Susanna Deemer - 2015 Program Participant

Visiting Tiananmen Square in China

At Tiananmen when my girlfriend came to visit!

What inspired you to study abroad?

I had the wonderful opportunity to take a gap year between high school and college and spent 12 months working as an au pair (live-in nanny) for a family in Germany. While there, I whetted my appetite for travel and managed to visit nine new countries in a very short period of time. I was intrigued by all the different languages spoken, and was curious to know more about how people with completely different cultural backgrounds from me live their life, spend their time, and understand the world. Because of this, study abroad in college was a no-brainer for me; I had to get abroad as soon as possible.

I had the incredible opportunity to study abroad twice in college, the first time in the breathtaking Indian Himalayas and the second time in the bustling capital of China, Beijing. I knew that to get what I wanted out of my college educational experience, study abroad was necessary for me. Furthermore, in college I decided to branch out and study Hindi and Chinese and knew that going to the context where those languages were used on a daily and informal basis (the way I learned German prior to college) was what I needed to do.

My international programs are tools in my education that have made me a more tolerant, patient, adaptive, and interesting/ed person.

Why did you choose IES Abroad over other study abroad program providers?

I chose IES Abroad because I wanted a relatively hands-off program. I wanted to be able to go around without "a leash" so to speak. I wanted a program that gave me the general run down, but that ultimately gave the agency to the student to be able to go out into the world and experience for themselves. The integral part of this was truly the language emphasis in my program. Four to five hours of Chinese a day, intensively, gave me a huge advantage, as I was able to comprehend the world and people around me to a greater degree. Without that language emphasis, I am sure that I would not have been able to make the most of the running space IES Abroad gave us in Beijing.

They not only gave us the room, but also the tools to be able to go out into Beijing, able to competently navigate and interact with locals. Getting a taxi, bargaining with a merchant in a clothing market, taking the subway, or enjoying street food, while all generally "easy" on the surface, are much harder "on the ground". And yet all of these are things I felt completely capable of during my stay in Beijing.

An old Chinese man performing for a visitor at a park in China

In a Chinese park with a new friend!

What was your favorite part about Beijing?

Beijing has an amazing outdoor park culture. Primarily populated by older Beijingers, the parks in the city are in a constant state of movement and dance. One of my first memories of Beijing was going to one of the nearby parks with some of my classmates to explore, and seeing up close and personal over a hundred people all in coordinated dance, with a portable boombox on hand nearby playing upbeat Chinese tunes. I absolutely loved the spaces like these that were afforded to the city's older population, as it is such a contrast to what I am used to. In America, it's my impression that we often think of old people as people to "deal with" or "take care of". Of course there is a culture of that in Beijing, but to see a space so “owned” by Beijing's older people was really incredible. And, not just people sitting around, but people actively flourishing, dancing, singing, laughing, and playing games with toys I had never before seen.

On one visit I was even able to participate in one of these games (in America I have heard it called "devil stick") which an old man taught me how to do. Though I didn't understand everything he was saying, it was a moment I felt a smile communicated better than my vocabulary in Chinese or English. The openness and friendliness I felt on a regular basis in Beijing, especially in parks, made a wonderful and long-lasting impression on me.

What made this IES Abroad program especially unique?

During our orientation, we all had to participate in something called "Mystery Haidian" (our larger district in Beijing), and then "Mystery Beijing". Basically, what we had to do for this was follow a guide that told us to go to various places in either Haidian or Beijing as a whole (taking place over two days). We had only Chinese map apps to use, but were otherwise essentially left to fend for ourselves on the subway system of Beijing shortly after having arrived. I think this is just one of the many ways in which the program is unique; it allowed us to take the reins in a really healthy way.

Additionally, our program was language intensive, and we had courses tailored to our levels and needs. Each day we were able to meet with a conversation partner outside of class to ensure that no one slipped through the cracks in the classroom setting. We could isolate the things we needed to work harder on and do that specifically. I became really close with my conversation partner and we still communicate in Chinese over the Chinese texting app, WeChat.

How supportive were local staff throughout your program?

Our teachers and the office staff were really incredible. One classmate living really close to my homestay in the program was at a beginner level in Chinese and our teachers helped him buy things he needed and helped him with translation and cultural questions. Each one of our teachers was so incredibly available to us and willing to help if we ever needed anything. My class became so close by the end of the semester because of our teachers and their support. My Chinese teacher even wrote me a recommendation letter for a scholarship I successfully applied for.

Other local staff were always there before our area studies courses to set up computers and any other kind of digital support as well. Our homestay coordinators always presented themselves as cultural interlocutors as necessary and all other staff made themselves available as cultural resources. Before traveling within China, local staff provided recommendations as well as advice. We had meetings before trips or different periods in the program, to let us know what to expect and how to deal with unforeseen circumstances. They were always there, reliably willing to help us navigate a new setting.

Do you have any regrets about your time in Beijing?

Like many other people, I wish I would have taken more chances and spent more time actively engaging with the culture. I chose not to travel to many other cities in China during the times allotted for independent travel by IES Abroad. I do kind of regret this since many other people were able to see so many cultural and historical landmarks. I needed to save money, unfortunately, and given the intensity of the program didn't feel I had the energy. However, I wish that during those times I would have made more of an effort to get out into Beijing and try to see or get involved in some of the things I hadn't been able to previously. I wish I would have trusted myself more linguistically to be able to handle a greater variety of challenging situations.

View of the Summer Palace in China

This is the Summer Palace, which was very near to where I lived in China.

Describe a day in your life of your program Beijing.

As a homestay student, most weekday mornings began with me waking up (normally earlier than my host parents) around 5:30 a.m. to 5:45 a.m., showering, and eating with my host mom before catching a 7 a.m. bus into school. My particular commute was normally about 20 to 25 minutes, and I liked to get there in time to give my dictation words a look through or maybe buy a yogurt before 8 a.m. classes began. We would have three hours of normal classes with my primary Chinese instructor, then we would transition into an elective class for an additional hour. For me it was Chinese slang.

After that I would get lunch either in the student cafeteria, or I’d go to a sushi “go-to place” down the road, hot-pot, or try something new in the neighborhood. Normally I met with my conversation partner after lunch, which meant another hour of review of the day's material and sometimes a little more just chatting.

After that, on a day with area studies courses, I would go to an English language class dealing with either Chinese history or society for three more hours (some classes are one and a half hours twice a week, but ours were three hours once a week). Then I would typically go home to eat dinner with my host parents and talk about the day, or get something to eat with my friends.

After dinner I prepared my dictation and text for the next day, which typically took me an additional two to three hours of Chinese study. Sometimes I watched a TV show during this time, skyped with my family or my girlfriend, and then went to bed.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time?

On a typical weekend, I liked to go out and explore the city if I could. Only if I was truly exhausted would I spend those days inside (though some days I needed that too). I would normally take the subway out somewhere in the city, find a place to eat in a new neighborhood, or find a place to shop for something interesting. My friends and I would sometimes go to the clothing markets where you have to bargain for everything. We liked to go to the arts district (798) and see what was going on, try new things to eat, or visit an exhibit. Normally my days off involved eating something special and visiting somewhere new and exciting.

Chinese couple making dumplings

My incredible host parents wrapping homemade dumplings - the best in the world!

What type of accommodation did you have? How did you like it?

I lived in a homestay and absolutely loved it. While living abroad before I also had the opportunity to live in a homestay, which was truly incredible in terms of being able to be in the culture so intimately. I didn't know exactly what they would want to talk about and what was okay to talk about, but they were so open. Even my homework assignments for Chinese class encouraged and often required me to interact with my host parents about social and political issues, which did wonders for both our relationship and my Chinese abilities with higher level vocabulary.

I would never have been able to watch so much Chinese TV and had so many spontaneous conversations with people who have lived in Beijing for so long had I lived in a dorm. I was able to see how some Chinese people like to live, how they like to cook, how their houses look, what small customs are that you never would notice if you weren't so up close and personal.

For me the homestay experience draws you into such a more meaningful, engaged, and interactive conversation with your host country, and I never would have understood it as well had I not been living with my Chinese host family.

On top of that, we got along so well and we both had such a open and respectful attitudes towards learning about each other. I never expected my host family to cry when I left, but they did, and I think when I left I realized how deep of a connection I had made, one I was very sad to leave.

Now that you're home, how has studying abroad in China impacted your life?

I would say it has made me feel more firm in my conviction to understand Asia, and China specifically. I have also become more open to being in China for a more long-term period to really hone my Chinese skills and get more international experience. It has reinforced the importance of international engagement all throughout life, the benefit that comes with interacting and engaging with people unlike you, and humbling yourself to different foods, different languages, and different customs for the end reward of cultural well-roundedness and intercultural connection.