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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them— My Study Abroad Experience in Nanjing By Giselle Willis Cuauhtle

I will admit, I never had any special intention of coming to Nanjing. I thought it was just the southern version of Beijing but maybe with less air pollution. I ended up coming because my professor told me to...and because I thought the “intensive” in “Intensive Language and Culture” sounded neat.


Giselle with classmates 

But now I love Nanjing. It's the perfect mega city for someone who is from Tulsa, Oklahoma because it doesn't feel too overwhelming. The average skyline is only extremely taller than the tallest building in Tulsa, not ridiculously taller. There's weirdly lots of trees and bodies of water too, which I think I might've forgotten about when picturing the rapidly industrializing China so often seen in the news. I also forgot about the animals.


Giselle with her Chinese host family 

The first animal I met was Chip the hamster. He belongs to my host family and when I met him it was with the sinking realization that he understood more Chinese than I did. I envied Chip and his cozy existence. Having learned the little Chinese I knew with a northern accent, Nanjing’s southern accent was different enough to make sure I felt like I definitely wasn't anywhere near Kansas anymore. I watched Chip run around in his hamster ball while my host family tried to reassure me that my pronunciation was standard while theirs wasn't. My 15-year-old host sister, at least, spoke clearly and easily threw in English if I didn't understand something important. My host dad was definitely the hardest to understand, but it turns out Chip was more of a constant in my life than he was. Host dad works in Xi’an and comes back to visit about once a month. Now I look forward to his visits because they are always an extra challenge on my language ability. He speaks very quickly and with an accent, but every time he comes back he claims I have made great progress. As for my host mom, I have conversations with her every day because I have to record certain topics for my homework. I have also learned many useful phrases from her, such as “wear more clothing,” “drink more hot water,” and “you definitely need to wear socks or you will catch a cold.” Chip, however, continues to be unimpressed with my tones.


Talking with Chinese tutors

As I became more familiar with the area around my school, I also encountered many stray cats. My favorite is definitely the calico who always hangs out on the stoop. We named her Stoop Kit. It's pretty cold outside now, so one time she crawled onto my lap and head-butted her way into my jacket. I was happy to help my fellow small mammal, especially because I miss my own cats at home. I also like the cat in the coffee shop across from our school, and I even saw a tiny kitten hanging out on the Great Wall. My tutor and I actually first bonded over our pictures of our cats, and she taught me one of my most-used words: “小可怜,” very roughly translated as “little pitiful.” It is useful for describing stray cats but also maybe your friends when they can't open a water bottle. Or like, yourself when you're actually the one who can't open water bottles. Thankfully my host mom helped me buy a thermos online because China’s online shopping is stellar. My tutor also helped a bunch of American students buy things online during the huge sale on China’s “Singles Awareness Day.” She is, in general, a fantastic person who puts up with me at least three hours a week, helps me remember how to write characters, bought me a cute comic book in Chinese to practice with, gives me Chinese songs, and did my makeup super well one time during a tutoring session all about makeup products. My teachers in general are very patient with me. Except sometimes if we aren't very responsive in class one of my teachers has us dance along to viral dance videos. Joke’s on her I love embarrassing myself.


Giselle and her Chinese instructor Zhu Laoshi


Discussing Chinese newspaper with classmate


Sheepskin river-rafting on the Yellow River

Anyway, I also got to see camels. In the desert. Apparently some of my relatives saw my pictures on Facebook and thought that I had taken a side trip to the Middle East. But no folks, China is in fact big enough to have different climates in different areas of the country. I'm so thankful CIEE took us on a week long trip through cities on the Silk Road and they didn't even ask me to say that. It was amazing to get to see more of western China and not just the lovely east coast city that is Nanjing. We went to Xi’an, Lanzhou, and Dunhuang, to name a few places. We were all excited the whole time for riding camels in the last city, Dunhuang. But throughout the trip we also got to hang glide and ride on sheep skin rafts and take a motor boat to the most beautiful place I've ever been to: a Buddhist grotto in Xiahe. I would never ever in a million years call myself an outdoors person but I actually did all those things AND enjoyed them. One could even say studying abroad has helped me grow as a person and all that good stuff.


Visiting the Mogao Grottos

 Visiting Binglin Temple

In the end, I think the most important thing I've learned from staring into Chip’s blank, beady eyes, Stoop Kit’s darling, reptilian eyes, and Fergie the camel’s super long eyelashes is that they aren't very different from their American counterparts. So I didn't want to write a blog post making a bunch of generalizations about Chinese people or warning of potential cultural faux paus either. I feel like the best way to travel is to do so with zero expectations. Not high ones or low ones, just none. I'm definitely not going to be an expert on China after one semester here, so all I can do is practice Mandarin as much as I can and keep talking to different people. Fortunately stray cats aren’t a bad conversation starter.


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