With its meteoric rise in the past few decades, China has become one of the most coveted study abroad destinations for students. One of China’s most popular cities is Nanjing (南京), with its rich yet tragic history. Hannah and Aza, students at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, visited Nanjing through the NSLI-Y program. Their main goals were to improve their Mandarin language abilities, as well as better understand Chinese culture. I sat down with them to discuss their experiences. Perhaps their insights can convince you to choose Nanjing as your travel abroad destination!
What was the most memorable experience from Nanjing?
Hannah: I celebrated my 16th birthday in Nanjing. On the lunch break between classes, I explored the city with my friend Jessica. Previously, we found a piano store where the owner would let us play the piano and hang out in her store, so we returned there and talked with the owner for a bit. After getting some famed 鸡汁汤包 (Steamed chicken buns with chicken stock), accompanied by some milk tea and egg tarts, we went in search of the fabled greenhouse shop. After walking quite a ways, we found it—a petite shop full of hanging plants, big windows, three cats, and another piano. Amid the semi-oppressive humidity of the city, this hidden gem of a shop was a welcome respite. This day generalizes the fun I had exploring the city; there are so many other amazing places that I’d recommend, but this particular day stood out because it was my birthday.
Aza: My most memorable experience was when my host dad and I decided (because of my interests in Buddhism) to go visit a huge temple on top of a mountain that contained remnants of the Buddha’s skull and brain. It was a magnificent temple with multiple stories. It was a great bonding experience with my host dad as well as an interesting historical visit.
How do you feel your experience in Nanjing help develop your Chinese skills?
Hannah: Talking every night at the dinner table with my host family about politics, nutrition, Chinese culture, and medicine really helped develop my Chinese skills —definitely more than the classes at Nanjing University. I went to the bookstore and bought Farewell My Concubine, 《霸王别姬》, a classic novel that we discussed together. Though I only read the first few chapters (I read pretty slowly), it was interesting to hear their perspectives on it. I also made it a point to read the newspapers, and I tried my best to only speak Chinese with my friends. I definitely noticed a significant improvement in my Chinese, especially in my oral skills. I was more motivated to study Chinese characters on my own. Overall, I could use sophisticated words more consistently in my Chinese sentences without thinking too much about it, and also read faster.
Aza: My summer in Nanjing helped increase my Chinese proficiency greatly. The class hours during the weekdays were helpful, but the most influential experience in China that helped my growth of language proficiency was just being in the immersion setting of China as I tried to navigate the language by myself. Though my host parents could speak some English, I told them to only speak to me in Chinese. Sometimes, I had to use hand motions and other strategies to make myself understood. Through these struggles, I learned to understand harder Chinese quicker, which broadened my vocabulary.
What is one unexpected aspect of your trip that people would probably not understand about studying abroad in Nanjing for a summer?
Hannah: I got very sick with a respiratory infection about four weeks in. For the last two weeks, I was unable to participate in some activities with the NSLI-Y group, but I did learn a lot about how the Chinese medical system works. It was really interesting trying both traditional Chinese medicines and western medicines from a Chinese hospital. The experience was very stressful and slightly scary, but it ultimately allowed me to bond further with my amazing host family. However, anyone studying abroad should prepare for the possibility of becoming sick and have some idea of what they’d do if that happens.
Aza: It was super hot, but also the water was unsafe to drink, so I would be walking around with 5 huge bottles of water strapped to my body.
What about Nanjing, the city itself, was most memorable in your opinion?
Hannah: All the bicycles. Once, I couldn’t even get into the subway entrance because there were too many parked bicycles blocking the entrance. And on the sidewalks/bike lanes, you had to be very careful not to get run over by a bike or an electric scooter.
Aza: The differences in the environment. I went to a beautiful Lotus Garden, as well as a thriving night market. I loved both aspects, the calm and quiet and the bustling activity. I think something especially memorable was 老门东 (Laodongmen).
What’s one thing you would recommend someone visiting in Nanjing to do?
Hannah: I’d recommend getting up really early and going to Xuanwu lake. I only had the chance to go once, but if I had known about it sooner I would’ve gone every day. The mist/sunrise and flowers were so beautiful, and I got to meet many interesting elderly people writing water calligraphy on the walkway. Some even encouraged me to try it, and one drew me as I was passing by. I had some difficulties understanding them, but I was so happy that I was able to communicate with them through spoken language and through writing. I definitely recommend talking with some (friendly-looking) elderly people at the lake, as they have a host of life experience that’s really interesting to learn about.
Aza: I would suggest visiting 老门东 (Laodongmen), because not only is the architecture amazing, there is also good food and shops selling everything for cheap. At night you can go for water gondola rides and there are light shows sometimes.
What was your relationship with your host family in Nanjing like? How did your experience with them differ from your family life in the US?
Hannah: I was so lucky to be placed with a host family that was extremely interested in talking and sharing their knowledge of Chinese culture with me. My host father was a professor of immunology, and my host mother was a surgeon, so every night we would have really engaging conversations about vaccinations, nutrition, and other things. I also had a 17-year-old host sister who would bring me out with her friends, and I would help her study for the IELTS English exam at night. As my host dad wasn’t working during the summer, he always stayed home and cooked, and cooking with him was one of the highlights of my study abroad experience. I think we definitely talked more than I did with my own family; they had such a diverse background of knowledge that they were eager to share with me, and they were also really curious about what life in America was like.
Aza: I was very close to my host dad and host brother, but not so much with my host mom. The homestay experience was very different for me. In China I lived with a wealthier upper class family; every day, someone cleaned the house and cooked all of our meals. My host mom was mostly missing in action. She kept to herself and did not really interact with me at all. My host dad, on the other hand, was more of a friend. He took me everywhere and we talked about interesting topics. With him, it felt like a home away from home.