the hall were the bathrooms, which consisted of a few squat toilets and two showers. Compared to my spacious, comfortable house in Morgantown, West Virginia, stepping into my new living quarters felt like entering another dimension. Where was my kitchen? What about my dishwasher, refrigerator, washing machine, and dryer? Was I really expected to sleep two feet away from a girl that I barely knew and a window that was so cracked I thought it might shatter over my head every night?
At first, miserable, I scolded myself for being so ambitious. I remember thinking “Why did I decide to do this? How did I think I would be okay with this?” I missed my boyfriend especially, along with all the other comforts and familiarities of my friends, foods, things, home, and environment in America. Here, I was on my own, and my to-do list was composed of activities I deemed simply impossible at the time — going to the police station and the hospital, registering for classes, buying food, making friends, and finding someone to install wifi so I could finally let my parents know I had made it to the opposite side of the world safely. I was terrified to speak Chinese. Automatically, I entirely disregarded that I had studied the language for two years at my university. I felt like I couldn’t understand a single word of what was being said around me. If I managed to muster up the courage and words to buy a simple lunch, my request was only returned with a confused look and more questions in Chinese, and I would respond by giving up and pointing to a photo of a dish on the menu. I was swaddled in fear and enveloped by defeat. I really wanted to go home.
Before I left, I somehow knew I would need a year abroad rather than a semester. My parents and my teachers thought I was crazy and tried to persuade me to only stay for one semester, but I am so glad that I chose to stay a year, as that decision played a large part in the positivity of my experience. Eventually, after over a month of letting myself be frightened, sad, and dependent on others, I resolved to make the best of my time in such a crazy, different, foreign land. I had to really convince myself to get out of my comfort zone. That is what made my time in China so wonderful; I realized I could be the real me— friendly, adventurous, outspoken, determined— when I wasn’t held back by a lack of confidence. There was no way I was going to let the fear of the unknown allow such a life-changing experience to slip between my fingers.
Once the semester started, I began to realize I wasn’t really alone. Although some students came to OUC in a small group or with a friend from their home country, many students came on their own as well, and were going through similar things as I. All of the international students that lived in the dormitories went to the same building for classes. During registration, we were placed in classes based on our current level of Chinese. Although I studied previously at WVU, I placed myself into the beginner class, which was actually an extremely fast-paced, relatively advanced beginner class. It was the perfect refresher and helped enforce much more confidence in my speaking skills. Before long, I was actually excited to talk with locals in Chinese. I would chat about my life in America to taxi drivers and attend international mixers and make Chinese friends whenever possible. Each day from 8am to noon I had four hours of classes, specifically intensive reading, character writing, speaking, listening, and comprehension. My professors spoke only in Chinese and our books used minimal English in character definitions and grammar explanations. I was the only American in all of my classes, alongside amazing, driven individuals from every continent excluding Antarctica. My classmates quickly became my lunch buddies, study buddies, karaoke buddies, and ultimately, true friends. After the first semester, I felt a strong, genuine connection to the city of Qingdao and the new people I met almost every day. That feeling of connectedness has yet to cease.
At WVU, I took a mere three hours of Chinese instruction per week, plus little homework and no additional listening or speaking practice. Most American students who have studied abroad will agree that it is incredibly difficult to study a critical foreign language, such as Chinese, at an English-speaking university. In China, however, I experienced total immersion. On the bus, I would take out my headphones to eavesdrop on conversations; in class, I asked a question every time I was confused; at restaurants, I spent extra time learning new characters from the menu. I was constantly learning.
Qingdao is certainly not a city brimming with foreigners; in fact, the sight of a pale-skinned, blonde-haired non-Chinese person strolling the sidewalks in search of street barbecue quite often created a small raucous in the midst of individuals that seldom had the chance to witness such a rare creature in action. Not a week went by in which I was not approached by a sweet grandmother with no English skills inviting me over for tea and red bean cakes in exchange for a short grammar lesson with her shy grandchild, or asked to have my picture taken between a group of Chinese tourists, or offered an origami cat from an adorable kindergarten student that repeated “Hello, I am Amy! How do you do? I’m fine, thank you!” with a bashful but ecstatic, missing-teeth smile.
Now, I firmly believe in the life-changing, mind-blowing importance of travel, especially to a destination in which everything is new and, frankly, a little bit scary. I studied in China, but the information I learned had absolutely no borders. Now, I know that Koreans are already considered either one or two years old at the time of birth, and that during Easter in Slovakia, the boys chase the girls around with whips and buckets of cold water, and that babies in Bali are considered gods and goddesses, and therefore can not touch the ground, until they reach six months of life. I learned some useful Spanish sentences, many derogatory phrases in Russian, how to compliment someone in Slovak and Italian, and how to count to ten in Kazakh! Most importantly, my Chinese progressed rather quickly and with much more ease than I had anticipated. I was so eager to learn every day. Academics aside, I also learned how to better manage my time, my money, my emotions, and my relationships, as well as the heavy responsibility of being on my own in a foreign nation. As a person, I now feel much more independent, as well as compassionate towards and appreciative of other cultures and customs.
I study China’s history, culture, and society because I plan to continue my Chinese language dedication by living and working in China, and I understand that to be successful I must be adaptable. Although the United States has dominated the world for the past several centuries due to economic superiority, it is undeniable that the rise of China is happening. Mastering Chinese as an American is important, and I have come to realize that, in order to truly learn to speak the language, I must first understand the nation’s history and, most importantly, how to properly, politely, and positively interact and communicate with the Chinese people. The Chinese world is becoming increasingly more important to the United States and global affairs in general, both economically and politically.
As an International Studies major at WVU, I am expected to achieve concentrated familiarity with a particular geographic reason — which, in my case, is the stunningly diverse East Asia — as well as acquire an expansive background in international affairs, drawing from courses in international relations, economics, religious studies, political science, geography, history, foreign languages and anthropology. While I have taken countless fascinating, worthwhile classes in these areas at WVU, I strongly believe that the hands-on experience of my time abroad was the best teacher possible.
It is an amazing thing to get to experience another country's culture firsthand, despite the inevitable calamities that come with traveling abroad alone; I will never forget the eye-opening lessons on manner and etiquette that I learned during my first dinner with a Chinese family, after rudely refusing a plate of coagulated pig’s blood, nor the panic attack I endured on my 20-hour flight from Washington, D.C. to Beijing (which, it is important to note, actually landed me in a first class seat with a warm, lavender-infused eye mask), nor my first birthday, Thanksgiving, and Chanukkah away from my family, nor the day I fought back tears as I gave my final speech in Chinese class, packed my belongings in a single backpack, got ready for my next adventure, and said goodbye to the very people that made my experience so meaningful. Months later, after staring with awe at Cambodia’s ancient temple complex Angkor Wat, scuba diving with colorful fish and corals and eels sixty feet under the ocean off the coast of Thailand’s most beautiful island, sliding down sand dunes, riding a camel, and eating the most delicious hummus I have ever consumed in my life in Dubai, and camping overnight in a hammock on the Great Wall of China with my best friend, I re-entered our American world with thankful, bright eyes.
Back home, apart from these monumental sights, I also began to appreciate the smaller things that many middle-class Americans so easily overlook, just as I did; for example, in the U.S., we have access to clean, drinkable water straight from our faucets, and health standards in restaurants, and nowhere near the amount of disgusting air pollution that one will encounter in China. We can access websites such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, freely publish our thoughts and stories to newspapers and magazines, read uncensored news, and watch films such as Tomb Raider, Rambo, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which are all banned in mainland China. Most importantly, I believe, this incredible experience taught me to deeply appreciate that I am considerably lucky to be born a citizen of the United States of America, a place in which the freedoms of religion, press, and speech are a human right. I now appreciate more greatly my natural ability to speak, read, and write in English, and that I am fortunate enough to attend a university that assists me in learning a second language, and even sends me across the world to do so. I learned more during my time abroad than I can simply express in words; therefore, it is all I can do to urge future students to take full advantage of this opportunity, and especially to realize that chances like this are not granted to billions of students hailing from other nations around the world.
My study abroad experience in China, as well as my summer travels through Southeast Asia, taught me how truly diverse and beautiful the people of the world are. I realized that what you put into an experience directly correlates with what you will get out of it. If you enter a new place with an open mind and an open heart, you are most likely to receive open-mindedness and love in return. Although that is exactly the opposite of how I entered my new environment, from my fear and heartache I learned precisely what not to do in unfamiliar situations. I also understand that, in countries such as China, I can be judged solely on the fact that I am a female, that I am white, or that I am American, and that can be discouraging. However, I feel that it is my duty as an American citizen to break the standard and get out there— not only to learn the language of the Chinese people, but to better understand their culture and their traditions, largely in efforts to reduce the massive language barrier currently in place between the United States and China. I think it is obvious that my time in this country left a profound impact on me and the life I strive to live. Living in a country with completely different social standards, governmental authority, and language taught me how to sincerely appreciate and respect difference. There were many things that I was not used to upon my arrival in Qingdao, but from these things I learned valuable life lessons. I took a chance in studying abroad, but without doing so I would never have known the amount of doors, windows, cracks, and creases that were patiently waited to be opened, entered, and explored. I am so grateful to both West Virginia University and Ocean University of China for granting me this opportunity to learn and grow.