Claudia is currently a student at Queen’s University, and spent the summer of 2017 in Chengdu on the Immersion & Study Program.
Please describe your host family, their home and your accommodation?
My host family was quite large, with twelve people besides myself living in one house over the course of my summer. I enjoyed the company of all of them, but particularly enjoyed the company and limited communication I managed to have with my host grandmother and the family driver, who I spent a fair amount of time with while my host kids were at school. The family home was large and comfortable to fit the amount of residents, I was provided with my own bedroom, as well as an attached bathroom which were both ideal sizes and easy to keep tidy. I often helped with the housework due to the size of the house and the untidiness of the kids, but the accommodations were always lovely and I will always be grateful for how well I was taken care of.
What do you like most about China?
Over the course of my stay in China, my favourite aspects of the country were the friendliness of the residents and the overall feeling of safety I had despite living in a big city. An experience that continues to amaze me even after leaving China goes as followed; one day I was taking the bus home from school, and with a high number of people on the bus some individuals were entering from the bus’s side door. I watched as a man handed a passenger his fare for the bus, she handed it to another passenger, and so on until it reached the front and was deposited without anyone pocketing the money. This is such a small detail to stand out to me, but compared to my home this level of trust and friendliness to complete strangers was impressive and amazing. This is also true of my safety in the city, as a young woman I surprisingly felt very safe and comfortable travelling alone- even after dark. Additionally, the community I lived in with my host family featured a very high level of security, which was an added comfort when living in a foreign country. I appreciated that safety is a high priority in China, particularly for women such as myself.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
In my spare time, I spent a lot of time at the swimming pool with my host children, as the temperature was nothing like I had experienced before and the pool was a good option for cooling off. I was happy to work with my youngest host child in her learning how to swim, and enjoyed our usual stop for ice cream after. I spent a lot of time exploring the community I lived in, as it had all the necessities of a small city in a very compact area, and it was beautiful to explore and have coffee or read. Personally, my favourite way of spending my own free time was when I got tattooed in downtown Chengdu. I had done a significant amount of research on artists in Chengdu before getting there, and was even more pleasantly surprised with that experience than I was expecting. I came home with some beautiful artwork on my body that I will treasure forever!
How have you got to know people socially (both Chinese and other ex-pats)?
For the month of June and some of July, I found it very difficult to make friends and sometimes felt isolated with my host children at school all day. However, as time went on, I had a new classmate in my Chinese course who I became friends with despite a significant age difference. Additionally, attending my Chinese school’s day trip to Qincheng mountain offered me a great opportunity to meet other students learning Chinese from all over the world. I quickly met five or six individuals my age who I got along with very well and made good connections with. Finally, my most successful connections were made between myself and the other two English participants that joined me in Chengdu mid-July. After getting to know them at the monthly activities and arranging our own get-togethers, they became good friends and excellent supports through the rest of my time in China.
How do you rate your Mandarin course? Is your Mandarin improving?
While I had to quickly adjust back to my full-time University life after leaving China, I am very aware of how productive and beneficial my Mandarin course was. While it was challenging and frustrating at the beginning of the course, being introduced to my classmate made the experience much more valuable. Having a classmate allowed me to feel comfortable asking my teacher questions, learning from my peer’s mistakes as well as my own, and the dynamic between native Canadian, Australian, and Chinese individuals was wonderful. I found my provided Mandarin books to be moving at a good pace, the language used in the book was clear and helpful, and my teacher moved through the exercises very well. When I decided that I wanted to pursue my HSK-2 certification, my teacher was incredibly supportive and helpful, going as far to print the test for me and showing me exactly what content in the books I would need. Attending school was one of my favourite aspects of my time in China, and it left me with the desire to continue my study of Mandarin.
Have you done any sightseeing, either in Chengdu or further afield? If so, what’s the best place you’ve been so far?
While in Chengdu, my favourite location I traveled to was Qincheng mountain. I visited the mountain twice, once with my host family and again with my Mandarin school on a day trip. It was an amazing experience both times, the first time I was able to reach the top of the mountain from the front side, and the second time I explored the shops at the bottom of the mountain on the backside. There is a lot to do and see on both sides of the mountain, and I found it to be a very different experience from either side. With my host family, we also made a trip to Xi’an together, where I visited the site of the Tang Dynasty, my favourite location in that city. It had beautiful architecture, a river with available boats for rental, and a lot of history with excellent English descriptions. I enjoyed my time there with my family and would encourage excitement about traveling with the participant’s host family.
What have you found to be the major cultural differences? Have you made any cultural faux-pas?
The cultural differences that made themselves the most prevalent to me were the cultural expectations of women in China, which were quite different from how I normally compose myself in my own environment. These were difficult for me to understand at first, and admittedly even more difficult to put into practice. Some of these faux-pas included sitting with my legs spread, which I learned is considered quite inappropriate for women. Also, staying out late with my friends; which I learned made my host mother somewhat uncomfortable, this primarily being because I am a young woman who may have been in danger. Finally, and perhaps the most difficult, were the practices of manners in conversation. While I consider myself a polite and well-mannered individual, the commodity of responding to an offer with “no thank you”, even if I wanted to say yes, was difficult to understand. Or, responding to a compliment with “no, I’m not,” or something similarly modest was also strange to me. However, all of my personal difficulties subsided over time and I’m sure other students would feel the same.
What were your expectations prior to starting your role? Has the experience matched your expectations?
Before starting my role as an English teacher, I was under the impression that the work would be long and tiring during my working days, but I found it to be completely the opposite. My children were agreeable and easy to teach. Additionally, the work of planning their lessons and activities was relaxed and not very difficult after some quick research on teaching methods and effective lesson plans. I will say that I had no idea how suddenly I would be required to adapt to plan changes and spontaneous activities, which I can imagine may be difficult for some participants. Living with a large, busy family that often makes last-minute plans, requires a great deal of patience and passivity in order to have a good time. Beyond these surprises, I would say Opportunity China does an excellent job preparing and informing participants on the role expectations.
What piece of advice would you offer to prospective applicants?
I have a few pieces of advice for applicants to this program:
Firstly, become comfortable being passive and open to plan changes. As someone who occasionally struggles with anxious feelings, it has in the past been difficult for me to accept short-notice plans, trips or activities. This proved to be difficult for me at the beginning of my stay and sometimes led to me feeling overwhelmed or excluded from family conversation, but practising passivity allowed me to have a more “go with the flow” attitude and better enjoy my time with the family.
Next, if the participant’s children spend a lot of time at school during their school year, do not feel guilty for keeping busy, especially if this means leaving the house. During my first month in China, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands during the days my host kids were at school. Because of my initial shyness, I found it difficult to express my desire to explore and leave the house alone- out of fear of imposing or seeming undedicated to my job. While this eventually subsided with my host kids being home for the summer, I would warn against letting nerves or shyness prevent a participant from enjoying their time to the fullest- even though it may be alone. My host family seemed to be surprisingly accepting and supportive of these independent travels.
Finally, make friends! This is my most valuable piece of advice, as someone who struggled occasionally with feelings of isolation/loneliness during the program. When presented with opportunities to make English-speaking friends over the course of the program, no matter how intimidating and scary that may be, take the opportunity. Some of my most memorable experiences were with English speakers I got to know, including my Chinese classmate, other English speaking attendees of my Chinese school, English speaking friends of my host family, etc. While I didn’t make very many English speaking connections over three months, the ones I did make proved to be incredibly valuable to me and my experience. If opportunities arise such as school trips, visits with family friends, etc., take the opportunity and talk to anyone and everyone. Interacting with English speakers in a foreign country is one of the most comforting and enjoyable aspects of this type of experience and I highly recommend it.