Studying Abroad in Nanjing, China


About Me In Chinese I am Shi Mei Hua, but my American name is Erin Sperling.  I am currently studying Political Science and Creative Writing through the University of Arizona, but I’m halfway around the world from the actual UA campus in Nanjing, China.  It’s a great situation, although it couldn’t be more different from the Arizona ranch I grew up on.  I’m studying Chinese while absolutely immersed in the culture, down to the board – oops, I mean good-for-your-back bed – that I sleep on in my host family’s penthouse, while also taking UA political science classes taught by a UA professor.  To top it off, I don’t have to worry about credits transferring or any other such study abroad nonsense, as the UA looks at me as taking regular classes while just so happening to be in China.  Not too shabby! (09/27/08) Essential Travel Item Number 1: Cream of Wheat  erin post 1Things to take to China: Passport, wallet, visa, Cream of Wheat (2 boxes), tuna fish, frying pan. This is the unaltered list of one of my fellow study abroad students. “Huh?” was the unanimous reaction of, well, the whole group of us.  However, we have to cut the poor guy some slack – whereas some of us are experienced international travelers (more than one leapt from summer programs in Europe to China), this friend in particular jumped into travel like the Chinese people are embracing modernity – careening forward with faith that things will work out eventually and relative chaos in the meantime. Studying abroad can be difficult, and it affects people in different ways.  Some people have good luck charms or other items for comfort in a new place.  He literally brought his kitchen. In a place as foreign as the waking dragon, where chicken feet are an entrée and standing in line is one mark of a “civilized city” (Nanjing, where we are studying, is passing around a petition hoping for such an honorable status), we all need a piece of home.  Even if it’s a frying pan. (10/08/08) Table Manners Don’t Translate  erin post 2I had an interesting first dinner with the host family. I’m nervous, because I know almost nothing about Chinese table manners and don’t want to offend.  They told me we are having lobster, and considering how nice their apartment is, I believe it, but something evidently got lost in translation.  Dinner is a huge bowl of small seared crustaceans, with millions of tiny legs and beady little eyes staring me down. My host mother and sister teach me how to dig my hands into their little “lobster” bodies, rip them apart, pry out the inedible bits with my fingers, and suck up the rest.  Soon, crustacean juice and oil is running down my arms and I feel terribly rude. I begin to quickly fill up the small bowl in front of me with my leftover shells and heads.  I look over to my host family to see if there is anywhere I can empty it, only to see my host mom rip the shell off of the thorax with her teeth, lean over, and spit it out right on the table. Note to self: Don’t spit shells on the table when back in the US. (10/15/08) Don’t Ask  erin post threeIt’s a stunning Wednesday morning and class is surprisingly full.  Differences between the nationalities of students are immediately obvious – the permanent fixtures otherwise known as Koreans sit in rapt attention, whereas the wandering Americans are sometimes here (both mentally and physically), sometimes not.   Today the mood is one of boredom – speaking and listening class is really just listening to the instructor speaking. Their model is based on factual knowledge, so we are expected to simply listen.  Our Chinese teachers would be shocked to see us with our American instructor – questions fly by the minute and sometimes it is other students who answer them.  If one of us were to do so in Chinese class, the laoshi would give them a stunned look for disrupting the Confucian student-teacher relationship. Our teachers seek creative thinking and practical application.  Theirs seek rote memorization.  Knowing facts is beneficial, but let’s face it, that’s why we have Wikipedia. Now I just have to figure out how to say “I don’t want a chicken head in my soup.”   (10/22/08) Overnight Superstar Kit  erin post fourWant to be a superstar overnight*?  Hop a plane to China. In the land where exotic means blue eyes and a tall nose, stepping into a club as a waiguoren guarantees you instant superstar status.  It’s a world of pulsating music, laser light shows, free drinks (when we go to MAZZO, from the club itself), and random people greeting you like a long lost friend. Be prepared to deal with the attention when you hit the dance floor.  You haven’t had a club experience until you have had one with a whole room of slanted eyes staring at you, taking pictures, and cheering you on.  Want a new set of adoring fans?  If you are at 1912, there are twelve clubs within stumbling distance. Clubbing: it’s what’s for dinner.  Daily. *Overnight (adv): drive to airport, check in, pregame on plane for 24 hours with the free drinks, disembark, pray they didn’t lose your bags, dump bags through Chinese bomb screening, check into hotel because you couldn’t sleep on plane, buy new outfit because the prices are just too good, then stop at four karaoke bars before finding a cab that understands your broken Chinese.  (10/28/08) Free Of Charge  erin post fiveBeing on a college budget is tough, but a food budget of nine dollars and seventy-five cents a month is highly feasible.  We enjoy giant egg and veggie crepes for breakfast, dumplings for lunch, and hearty noodle soup for dinner – seven days a week no less.Did I mention street food in China runs at about 35 cents a pop? When going to college, a lot of things break the bank – tuition, books, housing, etc.  However, if you study abroad in a rapidly developing third world country, you can enjoy a life involving one dollar liters of beer and nice 3 bedroom apartments for below $100 a person.  Sure, your meat will always be like the animal in question was stuck in blender or the apartment might smell funny, but hey, just spit the bones out on the table, burn incense, and you’ll fit in perfectly. Some people think studying abroad is expensive, but pick the right program and you’re set.  Yangtze International Study Abroad students get tuition, housing, books, and fully-funded tours for about eight grand – less than the entire cost of living for staying in Tucson that semester.  Plus all the bones you can eat, free of charge. (11/05/08) Language Barrier = Friendship  erin post 6In America, it can occasionally be challenging to make friends.  Maybe you’re in a situation where you have little in common with the people around you, so even small talk is tough.  Maybe you’re the odd one out.  Maybe people simply think you dress goofy or your hair is too…neon yellow and orange, like two of my fellow exchange students’ currently is (they were the semi-fortunate guinea pigs for a regional hair competition yesterday.  Ironically enough, their stylists won, but they have worn hats on the street during the entire process and can’t wait to change it). In China, as I’ve referenced before, all you have to do is be a foreigner to be loved.  People will come talk to you, beg to take pictures with you, and offers for dinner are so numerous you wonder why you bothered taking out a student loan to come here – you could have sold the rampant leftovers to pay for the program fees.  Just hit the streets and smile.  You’re a friendship magnet in the shape of a walking, broken Chinese-talking, waiguoren.  Screw going back to America – I already have 1.3 billion friends here.  Most yell hello daily. In Conclusion…. Whether you have ever considered a study abroad or not, do it anyway!!  Money woes, language barriers, cultural differences – these all quickly fade into the whirlwind of the absolutely amazing experience you will have. I’ve seen everything from poverty to impressive wealth, pride in Chinese culture coupled with a fascination with the west, and people spitting bones on tables to high school students determining the proper seating arrangement at a birthday party according to Confucian principles.  I’m in I don’t know how many random people’s photographs and I have people calling me at least weekly where I have to ask “who is this??”. It is exhilarating, overwhelming at times, but worth every single challenge you have to face to get through it, and once it is over, you don’t want to leave.  No college experience is complete without a study abroad – in our rapidly globalizing society, this is a fact.