A note: studying abroad is an incredibly rewarding experience. From what I hear, most countries offer classes in English, so you don´t have to learn a new language if you don’t want to. If you’ve got the money, DO IT. And if you don’t have the money, you can do it anyways and accumulate a devastating amount of debt in student loans, like I did.
I only took two semesters of Chinese before going abroad. This was during the 2012/2013 school year, and it was more for fun than anything else. I didn’t really expect anything to come from it. At the end of the two semesters, I was able to introduce myself, tell people what I was studying, and ask, “Where is the bathroom?” And then, during that summer, I decided to study abroad in Germany. The following semester, most of my classes were in Spanish to prepare for my semester abroad in Argentina. When I realized that the fall semester in Argentina starts in March, I thought to myself, “Well, I have this extra month of winter vacation lying around. Why not do another language school?”
And that’s how I ended up in Shanghai.
In retrospect, the smart thing to do would have been to go to China during that summer instead of studying two other languages for six months. When I arrived, I was astounded by how much I had lost from not practicing. I had forgotten most of the characters I had learned and I was barely able to put a sentence together. The people in China who have an education are usually able to understand English even if they don’t speak it well, but the divide between those with education and those without is very wide. Most of the people who work in restaurants and subway stations don’t know English, and those are the ones that visitors to China interact with the most.
For the first three weeks, I felt completely useless. I knew that the language people were speaking was Chinese, but it might as well have some made up language designed to confuse me because I had no idea what any of it meant. Even expressing the simplest idea took a great amount of effort, time, and creativity. I later realized that there was another factor, which allowed me to stop beating myself up over not being able to communicate: Even though I was studying standard Mandarin at the university, the people in Shanghai speak a local dialect that’s a bit different from standard Mandarin.
I arrived in Shanghai on a Friday (plane tickets are cheaper if you fly out on Monday through Thursday) but the orientation for my program wasn’t until Monday. That means I had three days to myself with no guidance, no explanation of how to get around, use the internet, or how to behave in the dormitory. Also, the entrance to the dorm and the individual rooms were always locked. Students could access the building and their rooms by swiping their university issued ID cards at the entrance.
These ID cards were given at orientation.
For three days, I had to bang on the entrance doors like a crazy person for the security people to let me in. Then I had to explain to them that I didn’t have an ID card because I hadn’t been issued one yet, and that I needed them to open my room for me. This alone would have been hard, but as an added bonus, they put me in the wrong room when I arrived, so according to their computer, the room I was asking for already belonged to someone else. All of this was done in a language I barely spoke, with people who, although trying to be helpful, didn’t seem to understand that talking faster and louder does not help.
I had to go through this every single time I wanted to leave my room for three days. I think I also had really bad timing, because every time I came back there were different people running the front desk. Fortunately there was another student from my school who had already been in Shanghai for a few months. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her during those first few days.
I had never noticed how much we depend on writing in our daily lives until I got to China. Not being able to read was probably the single most devastating handicap I have ever experienced. Many times when I didn’t understand, people would write down what they were trying to say. This did not help in the slightest.
But after three weeks, something magical happened. Suddenly I was able to understand. I was nowhere near understanding everything that was said to me, but if people were patient, I could at least get the gist of it. After three weeks of waving my arms, pointing, and making exaggerated facial expressions (and sometimes drawing on napkins), suddenly I was able to use words.
I can’t even begin to describe the joy that I felt the first time I ordered a drink without pointing at a menu, but it was such an intense feeling of victory that it instantly made up for those first three weeks of misery. The conversation probably went like this:
Guy at the register: “Can I help you?”
Me: “I’d like a large cup of hot chocolate.”
Guy: “For here or to go?”
Me: “To go.”
Guy: “Eight kuai.” (Chinese dollars, equal to about $1.50)
But when I walked away, large cup of hot chocolate in hand, I felt like fireworks were exploding over my head. For the first three weeks I had been both annoyed and embarrassed when the people around me would stare and eavesdrop when I talked, but this time I hoped they had all been listening. With such a beautiful, grammatically correct sentence like “I’d like a large cup of hot chocolate,” how could they not be impressed? I owned that sentence.
I ordered hot chocolate for the next two weeks, just because I could (and it was the only thing on the menu that I knew how to order).
Now I’m in Argentina. I’ve studied Spanish for about five years already, so communication here hasn’t been too difficult. The first time in a foreign country is always a bit scary, but already I feel much more at ease. I survived China, and now I’m not afraid of anything.