Practicing Chinese in China

Guest Post by: Finance & CISB Junior Catherine Schwarzwalder. She is a Foster School Undergraduate who participated on Foster Exchange at Peking University in Beijing, China.

This past fall semester I studied abroad at Peking University in Beijing, China. There were a handful of reasons I chose to study in China, but one of the main ones was the desire to practice my Chinese language skills. I didn’t grow up learning Mandarin—I only began studying the language freshman year of high school and continued through two years at UW.  I wouldn’t say I felt fluent in Chinese (far from it), but I still felt relatively confident that I’d be able to navigate the city well right away.


I was wrong.


Within an hour of landing in Beijing, I realized that the formal, written Chinese I had learned in class wasn’t going to do me much good in the city. I quickly discovered that colloquial Chinese was a lot different from the conversational phrases I had learned in my textbook. People in Beijing spoke FAST and with a deep Beijing accent that was difficult for me to decipher. The first day, I was so afraid of embarrassing myself that it took me half an hour to work up the courage to walk into a restaurant even though I was STARVING. Looking back, I admit I was a little impatient, it was probably unrealistic to expect everything to come easily, especially since I was also struggling with the initial culture shock and the exhaustion from the 16-hour time change.


As the weeks went on communication became slowly easier. I started comprehending a lot more and felt more confident in my Chinese ability. I found that I knew a lot more Chinese than I initially thought, and that for the most part, people were patient when I tried to speak.  Sure, I would still get the confused glares and impatient huffs when I asked street vendors to repeat themselves, but I could get around. That’s not to say I didn’t face moments of pure frustration when I would order the wrong food, failed to find the bathroom, or when I couldn’t communicate my feelings to the degree I would have been able to in English. Though these situations were frustrating and uncomfortable at times, they were just a part of studying abroad. If anything, I think I learned more about myself and it did help me learn how to communicate.

There is a lot of opportunity to improve your Chinese if you are willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone. Peking University offers numerous language buddy programs, clubs and organizations if you are willing to make language learning a priority. I wish I had done that a little bit more; most of my friends were English speakers and so it was easy to default to using English when we spent time together. I also relied a lot on my bilingual friends who would hail our taxis or order at restaurants. Though it was great to let my friends take care of logistics, I learned the most when I was forced to take the lead on travel plans or directions. Studying in Beijing truly helped me gain confidence in my language but also realize the work it takes to get closer to becoming fluent in Mandarin.