I arrived in Beijing with a smattering of Chinese knowledge from my two years of college language classes, a new record for the longest I had gone without sleep (27 hours – I can’t sleep on planes), and a determination to learn Chinese. We were given just three days to adjust to life in China before we were to stand in front of our fellow classmates, our left hand on a Chinese dictionary and our right over our hearts, in order to take the language pledge. We were to swear to only speak Chinese, and our program director made it clear that violators would be sent back to America. The three days passed quickly, and I soon found myself standing in front of 14 other American students, still unclear on how to say “I promise to only speak Chinese until the end of this program” in Chinese. We had practiced the pledge multiple times just moments before, but the words had already flown from my mind, leaving me anxiously racking my brain for anything I could say to make this moment end. I uttered a few random sounds with my mouth that I hoped sounded, at the very least, like Chinese, trusting my teachers and peers got the point: my Chinese was not good, but I was willing to work hard to change that.
To say the first few weeks were incredibly difficult would be an understatement. I still remember the first time I sat through my teacher speaking Chinese at me, not understanding a word of it. By the time the hour and a half class was over, I was fighting back tears. I made it as far as the door before turning and letting the only words I could think to say spill out of my mouth: “对不起我的中文那么不好” ("Sorry, my Chinese is so bad"). I then sprinted to the bathroom so I could sob freely, undisturbed by my concerned looking Professor. There is something about being an educated twenty-year-old, reduced to the language ability of a five-year-old, that really makes you feel like a helpless idiot. And then came the weekly five minute orals that were to be presented in front of EVERYONE; I would spend hours painstakingly writing, and then memorizing, every Chinese word I wanted to speak.
I used to imagine myself as a wall coated in glue with my teachers standing five feet away, pelting me with new Chinese words, expecting them to stick. In the beginning, I watched as my wall of glue filled with words too quickly, my brain capacity overpowering my feeble attempts to glue down the overflow of words. Soon though, I started hearing words repeat. The repeated words started naturally sticking, taking their place forever in the fabric of my mind. The longer I was there, the more words I began to recognize, even if I hadn’t learned them in class. The process felt endless, but I started retaining a lot; the words started to feel like water sloshing around in my mouth, there were so many of them! I could pick and choose what I wanted to say and how I wanted that to come off, studying the nuances of Chinese culture through their language. The thing about it was that I just had to endure it; there is no easy way to really learn a language. You have to live in that country, breathing their air, eating their food, talking with their people. It’s hard but it’s worth it.
Around three months in, the language started to feel like my own. I felt powerful with my abundant resource of words, so ingrained into the mechanisms of my brain that they would spring up immediately when I was interacting with people. I stopped having to look for the words: they were just there. Speaking Chinese turned into another form of self-expression, one that was constantly challenging everything about me, from my level of adaptability to my notions of the world and myself. I now see Chinese language as an innate part of myself, symbolizing a year of growth, struggles, friendship, pain, and beauty.
Paige Alexander '20
Term Abroad: Academic Year 2018-19
New College House
Major: Joint in Art History and Chinese Language
- International Student Peer Mentor
- Women's Rowing