Tales from abroad: Shanghai

Follow this student as she journeys through China. (credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Liao) Follow this student as she journeys through China. (credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Liao)

Last summer, I studied abroad in Shanghai, China for approximately two months. Other than suffering from Facebook withdrawal, all in all, China was definitely a good study abroad experience for me.

Even though I am an American, I was able to explore China much more discreetly as a tourist than most Americans would have. I am a Chinese heritage student, so physically, I look just like a typical Chinese citizen. This made touring the country much easier. Caucasian students fascinated the Chinese and most heads would turn at the sight of them. This part I was happy to miss out on, since I am not keen on extra attention from strangers. Some locals would even take pictures of them, some with their permission, others without. For my personal preference, I was glad that I was able to tour different parts of China without drawing too much attention.

Even Asians that were not Chinese were drawn out. Most American people cannot tell a Chinese person apart from a Korean person or a Japanese person. However, most Asians can tell different ethnicities apart. One of my Korean classmates was just walking along a shopping street when one of the salesmen started talking to her in Korean to try to get her to buy his products. In general, because I am ethnically Chinese, it made bargaining a lot easier since salespeople did not assume that I was foreign. Once bargainers know that their customer is foreign, they will automatically bump up the price unnecessarily high. This makes bargaining a hard-earned skill, which can end in feeling very satisfied if you are able to get a good deal.

Of course, touring China was not my main objective when I decided to study abroad this summer. My main motive was to improve my Chinese reading, writing, and speaking skills. By taking Chinese class every day of the week for hours at a time, I think I definitely improved my reading and writing skills. What helped my speaking the most was interacting with people in the streets, bargaining with salespeople, and in general, just being in China. I agree with the thought that if you really want to learn a language well, you should go to the country and live there for a couple months and immerse yourself in the language. I am glad that I went to China because I did what I went there to do: improve my Chinese.

Before my trip, I would rarely speak out in Chinese, because even though I understood the language pretty fluently, I was not able to form the sentences in my head quickly enough. I always had to think of a response in English, translate it in my head to Chinese, and then finally attempt to say it out loud. To be honest, I was a little ashamed that my speaking was so broken, since I grew up in a Chinese-speaking family. One of my experiences in China exemplified these feelings completely. I was in a taxi, on my way to some tourist spot, when the taxi driver tried to make conversation with my classmates and me. He could tell that I was ethnically Chinese, and he questioned why I still had to learn Chinese. He told us a story about how his nephew, who grew up in Kentucky, was able to speak Chinese fluently and asked why I could not do the same. I was not sure how to answer this question. After that encounter, it made me even more motivated to learn to speak, read, and write fluently in Chinese.

This trip was a mixture of realizing my shortcomings as a non-fluent Chinese heritage student and experiencing what it feels like to live in China on my own. I was pushed to improve my Chinese by myself and by a simple conversation with a taxi driver. At the same time, I was also able to explore my Asian roots, through lessons of history and touring the country. Overall, my experiences in China proved to be extremely beneficial; I was able to truly unveil a whole new part of myself.