ATX Longhorn Abroad

Adapting to China: a Two-way street

*This is the second guest blog post for the Longhorn Abroad series. Asian cultures and languages senior Tyra Skinner studied in Shanghai, China.

It’s graduation day at Donghua University and I’m giving a honorary speech thanking CET Academic programs, my teachers, roommates, and classmates for giving me a wonderful study abroad experience.

Everyone laughed at my jokes and understood everything I was saying. This speech was in Chinese with 500 characters, natural transitions, and idioms. How was that even possible?

Photo courtesy of Tyra Skinner
Photo courtesy of Tyra Skinner

Before going to China, I studied two semesters of Chinese, but when I did my first weekend excursion in Xi’an –– home of the Terracotta Warriors –– without my Chinese roommates, I couldn’t even hail a cab. A cab would pull up, I would get in and tell them the street name, but I would get kicked out or a head shake no. What did that even mean? It was a language barrier and culture shock all-in-one to know that I could get denied a cab if the driver isn’t up for it, but that if I knew a little more Chinese, I could’ve kept it. It was my first two weeks in China and I had a long way to go.

A month later in Shanghai, I already learned two semesters worth of Chinese and even adjusted to some of the cultural differences. For example, there is no toilet paper in restrooms so you must bring your own tissue, and the floors are freezing so wearing slippers is necessary.

Also, when taking showers, Chinese people normally use face towels to dry their whole body. I felt like a waster because I bought a big towel, which was a lot more expensive than the cost for a face towel.

Even bargaining in China is culturally acceptable. One day, I went to this place called Qipu Lu, which is the Chinese version of a flea market or a trade center with cheap clothes and trinkets. I did a little bit of bargaining and I was proud of myself for getting three winter scarfs for the price of one!  The place was kickin’ but I wasn’t left behind.

Photo by Tyra Skinner
Photo by Tyra Skinner

While I was adapting to Chinese culture, Chinese people were adapting to my presence –– foreigners are friends not food. In Xi’an, I was greeted with a bunch of “Hello’s”, pictures with random people, and people “sneakily” taking pictures of us and pointing.  While others were uncomfortable, I loved it! I also understood how they may have felt seeing someone unfamiliar.

During my spring break in Chengdu, a restaurant famous for hot pot (the Chinese version of fondue) was packed with many Chinese families and my friends thought we had to wait in line for about 30 minutes to an hour. However, a minute later we were given a table accompanied by “ooo’s” and “aahs” and stares. I felt like a celebrity at first, but as time progress I felt like an alien that the Chinese were fascinated about. I soon realized they were just like me, trying to understand who I am while I was trying to understand them.

Being a foreigner in China, I gained different perspectives on the Chinese culture and this has helped me figure out what I can do with a major in Chinese. I’ve always loved teaching and I have recently gained interest in foreign language education.

Studying abroad in China has put a lot of resources under my belt such as giving me an understanding of how one learns a foreign language. Since I know firsthand the struggle that it takes to simultaneously immerse in a country and learn a language, I hoping that after I graduate, I can return to China and use this experience to help teach English abroad. I feel this is one way that I can live up to my university’s  motto of “What start here changes the world.”

Story and photos by Tyra Skinner

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