“China has become like a second home to me now.”
International travel runs in Nick’s family; his parents met on a study abroad program! After taking Chinese classes for two years at the University of Minnesota, he spent an academic year studying Chinese language and culture in Tianjin with a full scholarship from the Learning Abroad Center’s exchange program, IRSEP. Living in a smaller Chinese city seemed like an ideal opportunity. "I had spent a little bit of time before in Beijing and it was more of an international city. It felt very tourist-oriented and there were a lot of people who spoke English. I felt that Tianjin would give me a chance to learn Chinese better and also to experience a more authentic [version of] Chinese culture."
"One of my objectives for this year was [that] I wanted to understand China politically, because here you have a state… that claims they’re Communist, and yet they’re one of the most capitalist countries on the face of the planet." When Nick arrived at Nankai University for the first time, however, he was challenged by culture shock. "I felt like I was trying to hide out in my dorm room. I think that was the biggest challenge for me to overcome — this fear of trying to get out there and try new things…to explore myself and the culture around me." His initial hesitation to immerse himself in the host culture was exacerbated by local media reports focusing on social problems in America such as racism. Some of the questions he received about these issues made him feel uncomfortable. "I felt like they were accusing me of being this, and it was very hard."
However, the culture shock didn’t last long. Nick quickly became friends with his German roommate, and they decided to rent an off–campus apartment together. He used his apartment search process as an opportunity to practice his Chinese language skills with real estate agents. "It was kind of a milestone event to know that I could use Chinese to find an apartment and argue about the contract and about the deposit." The best aspect of apartment living in China turned out to be interacting with his new landlord. "She was amazing. She would come over and talk to us and teach us Chinese words for things like plumbing and stuff that you would never get to use, and she would tell stories and ask us what it was like in our countries. There were a lot of people like that in the apartment building…it was very friendly, and it was really interesting to develop that bond." Before long, Nick became a welcome member of his neighborhood community and began developing close friendships with local taxi drivers and food vendors, overcoming what had once seemed like insurmountable cultural differences.
Nick enrolled in language courses for non–native Chinese speakers at his host university. His coursework focused on helping international students improve their scores on the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi), a national Chinese language proficiency test. Memorizing 40 new Chinese characters each night was difficult, but Nick focused his efforts and met the challenge. One of the assignments he enjoyed was using his new vocabulary to interview people on the street. "I realized how much I was learning by talking to people. When I first arrived, cab drivers couldn’t understand me… and here I was having conversations about China planning a manned space machine to the moon. It’s amazing how much I learned." Nick enjoyed the time spent talking to his Chinese teachers. "Teachers are very highly revered in China, so you are expected to show a lot of respect, but the teachers are also very friendly and very warm. We joked around a lot… It was really fun to have a teacher who was willing to develop a friendship with you."
Living in China had a substantial impact on Nick’s academic path. Originally a Regional Geography major, he switched to Environmental Geography because of the effects of rapid industrialization he witnessed in China. He also used his Chinese language coursework on campus at the University of Minnesota and at Nankai University to declare a minor in Chinese.
Over the winter break, Nick traveled all over China on his own. He visited Shanghai and Hong Kong and spent time near the borders of Russia, North Korea, and Kazakhstan. His most memorable experience occurred when he shared a meal with ten migrant laborers on a 30-hour train ride through the Gobi Desert. "They found out I spoke Chinese and instantly… they were talking to me [and] trying to get me to drink with them. They had chicken feet and pickles in these 5 gallon buckets and they were breaking them out and pouring me alcohol and eating chicken feet and eating cucumbers and I felt that there was no separation between us… They were joking with me, they were laughing with me, we were telling stories… It was definitely the highlight of that year."
Nick’s experience in China gave him a new sense of self-confidence. "I’ve learned more about the kind of person I am and how I work in new situations… I went from being [an] introvert to this person who would just try to strike up a conversation at any given minute with anybody who was willing to." Nick also feels that his experience studying abroad has helped him to become more accepting of others’ views and opinions. "I was very political here before and I’m still very political, but I used to judge people by their political views. I feel I don’t do that anymore."
Check out our Program Search to explore program options in China.