How knowing a little Mandarin can take you a long, long way

Before I arrived in China last fall, I had already spent six years learning Mandarin. One would think my Chinese was good, but I was only really able to memorize vocabulary and study for tests. When it came to speaking, I’d stutter, forget words, and use the wrong grammar or tone-everything I’d learned would suddenly escape me. It was only when I started the Chinese class for my freshman year at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province that I realized why I struggled so much, and how to improve my Chinese.

First, I had to put in the work outside of the classroom. When you have Chinese class every day, it’s easy to think “I don’t have time to study”. But this will only hurt you in the long run. There is only so much you can learn from a textbook. You won’t learn web slang or colloquial terms-you need to go out and find them yourself.

Second, the grade you get in class doesn’t matter in the real world. The real test is when you go out and talk with people. So what if you have bad tones and incorrect grammar? We’re all going to make mistakes, so you might as well have fun doing it.

I’m not going to say that after I told myself these things my Mandarin improved overnight. I still struggle with grammar, tones and confidence, but when my freshman year ended, I felt more confident than ever. So before I headed home to the United States for the summer, I took a solo trip to Beijing for a week and put all the Chinese I had learned to the test.

When I arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport, I took the airport express to Dongzhimen, and my heart started to beat faster. I had never traveled alone before, let alone in China. But the fear eventually faded and excitement took its place. I had a week to explore Beijing and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

Every day, I navigated my way to numerous historical sites in Beijing and had conversations with new people I met along the way. These conversations usually only started because a person wanted to sell me something or take a picture with me, but I not only understood what they were saying but I could respond in Mandarin.

For instance, when I went into a shop in Nanluoguxiang, a popular tourist spot, to buy a souvenir and spoke in Mandarin to a shop assistant, I ended up getting a good discount. Later, I walked into another store and had conversations with two workers. They asked me questions like where I was from, how tall I was, and about the differences in culture between the US and China, and many other things. It was during these interactions that I realized how far I’ve come. I used to be so afraid of speaking Mandarin, yet here I was talking with complete strangers.

When my trip came to an end, I didn’t want to leave. I was having so much fun.

As I look back on my first year of learning Chinese at university, I can say that without the constant support from my Chinese teacher and the hard lessons I had to learn, this trip probably wouldn’t have been possible. I’ve learned a lot, not just in the classroom but also outside. And although next year’s Chinese class is going to be even more challenging, I know that I am not defined by my grades, good or bad.

I’m improving, and that’s all that matters.

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