Diving Deeper into Life in China

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Karen Li | 11/06/2022

I was able to deeply immerse myself in Chinese culture, recognize the joys of communicating in a language that has taken me over ten years to learn, and form friendships with people from all corners of the world that I know will last a lifetime. I am sincerely thankful for Milken for funding a part of this trip.

From June 10, 2019 to August 11, 2019, I studied abroad in one of the most incredible cities in the world, Beijing, through the CET Beijing program.  During these nine weeks, I took an advanced course in Mandarin and lived with a Chinese roommate who was a student of the host university, Capital Normal University. My main purpose of studying abroad through CET Beijing was to improve my Mandarin in communication, writing, reading, and listening. However, by the end of the summer, I gained much more than just the ability to speak about the economy in Mandarin. 

On the fourth day of CET, all of the students took a language pledge in which we vowed to only speak Mandarin until the last day of the program. This took a considerable amount of adjusting, especially since students were taking different levels of Chinese, so many of us struggled to hold a conversation (thus, the Pleco translator app became our savior for most of the summer). But over time, “oh no” became “ai ya,” “okay” became “hao,” and we all started to dream in Chinese as well. It was especially interesting when people in restaurants and stores would try to speak to us in our first language in order to acquire their own English-speaking skills, and we would have to refrain from falling back into old habits. The language pledge was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding aspects of this program.

Not only was speaking Mandarin all the time difficult, but also taking the four-hour class everyday was challenging. My goal for this summer was to delve into more formal pieces of writing and more serious topics, which my teachers provided for us. We discussed China’s economy, Chinese history and culture, China’s government, as well as sensitive topics such as the Taiwan-China relationship, LGBTQ+ relationships, and the China-US trade war. My teachers provided news clips, movies, and took us on class trips to old Chinese neighborhoods and book stores to supplement in-class materials. When I returned, I found that I could understand much more of the Mandarin channel that my parents watched, even as I communicated with them in Cantonese, and I can say that my parents were very proud.

In terms of exploring the city itself, CET gave us many opportunities to do so. Every Friday, my teachers introduced us to a different restaurant in Beijing which allowed us to try different cuisines from different parts of China as well as new foods such as donkey and delicious tofu dishes. CET also organized trips to a Kung Fu performance, the National Museum of China, and cultural relics such as the Great Wall, which allowed me to see more of China. In addition, about 6 weeks into the summer, CET organized a trip to the city of DaTong, a city full of cultural relics related to Buddhism. I learned a great deal about Buddhism as I visited landmarks that even my family had never seen before. I was in awe of how much I had learned in a city that I had never heard of before our trip. Furthermore, during the weekends, my friends and I also explored different parts of Beijing by ourselves, from the vast Forbidden City to the beautiful Temple of Heaven to the Old Summer Palace. We even watched some Chinese movies at the movie theaters! We made sure to take advantage of being in the wonderful city of Beijing.

Karen Li

One of the most important, most memorable parts of my summer was being taught by wonderful teachers. In addition to teaching us for 4 hours every week from Monday to Friday and staying late to grade papers and prepare lessons, they talked to us outside of class to get to know us better and to learn about our culture. A Milken value, that education is the most conducive means to help people and those around them lead productive and satisfying lives, was shown most clearly through my teachers. They were some of the warmest people that I have ever met and I will truly never forget all that they have done for me. Additionally, spending time in Beijing and learning about China through the lens of those living there informed me of biases that exist throughout the world. Helping people also means understanding them and it is crucial to listen and understand people we do not necessarily agree with. While in Beijing, I listened to and debated with people regarding controversial topics such as Uyghurs in China, the Chinese government, gun laws, Trump, and ways of life. The experience was a kind of indirect education in that I learned outside of the classroom rather than within and from discussions rather than lessons. It made me realize that much of what we learn is biased and skewed to conform to societal norms. There are many ways of life in our world that I may not be agree with, but I can understand them and use that knowledge to improve my life and the lives of those around me.

A striking example of this is when one of the lessons involved bringing in all of our roommates, who were also students at Capital Normal University, into the classroom to have an open discussion. We asked them a variety of questions including some about their views of the Chinese government and their thoughts on America. I found that not everyone in China agrees with the Chinese government and that sometimes, people criticize it, but I came to understand why people tolerate it and that it is not as bad as people make it out to be in the Western world. This discussion opened my eyes to what it means to truly listen to others’ views and understand them. 

I will be eternally grateful for having had this opportunity to study in the unforgettable city of Beijing and I have this Milken Scholarship to thank for that.