Coming to China as an international student can be very exciting. In many ways the country offers a lot of opportunities to discover and explore, but some students are afraid of the culture shock that they may have to deal with. Coming from Kenya, Susan lived and studied for over four years in China. She studied Chinese at Beijing Language Culture University and went on to study at China Women’s University in Beijing. Right now she is pursuing a degree in Chinese studies at Nankai University. She shares some of her experience and insights into Chinese culture.
Should I enroll in a language class before moving to China to study?
Yes and No. It is a personal choice and you can get by with English in most of the big cities. When most people make a decision to go to a different country to study one of the ways they prepare is by enrolling in language classes. It is only logical that you would like to have some basics to be able to communicate. I was an exception as I never did study Mandarin before moving to China to study and I have no regrets in that area. This does not mean to say that taking language classes, is a bad idea, but other than Mandarin classes, some research on Chinese history and culture will be very useful and helpful in the long run.
How important is Chinese history?
The answer is, of great importance, especially if you are taking a major in Chinese studies.
When I enrolled for an undergraduate in Chinese language and culture, I was shocked at how much Chinese history is involved in most subjects. Keep in mind that most of it is not taught, but mentioned in passing and it is your responsibility to read up on it. Not only is there a fairly huge amount of Chinese history, but there is also a good amount of classical Chinese involved.
How can I go about learning Chinese history when I cannot read Chinese?
Thank heavens for technology and YouTube. Everything is accessible with just a click of a button.
If I could do it over again, I would binge on documentaries and historical movies. This is probably the fastest and most interesting way to go about it, especially if history in any shape and form is not your cup of tea. If you can access some Chinese apps such as Youku, Soku, Iqiyi just to name a few then you would probably have more options when it comes to the historical dramas.
But I am not a Chinese history major does it also apply to me?
Well, it depends. If your major is in English then it might not be as critical, but that does not mean to say that you will not encounter Chinese history in your classes or everyday life. If your major is in Chinese studies, Chinese philosophy, Chinese literature, Teaching Chinese as a Second Language, Chinese medicine to a certain extent etc., then yes it is crucial that you have a decent grasp of Chinese history.
It is difficult for example to take a Tang Dynasty poetry class and memorize over 200 poems a semester if you have no knowledge about the dynasty and what it was all about and how that particular period influenced the poets. You have an obligation to take it a notch further and read up on the dynasty that came before it.
It is difficult to appreciate Confucius and his works owing to the fact that his thoughts have not necessarily been adapted in the proper light if you have no knowledge of the time he lived and what was taking place in that period. It is to be noted that Confucius is a very important figure in China and especially in Education.
My major has nothing to do with chinese why should I spend time reading up on something that is not related to my major?
Being knowledgeable in Chinese history will make your life easier in the long run.
An everyday thing like food for instance also has its roots in the history. It is not uncommon to see the names of unique dishes that have nothing to do with the ingredients used. A useful example would be “鱼香肉丝”. If you would solely go by the name of this particular dish and order it, then you would be quite disappointed to find that there is no fish. Such examples are very frequent.
I often hear foreigners complain that they cannot seem to make true and meaningful friendships with the local people that it is all very superficial. It is next to impossible to try to understand and resolve this issue without being judgmental if you do not have a clue about Chinese history.
The verdict is in!
The Chinese people are very proud of their history. It is through appreciating their history that you are able to understand where they are coming from. One way of showing appreciation is by being knowledgeable in the said area. Learning the language before you move to China could be helpful, but knowing the history is crucial to living and thriving here.
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