My Window into Chinese Life

Written by Alexandra Bate, (College of William & Mary) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Beijing, Fall 2016

My roommate just got back to school from vacation and brought me two jujubes that she hand-picked while hiking a mountain in her hometown. She then helped me buy a new Wifi card and refilled my phone’s data. Meanwhile, we were giggling and I was struggling pretty hard to understand what she was saying. But it worked well. We work well.

Admittedly, I was pretty nervous about the whole Chinese roommate thing before starting Middlebury in
img_5348 China. I was afraid my Chinese wouldn’t be nearly good enough to communicate daily with a native speaker, and that because of that, we were never going to become friends.

I was mistaken, however, in thinking that the roommate relationship was going to be just like one you find freshman year of college in the States. Your roommate is not only there to accompany you and be your friend; he/she is also a window into Chinese daily life, someone who can help you feel at home in a foreign country in a way that living with other Americans could never accomplish. She helps me with mundane, logistical things, like figuring out very confusing Chinese phone plans and teaching me how to use the dorm’s washing machine. But she also consults me for fashion advice, and doesn’t get annoyed when I ask her about her boyfriend, and invites me to play badminton with her when it’s free entry on Tuesday mornings. My fears of feeling misunderstood and confused when interacting with her were not unfounded; sometimes, I have to ask her to repeat something two or three times before I gain some semblance of understanding. That type of interaction, while frustrating at times, is all part of the complex roommate relationship. It’s not something you find in your average freshman dorm.

img_5622The perks of the roommate system extend far beyond what living together in dorms, however. A couple weeks ago, I went on a class-wide – including roommates –  weekend trip to Nanjing, which is 12 hours south (by sleeper train) from Beijing. (The sleeper train was an odyssey in and of itself: three very small hard beds stacked on top of each other with barely enough room to kind of sit up straight made up a “bunk.” That experience merits an entirely separate blog post). During our two-day jaunt, we got the chance to see some of the most historically significant spots in China, including the China-Japanese War Museum and Dr. Sun Yatsen’s tomb. These landmarks were breathtaking, but I have to admit that my favorite part of the weekend was the ample time to bond with everyone’s roommates. I peppered one roommate with questions about Chinese idioms and pesky grammar structures; another friend and I spent an hour discussing her interest in learning Spanish and coming to the States for her Master’s degree.

I was attracted to Middlebury in China for the language pledge, the quality of teaching, and the types of classes offered. I had no idea that one of the most rewarding aspects of the program would be the chance to become good friends with Chinese college students and gain so much more confidence in my ability to learn the language and connect with people from such a different culture.