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From Language Study to Friendship

Kate and AiAi in Beijing

Kate Murray, one of Sino-Immersions' fine team of Tour Assistants, Researchers and Tutors, studied at Boston College, graduating in 2014, majoring in International Studies and Chinese. Her thesis was on US foreign policy in Asia. Kate has been working as a Manager at Endeavor, Detroit and in the Fall will begin a Masters degree at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Here she discusses some of the steps she has taken in her Mandarin language journey. We present this as part of our series on learning Mandarin as an encouragement to our young friends brave enough to keep at it. Thanks Kate! 加油!

When I packed my bags and boarded a flight to Beijing in the summer of 2012, I was equal parts nervous and excited.

I had been studying Mandarin in classrooms since age eleven, but this was my first time going to China and I was moving there for four months! I was so ready to immerse myself in the language and culture that I had been studying for years and years, but also apprehensive… what if no one could understand me? What if I couldn’t understand them? What if I didn’t make as much progress as I hoped?

To add to the initial apprehension, part of my study abroad program was mandatory meetings with a Chinese language partner for three hours each week. No English allowed! As someone with very little conversational experience, the idea of chatting for hours at a time in Mandarin was daunting. I had also dreamt up grand plans of becoming best friends with my language partner and going to karaoke together, so the pressure was on for him/her to like me.

I met my language partner – Aiai – during my first week in Beijing. She was a 22-year-old student studying to be a Chinese language instructor. Looking back now, my time with Aiai was the most meaningful part of my abroad experience in terms of helping me improve my speaking and reading skills, and also for learning about Chinese culture first-hand.

Speaking – I distinctly remember our first dinner together. I had learned a new, fairly advanced vocabulary word earlier that day in class, and I had this perfect moment to use the word in conversation. Aiai was surprised that I knew the word (and frankly, I was surprised that I was able to recall it on the fly!) and it was one of the best feelings in the world. Our regular conversations gave me the opportunity to practice new vocabulary, grammar patterns, and phrases in a more natural context. I won’t sugar coat the challenge of learning Mandarin; there were several occasions when I couldn’t even order food at a restaurant without pointing at pictures on the menu.

Street food, fresh steamed dumplings

On the other hand though, about three months into my time in Beijing, I went to dinner with a group of young Chinese professionals, and we spoke almost entirely in Mandarin. Regular conversations with Aiai helped me feel less self-conscious about speaking in Mandarin with strangers, and most of all, these cumulative ~50 hours of language partner sessions helped my speaking skills improve more than the previous 9 years of classroom study.

Reading – I told Aiai about my interest in foreign policy and a goal to better understand Chinese newspaper articles, so she started printing out short articles for each meeting that we would read together. The topics ranged from a bacterial outbreak in Pakistan to President Obama’s reelection campaign. With over 50,000 characters in the Mandarin language, there were plenty that I had never seen before. Aiai would translate unfamiliar characters and help explain the overall tone of the passages. It was really informative and led to some interesting conversations, too. Going back to Boston College, I wrote a thesis (under the supervision of Sino-Immersions' Director, Dr Jeremy Clarke) about China’s response to a US Foreign Policy initiative, and I employed my practice with Aiai by using a few Chinese articles as sources for my research.

Cultural Understanding – In addition to Aiai’s insane course load (8 classes per semester), she also worked a part-time research/teaching job and was my language partner. I learned that this type of situation was fairly common for Chinese students. Her family lived in a town several hours by train away from Beijing, so she only returned home for major holidays. She was in a long distance relationship with a man who she met at a school mixer. She shared her dorm room with five other women and had to walk across campus to get to the shower building. She was passionate about working with students with disabilities. She was envious of my pale skin. Throughout our months together, I loved getting to know Aiai on a personal level and swapping stories about our vastly different, but oftentimes-similar life experiences.

I sadly did not have the time (nor did she) to gallivant around Beijing going on adventures with Aiai. But, during an end-of-program celebration, we finally did get the chance to karaoke together! Aiai helped my language skills improve immensely, and most of all, she gave me the confidence and reinforcement that I needed to not give up. I’m forever grateful for her time, patience, and openness with me. 谢谢艾艾 (xiexie [thank you] Aiai!)

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