This past summer I studied abroad in Shanghai, China through the CET program. It’s hard to do my summer justice in a short article, but I’ll try and summarize it in three main components: language development, cultural exploration, and career experience. My time abroad was particularly impactful because it allowed me to do all of these simultaneously; that’s what made my summer so great.
First, language development. It’s pretty clear how living in a country where they speak a foreign language you’ve been learning will help improve your ability, but taking classes in that environment further enhances this process. The program I participated in included a rather intensive language class which met five days per week, for one hour per day. I was placed in the middle level which I felt was ideal for studying abroad, as while I was not fluent in Chinese yet, I knew enough to not make it too troublesome for locals to understand me. Further, CET had a few notable things they did that made their classes and language learning particularly beneficial. The daily vocabulary quizzes repeated the most important words and skipped the less useful ones, so it was very clear where to focus when studying. Each week I also had a one-on-one class with my teacher. This was particularly beneficial to ask questions about language either from the textbook or, more importantly, from daily life in China. The program also arranged for us to have Chinese roommates. Time has never flown by so fast than when having a conversation with someone from across the world. There’s just so much to talk about: culture, habits, family, and friends. Clearly, language development was a large part of my summer, but there was more to it than just learning new vocabulary.
In particular, the “more to it” was the cultural experiences I had. Living in China gave me the opportunity to explore and talk with local people everywhere I went. One amazing memory is of the guide I befriended on a bike tour I took. After the tour, she invited me home so her mom could teach me how to wrap wontons! This was truly a unique experience as I got to see a family home, learn how to make wontons and other dishes, and talk with the guide and her parents about their life. Not to mention the great language practice as 90% of the conversation was in Chinese! Beyond the bike tour/wonton encounter, I went to many museums, learned about Chinese history, and visited parts of the city that were soon to be demolished. What struck me the most was the Jewish history in Shanghai. I’m Jewish and love learning about my ancestry, but had no idea that over 22,000 Jewish people moved to Shanghai during WWII because it was one of the few safe places for Jews at the time. In fact, there’s even a Jewish Refugee Museum in Shanghai at the site of a former temple. It was very moving to see connections between the Chinese and Jewish cultures because I wouldn’t have imagined them crossing paths. In addition to this unexpected history, I also learned about China’s history through my exploration of Laoximen. The program I participated in helped in finding these unique cultural experiences in addition to holding its own activities such as movie nights and weekend excursions. Laoximen is an area of the old Shanghai city that is largely going to be demolished in the next year. Being able to stand in those old courtyards and streets and visualis history is something you just cannot experience in a classroom.
Lastly, my internship. I interned at a direct-to-consumer teeth straightening startup. The company was half foreign and half Chinese. When I first started, I wondered if the company culture would be similar to that of the company I had interned with in the US previously, or different because it was in China. As I talked with my coworkers, I learned that there are differences in the way people talk, act, and work in the office. Slowly but surely, I felt more comfortable in this new environment. Getting international work experience helps you learn to greatly appreciate and navigate cultural differences. Further, CET had an internship check-in where we were able to learn quintessential cultural trends and news that was useful for just that— sensing an environment. For example, we learned about the hot-topic of the summer in Shanghai: the new trash sorting policy. Knowing this helped me to start conversations with my coworkers as it was an ongoing topic in the workplace. This internship experience definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and provided me more learning than I could have expected if I had just interned in the US.
These three aspects of my summer— language, culture, and work experience— are things that I’d advise anyone to pursue, but exploring these simultaneously while studying abroad provides an especially valuable experience.