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First Person

Studying Abroad in China: A Firsthand Account

By Amanda Osborn

Amanda Osborn at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center.

Amanda Osborn at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center.

When I decided to study abroad for a year in Beijing on the Boren Scholarship, I knew that I was taking a major leap out of my comfort zone.  I was choosing to study in a country where little English is spoken, foreigners are stared at point-blank, basic online communication is hampered by the Great Firewall, and finding cheese is next to impossible.  Studying abroad in China might not be for everyone, but for me, the decision I made to study in Beijing for a year changed my life.

In China, I was a student at Peking University, or "Beida," as the Chinese call it.  Known as the Harvard of China, Beida has the reputation of being a center of progressive thinking and was influential in many important events in Chinese history. 

At Beida, I intensively studied Mandarin Chinese in a language immersion program.  One of my study abroad goals was to dramatically improve my Mandarin Chinese, and I knew that the only way to do that was to live and breathe Mandarin Chinese.  In the immersion program, I was in class from 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday.  I had homework every night and weekly essays to write, plus a weekly exam that included listening, reading comprehension, writing, and speaking.  I had to sign a pledge stating that I would only speak Chinese from Monday through Friday.  When I first began the program, I thought I would never be able to make it through the semester and emerge with my sanity still intact.  However, as nerve-wracking and scary as the program sounds, it was incredibly rewarding as I noticed my language skill improve by leaps and bounds.  I was so pleased with my improvement that I decided to do immersion both semesters!

Outside of the classroom, I spent weekends exploring everything Beijing had to offer.  I saw the Great Wall, the old and new Summer Palaces, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and other famous sites.  I wandered through hutongs, ate my weight in street food, befriended locals, and grew to love the unofficial pasttime of all Chinese, KTV (otherwise known as karaoke).  I learned how to bargain effectively in markets, how to make my way to the front of a crowd in a country that doesn't believe in the concept of lining up, and how to sit on the back of a friend's bicycle without having a panic attack as we made our way through the hectic and terrifying streets of Beijing.

I decided to stay in China for a full academic year without returning home until halfway through the following summer.  This meant I had ample time to travel throughout China and fully explore the historical, religious, and cultural diversity the country had to offer.  Through my program at Beida, I participated in a study trip that went to central and southern China and visited cities such as Xi'an, one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China; Chengdu, home of the Panda Breeding and Research Center; and Guilin, a city famous for its unique scenery.  I also went to places such as Huangshan, a beautiful mountain range that is a UNESCO World Heritage site; Hainan, an island province known as "the Hawaii of China;" and Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world's deepest river canyons.  In total, I visited 27 cities in 10 provinces, three municipalities, and two special autonomous regions.  I saw more of China than most Chinese see in a lifetime.

I arrived in China filled with nervousness, excitement, and endless curiosity for what my year abroad would have in store for me.  Now, nearly a year after I first arrived in China, I look back on my memories abroad and know that I wouldn't change a single thing.  It may not have been the least challenging study abroad choice in terms of academics, language barrier, or cultural differences, but my understanding and appreciation for everything about China has strengthened significantly.  I left China with proficient Mandarin Chinese skills, a network of Chinese friends, and fantastic memories, but in return, I left a piece of my heart behind for China to keep.