Language Lessons

When you temporarily lose the ability to speak and be spoken to, real necessity becomes painfully clear. Upon arriving in Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, the woeful inadequacy of my rusty Mandarin was immediately demonstrated by my utter failure to navigate an ATM. But the full extent of functionality I had lost when I stepped off the plane didn’t end there: suddenly there were barriers large and small not only to basic functions of communication, payment and transportation, but barriers to accessing many of the tools that would have helped me do those things — the Chinese phone number that would have let me open a local bank account; the local bank account that would have let me use the DiDi rideshare app; the rideshare app that would have made it much easier to go to the China Mobile store by myself to get the SIM card, or at least a bus pass…

I have studied Mandarin before, but it has been nearly a decade since I regularly used it in classes. I had planned to spend my summer reviewing key vocabulary and grammatical constructions, but in the end, my internship and other projects largely pushed that nebulous endeavor to the back burner, again and again. Suddenly it was August 17, and I was out of time.

Being immersed in Chinese (insofar as is possible on a campus where English is the language required in classes and official meetings) has been challenging in some ways, but by no means insurmountably so. I have forgotten much of the Mandarin I previously learned, but it is beginning to trickle back, and I expect that trickle to become a flood once I start Chinese lessons, or at least get more comfortable jumping into fumbling conversations with my sinophone classmates.


The study of language, particularly for a beginning speaker in an (at least partial) immersion environment, teaches lessons that run deeper than vocabulary and grammar. Here’s a few from my first week in Kunshan:

Humility. I hate imposing on others, and I generally take pride in handling my own affairs with little or no help. In the first few days here, however, real independence was basically impossible (particularly given that I missed some of the on-campus opportunities to set up phone and banking matters, due to the timing of my overseas flight). We were met at the airport by several volunteer students, who arranged the 2-hour car ride to the school in Kunshan — something that might have taken me hours to do, and might have gone very wrong. I don’t yet have the language skills needed to set up a Chinese SIM card without a volunteer translator by my side or to understand on my own the stack of information that the bank employee had me sign when a volunteer took me to set up an account. What’s more, when I first arrived, I had unexpected difficulty accessing U.S. funds, and might have been unable to even buy food from the on-campus cafeteria had I not been kindly spotted by my suitemate and an RA. But everyone I have met here, staff and students alike, has been extremely helpful, sympathetic, and generous. Passer-bys have stepped in to translate when I clearly needed help during a transaction; every person to whom I mentioned my banking trouble spontaneously offered to cover me in the meanwhile. I couldn’t have navigated the past week without that generosity, and that is humbling.

Patience. The cultural context behind a question or statement can give it an entirely different meaning. When I am trying to navigate administrative issues and don’t quite understand what is being said to or asked of me, even in English, I know it’s time to take a step back and make sure I understand the underlying details of why I am being asked a certain thing, or whether the other person speaking understands why I am asking a certain question myself. One example: a brief conversation with several of my suitemates and classmates at a huge living goods store earlier this week. We were discussing what order to do a specific handful of shopping tasks in, and it became suddenly clear that the two Americans had a very different idea of what made sense from our Chinese counterparts. It turned out this was because we Americans were operating under the unconscious assumption that the check-out aisles for the shop were probably somewhere very close to the door — as they usually are in a Target or another US grocery store — such that we would later have to come back to the place we were standing before we finished shopping. But this wasn’t the case: the check-out counters were at the far end of the vast space, and the exit was through a largely isolated hallway that didn’t connect back to the main entrance at all. Once this subtle assumption was clarified and corrected, we were all in agreement. But had we not taken the time to understand it, we might have ended the conversation confused or frustrated.

Gratitude. I’m thankful for the volunteer students that have taken their time to help us international students navigate this transition and for the administrators, RAs and faculty who have been kind and approachable at every turn, even when there has been confusion in the details. And being faced with initial limitations makes it easy to take joy in the small language victories, as they start come. The woman at the register of the campus Mini-Mart listens carefully as I stumble over the word for “laundry”, and supplies the unknown end of the phrase I want (“currency”) — correctly intuiting, to my great excitement, that what I’m trying to buy are the gold tokens that operate the washing and drying machines.  Time, attention and words I couldn’t have known are all offered to me. These are gifts.

I have always had an enormous amount of respect for the international students who come to the U.S. for graduate study, who must function at a professional level in a foreign language, on top of having to execute the details of daily life in English as well. Speaking in a class discussion about a current event or economics concept requires a different subset of language skills than, say, researching a neighborhood and arranging to rent an apartment. Those students must do both, far from home. I am spared most of the latter type of tasks, as we are living on campus in an environment full of English-speaking administrators; and if I choose to be, I am entirely spared the additional task of learning academic Chinese.

But my Chinese and other international classmates here are not spared the reciprocal task. They must use academic English in the classroom, and pass a proficiency test to earn their Master’s degree. So my intention is to push myself similarly out of my comfort zone, though it will likely be a very slow start. I have started trying to sprinkle more Mandarin into conversation with Chinese speakers whenever possible, even if it’s only a sentence or 2. I placed out of the beginning Chinese class in yesterday’s language interview, so I’ll be doing some sort of independent semi-directed tutoring; on top of the day-to-day basic words I’m sure I’ll be starting out with in these lessons, I’m going to try to focus on some more specialized vocabulary that will allow me to talk about the academic concepts I am studying. It seems only fair.


Convocation is in a few hours, followed by a welcome barbecue and a student talent show. Classes start Monday. I’ll have more about the campus and about the city, which I’m hoping to explore a bit more this weekend. Until then, I’ll leave you with a handful of photos from the bus tour we did earlier this week as part of orientation, and some shots of the beautiful campus:

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