The Stressed Student’s Guide to Surviving Chinese Immersion

Written by Avia Kraft (University of Texas at Austin) Student Correspondent CET Kunming, Summer 2017

When I was on the swim team, the hardest part of practice was always making the first jump. The moments before plunging in are always the worst, when you mentally build up the shock of frigid water against skin and dread the sharp tightening in your chest that comes with going under. As I stepped on the first flight of what would become a twenty-two hour journey from LAX to Kunming, I felt like I was standing on the wobbling edge of my diving board of high school. Was this program really right for me? Could I handle it? What if everything was too intense? What if my Chinese was so bad that they said I was beyond help? I didn’t feel ready to study in a place that was so unfamiliar.

The thing about swimming is that you never consider the thrill of plunging through the water and being torpedoed into the deep end until you’re actually there. It’s the thrill that makes you return, face your fear, and spring back into the pool every day—and ultimately, it was that same whisper of exhilaration that allowed me to push my apprehension aside and begin to look forward to attending CET’s full-time language immersion program in China for two months. I had spent most of my spring semester dutifully avoiding any thoughts about language immersion, but as I found myself descending into Kunming, I could no longer keep myself from the realization that I was about to be thrust into an entirely different world. As a GPA-obsessed pre-law student, this was a risky decision for me by the numbers. For my interests, going to China was a clear path to ultimately branching into some field of big corporate mergers and acquisitions. Where better to have some experience and fluency than China? However, as I stepped on the tarmac at the Kunming airport, I felt that anxiety strike again.

Fortunately, the first thing that I realized is that CET is extremely experienced in handling nervous international students. The first four days of my stay involved getting to know my fellow classmates—in English. Although I often felt weary and more than a little homesick, I forced myself to constantly go out with the other students, who soon became my friends. Although I usually don’t like being the most social person, I found myself talking constantly and getting to know everyone before we would be limited to speaking in only Chinese by the language pledge. We spent all day eating at different restaurants, touring the nearby park, completing scavenger hunts, and going out at night together. I can say that everyone on the program is amazingly driven and kind. I immediately felt a connection with my friends here, and although it has been difficult to have complex conversations given our varying levels of fluency since beginning the language pledge, everyone has been extremely kind, fun, and understanding. I think that an integral part of enjoying my time in China has come from that first pivotal four-day span.

Although at my home institution I’d never met someone who had completed a CET program before, I’d researched enough in advance to know CET is considered to be the gold-standard for international language immersion programs. I expected the program to be rigorous, but I’d soon learn that succeeding in a Chinese academic setting is entirely different from succeeding in the United States university system. As a result, I gave myself the first week to learn the ropes and get an impression of what was necessary to excel. In China, going to class means actively participating and knowing the material before the professor even brings it up. Because I had only taken Chinese for two semesters in college, I was placed into the lowest 200-level class with four other students. Curious about what it’s like?

A normal day goes like this:

Every day I wake up with my Chinese roommate at around 6:00am so that I can review the vocabulary for our morning dictation quiz. In our first “big class” (大班) of the morning at 8:30am, our quiz is followed by a two hour drill-and-repeat lesson of vocabulary and grammar structures, in which we’re expected to actively participate and bounce back answers in new grammar structures. This requires having studied the material thoroughly the night before and memorizing all aspects of the chapter so that the actual day it is taught is more of a review than a traditionally explanation-based “class” as one might expect in the US. At 10:40 we begin our next “small class” (小班), where along with two other students, I review the material we just learned and complete a question-and-answer style review of the day’s grammar and vocabulary.

At this point, we are given a short break for lunch. One of my favorite things to do is walk across the street to the cafeteria to have lunch with my teachers and friends. Everyone has committed to speaking only Chinese for the entire two months of our stay on Yunnan University’s campus, so sometimes this can lead to awkward, Pleco-laden conversations. Nonetheless, I find myself memorizing vocabulary words much more quickly with the language pledge in effect, and I try to bring along a notecard with the next day’s vocabulary so that during lunch I can begin reviewing the next day’s material more practically. The key to learning the material thoroughly is through using it as much as possible, and my teachers are always eager to correct me during our lunches together. This time with them is extremely helpful and allows me to improve my day-to-day speaking by incorporating what I’ve just learned in class, along with helping my tones and pronunciation become more defined.

After lunch, I begin working on the next day’s homework until I start my one-on-one class, where for thirty minutes I can ask my teacher any remaining questions about the day’s lesson and practice the grammar structures that I find to be most difficult. When this is over at around 3:30, I like to get a cup of coffee at one of the many nearby coffee shops. My personal favorite is El Amor Café, a French-style coffee shop run by a lovely woman who is always sitting downstairs ready to welcome students. I stay until at around 7:30, at which point I walk to the student study lounge and review my homework one final time with my teachers, who hold office hours there until 9pm every night during the week. Usually my Chinese roommate, who is a full-time accounting student at Yunnan University, also studies with me until around 11pm, when we return to our dorm and hang out a little bit before going to sleep.

When I first came to China, I didn’t think I was ready to take the plunge into an entirely different world. In some ways, my fear was justified— studying in the CET Kunming program isn’t easy. But I truly believe, even after only one week here, that my Chinese has improved dramatically. If you want to be fluent in a language, this is how it needs to be done. No matter how much work is done in the classroom, the most important aspect of learning Chinese has been the full-time immersion and constant challenges that I face every day outside of the classroom. Although there have been times in class where I’ve felt like quitting because the material is so difficult, with amazing professors and awesome friends on the program, I think that it will be a fantastic and life-changing experience.