Princeton in Beijing

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Caoimhe Boyle | 11/07/2022

I was thousands of miles from home for the longest period of time I’ve ever been away from my family. Although I struggled at times with this distance, by the end of the program I was glad to have taken on the challenge of actually leaving home (not just going to school one hour away.)

This summer, from June 19th to August 18th [2020], I studied Mandarin in China at the Princeton-in-Beijing program. Over the course of the two-month program, I completed the equivalent of one year of Chinese class at Princeton. In my classes and individual sessions with teachers, I used new vocabulary and grammar to discuss topics such as the benefits and drawbacks of free speech, whether the United States should build a high-speed rail, and how Taiwan’s history relates to the current relationship between mainland China and Taiwan. Every day I would also have an hour-long individual session with one of the Princeton-in-Beijing teachers, where I had the opportunity to ask questions about topics relating to China that interest me. In addition to our daily language classes, we had weekly excursions and cultural activities, including to the Great Wall and International Horticulture Exhibition 2019 and presentations from speakers who were experts in Chinese politics, history, economics, and China-U.S. relations.

One particularly difficult aspect of Princeton-in-Beijing is the language pledge. For the duration of the program students are required to speak only in Mandarin at all times, except when communicating with family and friends at home. At first, I struggled to engage with my friends the way I was used to. I would think of a comment, opinion, or joke that I wanted to share, but find myself unable to use Mandarin to say what I meant. Throughout the program, it was extremely frustrating to be unable to express myself properly in my daily life, but it was also incredibly rewarding to observe clear benchmarks of my own progress. Successfully navigating food delivery apps, getting a haircut, travelling on public transportation, bargaining in markets, and settling a roommate dispute felt like major victories.

The most meaningful evidence of my improvement in the language however, came the weekend when I visited my host family from a previous trip to China. I immediately noticed how much better our communication was this summer than when I lived with them three years ago. I was able to discuss the similarities and differences in the American and Chinese education systems, and tell them a little bit about my life at Princeton. I even helped my host mother and my mom have an entire conversation over Facetime, translating for both of them, since neither speaks the other’s language.

Attending Princeton-in-Beijing helped me to greatly improve my speaking and listening skills in Chinese, which will allow me to communicate effectively with Mandarin-speakers around the world. Communication and understanding are essential for many reasons. Knowing Mandarin gives me the ability to travel in China on my own, and speak with locals about social issues. I also have developed my ability to recognize nuance in spoken and written Chinese. Earlier this month the National Basketball Association issued a statement directed at the Chinese government; however, there were noticeable differences in tone between the English and Mandarin versions of this statement. Because I was able to read and understand both versions, I could make my own judgment about the discrepancy, and gain a better grasp of the cultural and political implications than if I were relying on others to translate for me.

Since the Reform and Opening, China has become an increasingly important player on the world stage. China continues to develop close political and economic relationships with developing countries around the world, through BRICS and the Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, the United States and China are the largest economies in the world, and both hold major geopolitical power. The Milken Institute’s work to increase global prosperity through collaborative solutions is reliant on informed analysis of complex social problems; using data-driven research to develop meaningful policy initiatives. At Princeton-in-Beijing, many of our classes were focused on discussing social issues and better understanding the current social and economic situation in China, as well as perspectives on these issues within China. Both in class and through conversations with my teachers and local Beijing residents, I learned more about topics including the population imbalance brought on by the One Child policy, children of migrant workers left behind in the rural villages, China’s One Belt One Road initiative, and the current situation in Hong Kong. I also had the opportunity to hear many of my teachers’ differing opinions on these issues, which allowed me to better understand political perspectives among people from different backgrounds. Studying in China allowed me to experience the cultural and ideological differences that exist within the country and between China and the United States. My ideas about freedom of speech, democracy, and individualism were challenged by citizens of a country that values none of those concepts. Although I disagreed with many of the opinions I was presented with, I was also given the opportunity to see how Western culture and history influenced my way of thinking. I believe my understanding of the cultural and historical landscape of China and my Mandarin skills will be crucial in allowing me to have a global impact in the future, in line with the mission of the Milken Institute.

My time spent in China this summer also gave me the opportunity for internal reflection about my own future and my goals. I had time to consider which of the problems facing the world are most urgent, and where I can have the most impact. The disastrous effects of climate change and the urgency of protecting our environment were major topics of news and conversation this summer. Meanwhile, everyday when I walked to class, I was breathing air that was noticeably polluted, at times appearing like a fog over the city of Beijing. These experiences made it clear to me that protecting and improving the environment must play a role in my plans for the future, due to the serious and immediate negative impacts that pollution, deforestation, and extreme weather events have on our global prospects.

Personally, I’m incredibly grateful to have attended Princeton-in-Beijing, not only because of the academic value of this program, but also because of the personal development I experienced this summer. I also formed close relationships with many of my classmates and teachers, and learned to ask for support when I needed it. The academic rigor of the program was challenging, but I ultimately developed better skills for time management and studying, adjusting my habits to fit the format of the course. I have already observed the benefits of immersing myself in such an academically and emotionally challenging environment now that I am back at Princeton.