Written by Katie Mercer-Taylor, (Oberlin College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Spring 2016
I’ve been trying to keep my life in China a mystery for my friends and family at home, so they’ll be more excited to hear all the “when I was in China” stories when I get back. But after having a few prospective Middlebury in China: Kunming (MiC Kunming) students ask me what the program is like I decided that one super long blog post wouldn’t hurt. I hope this is helpful for people considering MiC Kunming or curious about my life here!
If you don’t know me or don’t know about Middlebury programs—I’m an Oberlin third year Environmental Studies major who chose MiC Kunming because of the focus on environmental studies and anthropology topics. I’d studied Chinese for 5 semesters before coming to Kunming. Middlebury abroad programs focus on language acquisition, so we speak only Mandarin. Our program has 5 American students and we each live with a Chinese roommate. Here’s what a typical day looks like for me:
7:30-8:00AM I wake up in a comfy dorm room on the sixth floor of the 云大兵管 (Yunnan University Hotel), and do some last minute preparation for whatever quizzes or tests I have that day.
8:00-8:30 A few classmates and I walk down down the block to eat 小笼包 (xiao long bao, steamed buns) for breakfast.
8:30-10:20 First class period: All our classes have just 1-4
students, and almost all are taught by full-time Middlebury teachers who’ve been teaching on this program for several years.
On Mondays and Wednesdays my first class is 云南印象 (Yunnan Yinxiang, Impressions of Yunnan), which focuses mostly on language acquisition. Every week we talk about a different aspect of Chinese culture, like food, the education system, or bargaining. Tuesdays and Thursdays I have 当代话题 (Modern Topics/Issues), where we watch and discuss 蜗居 (Wo Ju), a popular soap opera. My favorite very bad translation of the show’s title is “Snail Residence,” but the show is actually about the daily struggles of two sisters dealing with big-city housing prices and lots of misogyny.
10:20-10:30 During our break between classes we relax in the office of our beloved Program Assistant, lodge complaints about all the presentations we have to do this week, plan our weekends, throw in weird language-based inside jokes.
10:30-12:00 Second class period: Before coming to China I was pretty anti-coffee, but this third straight hour of content based Chinese class every morning has been enough to convert me to a daily consumer. But I still find all our classes really engaging and interesting, especially since they’re in my second language.
On Mondays and Wednesdays my 10:30 class is 环境与经济发展 (China’s Economic Development and the Environment), which lines up perfectly with my Environmental Studies major. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it’s 一对一研究 (One-on-One Research Tutorial), which is a 酷得不得了 (ku de bu de liao, unbearably cool) opportunity if you have a topic you’re already interested in. On Tuesdays I meet with a Yunnan University graduate student who studies sustainable agriculture, and we talk about my research topic, which is environmental education projects done by Yunnan’s environmental NGOs. Every so often we might also spend class time discussing our favorite cats or how lucky we are to have the conference room with the comfy chairs. On Thursdays, I meet with a language professor who helps me with the language aspects of my research project.
12:00-1:00 We often eat lunch at the cafeteria, which I love for the high volume of vegetables and for the opportunity to sit outside with Indian Ph.D students and talk about their research, Kunming weather, soccer or cricket. Since it’s right outside the foreign students building, there are tons of opportunities to meet people from all over the world, as long as they’re willing to speak Mandarin with you.
The non-cafeteria option is picking from a huge variety of rice and noodle based options in small restaurants nearby, or stopping by a convenience store that’s right outside our dorm.
1:00-5:00 I’ve spent a lot of this afternoon time doing homework, especially in the first few weeks of the program, when almost all of the weekly vocab words were totally new to me and I hadn’t figured out the best study techniques yet. MiC Kunming is both geographically and philosophically about as far from that relaxing-on-a-European-beach type of study abroad program as you can get. We have lots of presentations and tests to prepare for along with short essays to write. But fortunately the improvement in my language skills, in an environment where I can also immediately use whatever new vocab I’m learning, has made all the work completely worth it. And of course, as our Modern Issues prof frequently reminds us,”吃得苦中苦，方为人上人” (only by working hard and eating bitterness upon bitterness can one achieve glory and wealth).
More recently, I’ve figured out much more efficient study techniques and our workload has relaxed, so my classmates and I often spend afternoons walking around with our roommates, or we visit cool places nearby like 翠湖公园 (Green Lake Park), the zoo, shopping malls, and a few museums. We’ve also had some amazing afternoon activities organized by the program. Most recently, we visited a local high school to talk with students about the differences between the American and Chinese education systems.
5:00-6:00 We often go out to eat dinner with our roommates and occasionally friends of roommates. The first question when we’re deciding where to go is always “rice or noodles?”. Fortunately, within those categories there’s a ton of variety, and by now I’ve figured out what my favorite versions are.
6:00-8:00 Most weekdays, in the evening I head to a soccer field on the campus of 师范大学 (Shi Fan Da Xue, “Teacher’s College”) to play pickup soccer. I have yet to meet any other women who play soccer here, so I was nervous arriving at the field for the very first time. But as soon as I started lacing up my cleats, a group of Thai students invited me to join their team, and since then I haven’t had much trouble integrating into the pickup soccer community here. When I scored my very first international goal I had a crowd of teammates running toward me cheering in Lao. Thanks to tons of post-game conversations on soccer politics, I’ve also already learned David Beckham’s Chinese name (小贝, xiao bei), and everyone seems willing to listen to me rant about US soccer star Abby Wambach too, even if they’ve never heard of her before.
On most Wednesday evenings, my classmate 杰敏 (Jeremy) and I go to a local gym for 截拳道 (Jie quan dao, Way of the Intercepting Fist), which is Bruce Lee’s brand of martial arts. The first class I kicked with the correct leg probably half the time, so I’ve gotten a lot of extra guidance from my classmates and a lot of “海澜，用力!” (Katie! More power!) from our teacher since then. Now I take on punching bags with a lot of confidence and can even tie my own belt.
8:00-12:00 Later in the evening we’re almost always studying in the 活动室 (huo dong shi, activity room), conveniently located right next to our dorm rooms. Our roommates, who are all Chinese students, often hang out there as well. It’s easy to get distracted talking to our roommates about the 高考 (Gao Kao, China’s perilous college entrance exam), China’s sustainable energy sources, or differences between American and Chinese attitudes towards dating and marriage, so I sometimes end up staying up late finishing homework.
From my experience, students who come to MiC Kunming are just as dedicated to getting out on the weekends as we are to memorizing obscure vocabulary all week long (personal favorites: 鼠类, “the collective term for mice”; 迷鸟, “A migratory bird which has lost its way”). We’ve spent a lot of weekend days with our roommates, heading out on day trips if we don’t have time for an overnight weekend trip to somewhere further away. One of my favorites was road tripping to 石林 (Shi Lin, the Stone Forest), which is a popular tourist destination. We stayed in a small guest house in a 彝族 (Yi ethnic minority) village, visited the local anthropology museum and climbed a mountain. On the way back we were driving through the countryside, passing a mix of huge solar farms and tiny rural towns, listening to Bob Dylan and looking through all the selfie-stick pictures we’d taken, and I got to sit next to a friend of one of our roommates and pester her with questions about her anthropology research in Yunnan.
Basically every weekend trip around here deserves its own blog post, but this post is already a novel, so I’ll add some pictures instead. Thanks for reading!
And a note for anyone who’s considering MiC Kunming: in case it’s not clear from my post, I 100% recommend this program for anyone who’s committed to language learning and immersing themselves in a culture that might be different from their own. Five stars.