One Year in China: A Student Reflects
A University of Delaware graduate, National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) alumna, and current Masters candidate at the Universidad para la Cooperación Internacional, Evangelista understands the benefits of knowing additional languages as well as the value of immersive environments. Hear how her experiences with Chinese have had an impact on various aspects of her life.
In her words:
From the time I was a senior in high school, I wanted to spend a year studying abroad in China. I was heartbroken when I didn’t get into the program I wanted to do for a gap year, but in coming to terms with it, I found a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” And it was a wonderful stroke of luck, because without that rejection, I might never have taken the path that led me to spending my junior year of college at Xiamen University on a Confucius Institute Scholarship, an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Living in Xiamen brought important new people, experiences, and changes into my life. And while it’s common to hear that “going abroad changes you,” at first I didn’t understand quite what that meant. Of course, I knew my language skills would improve a lot, and they did. Because my survival depended on using Chinese, I gained a lot of new linguistic skills and confidence using Chinese in my daily life. By the end of the year, I could handle my bank and cell phone accounts, make my own inquiries with school administration, call maintenance if something broke in my dorm, and order things online. I even regularly helped my friends who spoke less Chinese than I did, taking them to the student clinic when they were sick and helping them make phone calls or order at restaurants. But there was so much more than that linguistic improvement.
First, I started my year shy, awkward, and lonely and finished it with friends from not only China, but also from Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, Poland, Uzbekistan, and more, and with my boyfriend of now two years, another international student from Costa Rica. These friends became a complete support system, from classmates with whom I could enjoy a group dinner at a nearby restaurant (see the photo below), to the “family” that celebrated holidays together and brought food when someone got sick.
There’s something special about the relationships you build abroad, something about experiencing so many new and different things together that makes those relationships stronger.
Some other experiences and changes seem a bit more superficial, but I think it’s because of this that I find them interesting – they weren’t things I expected before I left. For example, I finally learned how to ride a bike. I got so used to mobile payment apps that cash became an inconvenience. I came to tolerate spicier foods and to love mango milk. And I started intuitively taking the weather into account before doing laundry. (In China, people usually hang their clothes out to dry rather than using a machine.)
I think one of the strangest changes for me was the degradation of my ability to speak English. Sometimes my teachers or classmates would ask me how to say a certain word in English, and I would have to explain that, even though English was my native language, I just didn’t know the answer. I would forget even the simplest words during conversations and use some Chinese words, such as xiaoxin (“Be careful”), mixed in with English. And second semester, after I began spending most of my free time with my Costa Rican boyfriend and our Brazilian best friend, what remained of my English also began getting peppered with Spanish and Portuguese. I even once made the mistake of using the Spanish, “Qué?” instead of the English, “What?” with a Chinese friend when he said something in English that I had not understood.
After all that I learned and experienced in Xiamen, I have two major pieces of advice for anyone planning to go abroad for language study.
First, remember that you’ll get out what you put in. Immersion is only one component of the experience, and it can’t work alone. So definitely take the time to study; get out of your comfort zone and speak to other students in your target language, even if they speak your native language; and take that leap and try to report that dorm problem to maintenance on your own, even if, like me, all you can tell them is, “It made a big noise, and then there was no more light.”
Second, expect the unexpected. Your time abroad will be a challenging but rewarding journey, and you never know what you might find in the world – or even within yourself – along the way. Even if you’ve been to your host country before, every different city and person will hold something new for you. Maybe you’re going back with more time or more independence than before, which will give you new opportunities to explore.
So, even though it probably sounds like a cliché, take every chance you get to try something new, and know that the only thing you can expect with any certainty is that you’ll be a different you when you return home.
As always, don’t forget to share your language learning story with us @LeadWLanguages on social media.