Student reflections of their experiences in China
Monday, June 3, 2013
While being in China I am amazed at how many people are able to speak English even if not well but still able to kind of understand. Some of the students that I've talked to say that they're English is poor but I say at least they're able to speak some. Many of them have taken English classes since primary school. In every county people are somewhat bilingual except in the US. I didn't start taking a second language until high school and did do it for all 4 years but I still don't think it's enough and more schools should offer another language before high school. It's such a valuable skill to know another language since we are becoming more global and interacting with people from all over. I've made a lot of new friends on this trip because they knew how to speak English and we were able to communicate with each other.
Knowing multiple languages can also help with getting a job. We met the VP of BSU today and the girl was translating everything for him and us. She apparently was also a guide for previous Ithaca groups and would not have had a job like that if she didn't know English.
Studying abroad has made me want to keep studying other languages. Not necessarily mandarin but I could keep up with French, which is what I did for 4 years. It's just such a valuable skill to have and can only benefit people.
Monday, June 3, 2013
We grabbed our water bottles and stepped off our bus into the hot, sticky air slopping SPF 30 onto our arms and foreheads. It was 11:00am on May 25th, 2013, but that didn’t matter. Where we arrived, the clock will always read 2:28pm on May 12th, 2008: a day that is on constant repeat for the residents of Sichuan Province, China. On this day, at this time, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the region, causing irrefutable devastation for miles.
Pots upon pots of yellow flowers line the steps surrounding the monument that memorializes those who lost their lives and greet visitors of the site. Signs instruct us to not smoke and warn those approaching to “avoid laughing noise” but no sign could have prepared my heart for the vicarious ache that was imminent. We stood at the first building we came to and stared in awe. Fluorescent light fixtures dangled by a thread, cast iron window bars were sorely misshapen, books covered in dust remained on desks that sat sideways in an otherwise empty room, and our eyes followed fault lines from the rooftop of the dormitory to the grass. As I stepped up onto the walking bridge that winds its way through the mangled, cracked, and crumbled town, the language barrier that separates me from the people of China instantly dissolved. No matter the language of the tongue, the language of the heart will always supersede. I could have been walking next to people who spoke German, French, Spanish, or any other language, and it would have made no difference. We all understood. We all felt the chill. We all envisioned the chaos that was May 12th, 2008. We spoke the same language that day, a language that does not require words. A language that can break a levee of tears with a hand placed gently on a shoulder or a flower placed delicately among the others.
We entered the site light and we left heavy. We were not heavy with fear or grief, but humility and compassion. My heart swelled with what felt like the tears of all the mothers who lost their children, all the children who lost their siblings, all the grandparents who lost branches from their family trees, and the tears of those who lost everyone. With a death toll that approaches 100,000 people, no “visitor” can begin to scratch the surface of what was felt that day and the months and years that followed. We walked away from the site heavy; heavy with the thought that the emotion we felt was a mere sliver of what was felt by the people of Sichuan Province. Though the air was somber, I think we all gained something positive that day. Our gains are unique to each of us. Some may have left the site with a refreshed appreciation for life, some may have walked away with a message of carpe diem, some may have gained a deeper understanding, and some may have become inspired to take further action. Personally, I left the earthquake site with a heightened sense of humility.
We, as individuals, tend to get caught up in our day-to-day routines and goals and allow egocentrism to creep in. I believe it is a truly positive and rare occasion when we can experience something that makes us feel small and unimportant. I am grateful for this experience that reminded me that there is a world outside the one I create and there exists a pain bigger than anything I’ve ever felt. Today’s people of Sichuan Province survived an event that I can honestly say I do not know which outcome is better. It was enlightening to be reminded that everywhere, every day, someone is fighting a battle more difficult than mine. It was refreshing to experience such a rush of gratitude and appreciation for my life and the people who are in it. Life is a fragile and precious gift that should not be taken for granted. We should live with our eyes and hearts open. Our world is not one that consists of seven continents separated by sea, but rather a world that consists of seven continents occupied by our brothers, connected by the common language of the heart.
Monday, June 3, 2013
In the English speaking world, Chinese is often considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. I can't say that this trip has busted that myth, but I am proud of what we all have learned to say in under two weeks.
With English being my native language and having spent high school and part of college studying Spanish, I am surprised at how particular the Chinese natives are about pronunciation. Sure, pronunciation of words is important in English and Spanish--learn what sounds consonants and vowels make and how they work together and you're good to go (to oversimplify it)--but in Chinese, you have to learn consonants, vowels, and most importantly, tones. All Chinese words have one of five tones for which you must change the inflection of your voice.
We quickly learned in our Chinese language courses at Chengdu and Beijing Sport Universities that even if you know how to write the "pin yin" (using our alphabet to write Chinese words instead of using characters), if you don't dictate the word or phrase with the correct combination of tones, a native Chinese speaker probably will not understand what you are trying to express. For example, the word "tang" in Chinese can be said with four different tones, and the meaning of the word changes depending on the tone. "Tang" can mean "soup," "sugar," "to lie down," or "hot water," so if you travel to China, practice your tones beforehand so you don't get brought a tin of sugar when you really want a place to rest your head. Additionally, if you say one Chinese word out of context, often times it will be near impossible to attach meaning to it.
The people I have encountered who are not native English speakers have accents and sometimes mispronounce words, but I understand what they mean. In Spanish classes, I may not roll my "rr"s perfectly, but the professor can understand what I mean. I feel that the Chinese language is much more dependent on pronunciation, which makes it seemingly one of the most difficult languages to learn (along with the Chinese character system). Despite the difficulty of Mandarin, the last two weeks have inspired me to become more culturally competent and to continue learning the language.
I believe it is important for all global citizens to learn at least one other language early in life. Having this skill will not only enhance your resume, but it will give you the ability to communicate with people from abroad, personally and professionally. And when you are able to create relationships with people who speak other languages, the world becomes that much more united.