Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Immersion away from campus: returning student Austin Frenes gives us his best tips

Second-year MAIS student Austin Frenes has not yet had the chance to study in person at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, but that hasn't stopped him from fostering an immersive Chinese-language environment while pursuing his studies. 

Although I have not been able to go to Nanjing while studying with the HNC, I have found numerous ways to advance my Mandarin skills outside the classroom and create a semi-immersive environment both in Italy and in California. I achieve this through watching Youtubers in Mandarin, reading the news in Chinese, visiting Chinese shops and areas, and making local Chinese friends. In this post I will provide some tips on how you too can create your own immersive environment right in your own backyard! 

Chinese language content on Youtube is currently in a renaissance phase and does not face the same censorship and restrictions as content on mainland Chinese websites. If you are like me and struggle to find Chinese-language dramas that interest you, you will more than likely find content on Youtube that suits your interests. Two of my favorite Chinese Youtubers for language practice are 老高與小茉/Mr & Mrs Gao. Their content runs the gamut from interesting facts about human psychology and history to cryptids and even conspiracy theories. Another interesting channel is called 真观点, and it discusses both American and Chinese politics at a high level. One helpful method for finding Chinese content on Youtube is to create a separate account just for consuming and searching Chinese content. This will help train the algorithm to better make recommendations in Chinese for your tastes so that you can benefit from even more comprehensible input! 

Reading multiple news articles a day is a great way to strengthen reading ability and to supplement HNC classes. Since I study International Politics and China studies, I find that reading Chinese state media is useful for better understanding Chinese stances on issues internationally as well as Chinese domestic politics and leadership shuffling. Although it can be hard to get used to at first, the People’s Daily and Xinhua put out new articles on issues related to HNC classes quite frequently and even include videos and audio to accompany them. Additionally, Xinwen Lianbo is a daily 30 minute news broadcast primarily about domestic issues and politics in China which can be found on Youtube and is segmented by topic. The Jamestown Foundation even has a convenient list of Chinese-language news and government sources which can be helpful for study and research. 

I’ve found that both where I live in Southern California and also in Bologna, Italy where I spent my first year with HNC, there was no shortage of Chinese stores and shops to visit. In Southern California, I live a short car ride away from the San Gabriel Valley, one of the top destinations for Chinese immigrants to the US in the 90s and 2000s. In many areas, billboards on the freeways, shopping centers, and malls are dominated by Chinese language signage and filled with people speaking Mandarin. While I cannot make it to Nanjing, I don’t have to go far to experience a Chinese environment and I’d encourage people to see if there are similar areas near where they live. One popular grocery store I like called 99 Ranch for example has locations nationally! If you find yourself on the other side of the pond, Chinese immigrants are known for having shops throughout countries like Italy where you can buy pretty much anything you’d ever need. I’ve found that shopkeepers are always happy to chat in Mandarin, especially if you don’t speak the local European language at a very high level.

Making local Chinese friends is a great way to integrate Chinese into your daily life. When I was in Bologna, I befriended a Chinese student who was studying for a Master’s at the University of Bologna. We hung out weekly and even traveled together a couple of times during the Spring and Summer. In my hometown in Southern California, I’ve also been successful in befriending young people who recently immigrated from China. Many are happy to be friends in Mandarin, especially when they may still be adapting to the new culture or still not that great at English. Some ways to seek out local friends are to use apps like Tantan (known by many as a dating app, but a large amount of people DO use it just to make friends), or even the 
WeChat ‘people nearby’ function.