Living with a Local Roommate: Middlebury School in China-Kunming

Written by Brendan Nuse, (Oberlin College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2015

A gift I received from my roommate upon arriving

A gift I received from my roommate upon arriving

Before coming to China, I was a little nervous about having a Chinese roommate. My experience with my roommate during my first year of college was far from ideal, so I was worried that living with a complete stranger for the second time in my life would be disastrous, especially with the language barrier added in. However, now that I’ve been in Kunming for a month and a half, I can say with confidence that I had nothing to worry about.

While most of the roommates on our program are Yunnan University students, my roommate, 郭修竹 (Guo Xiuzhu) has a little bit more complicated situation. He went to an art school, where he studied designed, but he has since graduated. Now, he’s spending his time studying for the IELTS (an international English test along the lines of the TOEFL), in the hopes of moving to Australia to do research. This is an interesting process to watch, because it’s made me realize how different Australian English and American English can be. However, I haven’t had many opportunities to see how his English really is, because of our language pledge- not that that’s a bad thing; it’s probably more fun to talk to him in Chinese anyway.

郭修竹 and I have had plenty of opportunities to have rather interesting conversations. For example, I really enjoy studying 成语 (chengyu- a certain kind of Chinese idiom). One bonding experience that we’ve had has been discussing my favorite 成语, 幸灾乐祸 (to feel joy and delight at calamity and disaster; schadenfreude). I told my roommate that this situation is relevant to my life, since if someone I don’t like does badly on a test or has some similar problem, it makes me happy. I expected him to tell me that I’m a awful person, but instead he said that he often has the same feelings. This was the start of a beautiful friendship between two secretly horrible people.

My roommate is always ready to help me with any problems that I have. This is a pretty big deal because I tend to have a lot of problems. I’m sure there is no way I would have been able to get a SIM card without his help. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even been able to use the washing machine in our dorm without him teaching me how to (in my defense, all of the controls are in Chinese).

The adventure that the two of us partook in last night is perhaps the best example of how supportive of a roommate he can be. For my one-on-one class, I have to do research about contemporary Chinese people’s view on vegetarianism. In order to do this research, I have to hand out a lot of surveys to random strangers in China. When I mentioned this to 郭修竹, he suggested that we go eat at a vegetarian restaurant, and hand out surveys there. While I was excited to eat some good vegetarian food, I was not so excited to go up to people I don’t know and use my somewhat broken Chinese to ask them to waste their time filling out a survey for me. However, when I expressed my fears to my roommate, he told me that I shouldn’t worry- he said that Chinese students often had to give these kinds of surveys, and even if they didn’t, people would still be very willing to help me, since I am “a white person and very handsome”.

My roommate and I bonding on the bus

My roommate and I bonding on the bus

It turned out that he was right, and I once again didn’t really have anything to worry about. People were, for the most part, willing to fill out the surveys. On top of that, one of the waiters at the restaurant had me talk to their manager, who told us that we should “come back every day” and told us that she would give us uniforms to wear so that we could go around and tell people about the benefits of vegetarian food, since “too many people eat junk food and drink Coca-Cola nowadays”.  Afterwards, some Chinese person came up to me and told me he had been a vegetarian for five years and that he wanted me to help him translate a Buddhist text from Classical Chinese into English. I told him that I couldn’t help him, since I haven’t studied any Classical Chinese. Instead, I suggested that he ask my roommate for help, since he’s been studying English- when he started talking to my roommate, I took the opportunity to leave.

Overall, having a Chinese roommate has been a great experience. My roommate is super nice and helpful, and a lot of fun to be around. I’ve learned a lot about Chinese society (the Chinese education system, the government’s relationship with dialects, Chinese people’s relationship with horses) from him, and it’s great to always be able to speak Chinese with someone who can actually speak Chinese. I hope when I get back to the U.S. I can have as good of a relationship with my roommate there as I do with mine here.