American student Rachel Darius, second left, enjoys an event on campus with classmates
By Rachel Darius
Before I arrived at Duke Kunshan University in the fall of 2018 I had already spent six years learning Chinese. One would think that my Chinese was pretty good, right? But honestly speaking, I was only good at memorizing vocabulary and studying for tests. When it came to speaking the language ... yikes!
I would stutter, forget words, use incorrect grammar or the wrong tone; the whole nine yards. All the Chinese I had learned would suddenly evade me. And it was only when I took Advanced Intermediate Chinese at DKU my freshman year that I realized why I struggled with Chinese so much, and how to improve.
One, I had to put in the work outside of class. When you have Chinese class every day, it’s so easy to think, “I don’t have time to study,” then you hurry up to finish the homework so you can move onto other class assignments. But I’m telling you from my own personal experience, this will only hurt you in the long run.
As my Chinese teacher always told me, “If you want more output (to speak more), you need more input.” In other words, you can’t rely on class materials to help your Mandarin improve because there is only so much that you can learn from a book that is probably outdated. You won’t learn web slang or more colloquial terms by just hoping – you need to go out and find them yourself.
Second, the grade you get in class doesn’t matter in the real world. Think about it: No one asks you how you’re doing in Chinese class because the real test is when you go out and talk with people. And so what if you have bad tones and incorrect grammar? We’re all going to make mistakes, so you might as well have fun doing it.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that after I told myself these things my Mandarin dramatically improved overnight, but what I did notice is that I started seeing Mandarin as an opportunity to communicate with people and began to actually enjoy myself. I didn’t score higher on tests or tingxie quizzes (when a teacher says a word in Chinese and the students need to write the correct character), but I participated more in class discussions and offered my opinion, and occasionally cracked a joke here and there.
Of course, I still struggle with grammar, tones and confidence daily, but I genuinely feel my Chinese has improved. When my freshman year ended, I felt more confident than ever. Before I headed home for the summer, I took a solo trip to Beijing for a week and put all the Chinese I had learned throughout the year to the test.
I arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport on May 6. As I rode the airport express to Dongzhimen Subway Station, my heart started to beat a bit faster. I had never traveled alone before, let alone in China! But after a while, the fear started to fade and excitement took its place. I had a week to explore Beijing, and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.
Every day, I not only navigated my way to numerous historical sites in Beijing, I even had conversations with new people along the way. These conversations usually started only because the other person wanted to sell me something or take a picture with me, but each time I not only understood what people were saying but I could respond in Chinese.
Rachel visits the Forbidden City in Beijing
For instance, when I went into a shop in Nanluoguxiang – a popular tourist spot – to buy a souvenir for my family, I spoke in Chinese to an employee and ended up getting a pretty good discount.
Later, I walked into a different store and had another conversation with two workers. They asked me questions like where I was from, how tall I am, which country is better: U.S. or China, and many other things. It was during those interactions that I realized how far I’ve come in my journey. I used to be so afraid of speaking, yet here I was in conversation with complete strangers in Chinese.
When my trip came to an end and it was time for me to return to the United States, I didn’t want to leave. I was having so much fun. But of course, my plane ticket was booked, and my mom would kill me if I missed my flight. So, on May 13, I waved goodbye to the capital and headed home.
Now, as I look back on my first year of learning Chinese at Duke Kunshan, I can honestly say that without the never-ending support from my Chinese teacher and the hard lessons I had to learn, this trip probably wouldn’t have been possible. I’ve learned a lot, not just in the classroom, but outside as well. And although next year’s Chinese class is going to be even more challenging, I know that I am not defined by my grades, good or bad.
I’m improving, and that’s all that matters.
Rachel Darius is a member of Duke Kunshan’s inaugural Class of 2022. She is from New York, U.S.