By Justin Nygard
The moment you get to the dorms the first day, you are welcomed by CIEE’s amazing staff, whom have done everything they can to make our adjustment to the Chinese lifestyle and local area seamless. This might sound like I am over exaggerating about how easy it is to begin living in China, but you can ask any student their first impression of China and they will all say that even after a week of living here, they still cannot comprehend that they are in China. What I mean is Nanjing is an extremely modern city that makes living in China resemble like living in the states. Although the city has its share of western influences, Nanjing also holds a considerable amount of traditional and historical places let alone not to mention everyone speaks Mandarin. In my opinion, it is more comfortable than Shanghai, being that it is safer, smaller city. In addition to being more traditional than the westernized and developed city that is Beijing.
Within the first few days we students are taken on tours of the most important places to know near the dormitories such as the local market, banks, and subway stations. Another way that we students familiarize ourselves with the local area is that our program staff organized a scavenger hunt of places that previous CIEE students most frequented like coffee shops, restaurants, and other places to hang out or study.
Students get ready for the scavenger hunt. (photo credit: Jun Jiang)
It was a really fun way to work together to use our Chinese to find our way around as a group. We also visited places like the Ganxi Old Residence, Xuanwu Lake, the six-hundred year old Ming city wall, a Confucian temple, and other historical landmarks where we learned the importance of Nanjing, being that it was the birthplace of democracy in China, even though it was short lived. Even though I have lived here for a semester, I am continually learning how the events that took place here in this city shaped the way China is today. In comparison to other cities I have visited, Nanjing has a great balance of traditional and modern aspects.
Students participate in an ice-breaker during the orientation. (photo credit: Jun Jiang)
Students visit the Ganxi Residence which also serves as Nanjing Folklore Museum.(photo credit: Jun Jiang)
After a few days we begin to settle in and the jet lag wears off. The students who decide to live in the dorms are paired with Chinese roommates while those who chose to live in a homestay meet their family and move out with them. Last semester I chose to live in the dorms, in which my roommate became a really close friend whom I know I will be friends with for the rest of my life. Living in the dorms is convenient because our classes are in the same building just six floors below. This semester I chose to live in a homestay to diversify my experience in China. Honestly, the first day I met my Chinese family I was scared to death. I didn’t know what to expect, how their lifestyle is at home, and how I would fit in. All I knew is that the Chinese family knows very little English and I would have no choice but to use Chinese to communicate with them. But five minutes after meeting my shushu (meaning “uncle” in Chinese which is what you call a male whom is one generation older than you) we entered the elevator to leave the building to move out to his house, he struggled with his English as he slowly said, “You are not a foreigner, you are a member of the family.” This completely eradicated any fear I had, and as time goes on, I am more convinced they will always be family to me.
At the end of the week we were paired up with tutors. The students living in the dorms would be paired with Chinese roommates while the homestay students were assigned tutors whose majors were Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages. Students would not be assigned a tutor who is also their roommate, this way everyone would have two people they could rely on for help, their roommates and their tutors. It is mandatory for those in the dorms to be tutored three hours per week as the homestay students are tutored two hours so they may spend more time with their Chinese families. Tutoring is great! I would take my tutor out to a nearby coffee shop or restaurant and discuss any questions I have about the grammar I learned in class. Afterwards we would have basic conversations of our everyday life. If you are studying a foreign language you probably understand that at some point you realize you can elaborate on topics such as China’s Reform and Opening, however lack the everyday vocabulary needed to go shopping or order food. Living in Nanjing and participating in this program so far has improved my comprehension on advanced grammar and text while at the same time learning slang and the local accents spoken outside the classroom.
Students meet their tutors. (photo credit: Jun Jiang)
One of my biggest frustrations about the Mandarin language is the tones. By using the wrong tone of voice for each syllable can be the difference from saying that you want to “buy” a house, to saying you want to “sell” a house. For an English native speaker, the tones can be one of the most difficult things to master. Starting the second week us students attend a pronunciation tutoring session once a week to focus on nothing but tones and pronunciation. For the first half of the session I will read aloud passages I am studying in class. During the second half, I hold basic conversations with my tutor. She will stop me when I have incorrectly articulated a word and will write down suggestions on how to improve my pronunciation. Already have I seen an improvement and look forward to the day when my proficiency of Mandarin gets to the point when the tones come naturally. Hopefully by the end of this program!!! This is my goal, and I am set on making it happen.
When it comes to doing homework, a lot of time is spent preparing for the next dictation quiz. Practicing tones, memorizing how to write the characters, and writing the occasional essay is the basic routine of my study time. I am grateful to be able to focus on nothing but Chinese language and culture because I was too spread out in my studies since I was taking a variety of courses back in the states. In my reading class we spend a lot of time reading the text and understanding the underlying grammar structures. We take the grammar and try to put it to use in different contexts. For example, the chapter might be talking about how the West has influenced China, we will take the grammar “to influence” and create sentences like how our parents influenced us or how we influenced others. I realized how easy it is to read and understand Chinese from a book, but it is harder to create your own sentence structures that are related to the text. This is why the spoken class is so beneficial. With the focus on creating impromptu grammatically correct sentences, we are forced to think on our feet. This class is my favorite by far. Which I am sure is because of my teacher. She gets extremely excited when I used grammar she taught me weeks before. For example every time I use words I learned from last semester she might clap or happily gasp which makes me personally feel good and strive harder to reuse things I learned long ago. In the states I was very self conscious of my Chinese, scared to use it in public because I feared of being wrong. But now I love speaking Chinese and I know it’s because of the experiences I have had over the past semester that has made me more outgoing and confident in Chinese dialogue. Overall, this has been a tremendous experience and I cannot wait to see what else is in store!