Caroline Sterling - 2015 Program Participant

Chinese calligraphy signs made for the Spring Festival in China

Calligraphy for Spring Festival (春联) with my little sister

What inspired you to study abroad?

The educational experience of problem solving in an unfamiliar culture, adapting to new standards, and interacting with a foreign civilization fulfilled my expectations of "learning" on a whole new level. I know that people across the world live relative to their cultural environment and historical background. I needed to leave the United States to begin to understand new perspectives. Education isn't just about doing well in school, but about applying my skills in a global environment and enhancing my skill sets through first-hand experiences.

Why did you choose IES Abroad’s program in Beijing?

I wanted to apply my Chinese language skills in the proper learning environment: Beijing, China. I also believe that besides learning in a Chinese speaking environment, it's important to understand how culture impacts the structure and use of Chinese. I knew the expectations in IES Abroad’s language intensive program were high, and full immersion combined with long hours of study was what I needed to take the next step in improving my Mandarin.

What was your favorite part about Beijing?

I've never lived in a city before, so my favorite part about Beijing was the convenience. Transportation could get me anywhere in the city, and there is an abundance of historical landmarks to visit and experience in the hearts of the Beijing people. It's the melting pot of China, if there were one, because of its historical background and modern diversity.

What made this IES Abroad program one-of-a-kind?

The teachers in my program had overwhelming experience working with foreign students, and handled cultural conflicts in the best way, by confronting them in the classroom. Moreover, we had graduate students at Beijing Foreign Studies University tutoring us one hour per school day; there were students studying to teach Chinese as a career and with little to no experience teaching foreigners. The interaction with tutors was a phenomenal opportunity to address cultural questions and exchange perspectives about the world (often with someone of similar age), something encouraged and seemingly conspired by our supportive administrative staff.

Hiking The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall with my classmate from our program

In what ways did local staff support you throughout your program?

As previously mentioned, the IES Abroad staff could not have been more prepared for their task. Their experience working with study abroad students was clearly reflected in the content of our material, where we were able to openly discuss relevant hot topics ranging from perspectives on sexual behavior to ideas about music to the conflict between Taiwan and Mainland China, all while using and improving our Mandarin.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had "jumped into" my environment sooner. I spent the first month as more of an observer than a participant in Chinese culture. Scientifically, of course, it makes sense to make observations before beginning your experiment, but there are ways to observe and experiment simultaneously when adapting to a new environment. As an outgoing and chatty person, I remained silent and timid on bus rides to and from school in many of my first weeks, fearing my language skills were abysmal and embarrassing. By the time we returned from Yunnan, I noticed this method wasn't working for me and decided to try changing my behavior instead of the behavior of those around me. This considerably improved my mood, my Chinese, and my everyday experiences.

What was a typical day like for you in China?

I woke up in my homestay bedroom and left to get the city bus to campus, always with a greeting in Chinese with my parents and breakfast to go. I attended Chinese from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., with four other American students in my level of Chinese, and then went to the campus dining hall for lunch. In the afternoon I met my tutor for one hour, and then stayed on campus to start homework for the next morning. I often went home on the bus to eat with my family, and went to a city gym when I had time.

View of Tiger Leaping Gorge in China

Yunnan Province overlooking Tiger Leaping Gorge

What activity did you like to do on your freetime?

If it can be considered an activity, meeting new people and having a conversation in Chinese was my favorite activity. It made me feel accomplished and in awe of the power of language. Chinese locals were always impressed and so kind and willing to let me speak openly. I loved discussing political topics with my Chinese parents, bargaining for a gym membership at the local gym, and chatting with my tutor at the local coffee shop.

Hearing from locals seemed like the most effective and authentic way to truly understand the cultural norms and where they came from.

What was your accommodation like? What was your favorite thing about it?

I lived in a homestay with two Chinese parents and their daughter. My favorite thing about it was having the ability to observe their family life. I could ask their opinions about American stereotypes, share my thoughts about Chinese culture, and learn traditional minority group dances from my little sister. I could taste home cooked meals, learn about childhood education, and experience inter-family interactions.

How has your time in China impacted your life at home?

After discovering the inevitable lifestyle differences in China, greatly influenced by history, modern government, and the economy, to name a few, I am much more realistic about handling conflict. Social norms and popular opinion among Beijing people are naturally quite different than those of many Americans. This was not hard to face.

I know that in reality you must often agree to disagree with one another, something I've done more and more as I enter into adulthood. However, living in an environment where I am in the minority, something I am not in America, didn't force me to change my beliefs, but to edit my emotions when accommodating new ones. To be outnumbered is one thing, but to be somewhere that you have no authority and live in an unfamiliar government system means that sometimes you have to shut up and learn.

In America, even [many] tiny children learn quickly that they have individual respect. In China, individual behavior is often reliant upon your family structure and public reputation. There is individualism, but it is different, and evolved from an ancient moral code. I gained patience from learning about their social norms, and continue to formulate opinions and make choices with a more diplomatic perspective.

Visiting the Yunnan Province in China

Yunnan Province