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Putting a culture to the Chinese language

By Blake Linzer

Section: Features

February 3, 2017

Eric Goldberg ’18, a varsity tennis-playing Jewish junior from New York, embarked last fall for Shanghai, China, for a semester of study abroad. He knew that he wanted to study abroad in China, having studied Chinese since the seventh grade. His experience in Shanghai was one of exploration, education, language development and cultural discovery.

The language barrier is very different for a Chinese student studying in America compared to an American studying in China; an American can be reasonably assured that most people in China will speak at least some English, whereas a Chinese student studying in America can be almost certain no one speaks any variant of Chinese.

When Goldberg went to China and spoke pretty fluent Chinese, however, he was instantly a celebrity. Goldberg noted how residents of Shanghai were amazed that he could speak Chinese, so amazed that they wanted a picture with him.

On the other hand, he noted how an Asian-American student also on the program was judged more harshly by the people of Shanghai because of the student’s background. The language expectations were much higher for this student and judgment was passed when it was revealed that the student did not speak as fluently as expected.

Goldberg lived in regular dorms along with domestic Chinese students during his visit. Cultural curiosities, Goldberg noted, existed even in his dorm room. For example, his roommate spoke fluent English. This is a contrast to the American dorm experience, where a Chinese international student would most likely not have a roommate in America who speaks fluent Chinese. While English is used around the world and taught to young children, the United States does not prioritize foreign language education.

Additionally, Goldberg recounted another more amusing cultural difference that he noticed in his dorm. His roommate went to take a shower, but instead of taking a large towel, the roommate grabbed a little hand towel. Perhaps this is a trivial cultural difference, but it is still interesting to see how differences of culture can exist even on the smallest scales.

Shanghai is an urban center. But just because the bright lights of China shine the same as the bright lights in New York does not mean that the human experience of living in Shanghai is the same as the human experience of living in New York.

There were some resemblances. Goldberg noted that he could eat virtually whatever he wanted, meaning, for example, that Chipotle burrito bowls are available both in Shanghai and on Main Street, Waltham. But Goldberg did not go to China to eat Italian food or Chipotle.

He noted how the cost of food, of a decent meal, drastically differed where he was as compared to the United States: A meal for $3 in China could get one into a nice sit-down restaurant that would require $50 in New York.

In addition to these obvious cultural differences, Goldberg and I spoke about the generational differences that he noticed in China. His roommate, approximately the same age as him, walked around in Western Style high-top basketball shoes. His parents, however, and many of the older people, acted more traditionally and were more aligned with traditional Chinese attributes.

Goldberg explained how, because of technology and the increasingly globalized world, the generation coming into and having just entered adulthood is the first generation to live in a truly open China.

Culturally, Goldberg’s experience was very enriching and enlightening. However, he was able to find some continuity while in China. Being a practicing Jew, he was happy that Shanghai has a moderate Jewish population, many of whom immigrated into the country during the early 20th century. He recalled going to a beautiful synagogue to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

Although cultural enrichment and exploration is undoubtedly a reason in and of itself to want to go abroad, Goldberg also reflected on some of his other experiences in Shanghai. He took three classes: an intensive, immersive Chinese class, an economics class about Chinese economics and an internship-based course exploring issues in the Chinese workplace.

Goldberg reflected on how he was disappointed about his professors not offering a more Chinese-centric perspective, having been associated with the West. When asked if he noticed any antipathy toward the west in his Chinese studies, Goldberg reflected that he could not recall any, perhaps a good sign for an American living in China for several months.

In addition to improving his language skills simply by speaking a lot in Chinese, Goldberg also noted that, living and speaking in China, he learned some more about the subtleties of how the language is used in practice. According to him, he became familiar with Chinese slang, a real and very vibrant part of any language.

And of course, having lived in China for several months Goldberg experienced some of China’s natural beauties. For example, he recalled a trip he made over a seven-hour train ride to go to the “Yellow Mountain,” where one reaches a “sea of clouds,” literally becoming even with a cloud layer. He recalled how his laptop is flooded with pictures attesting to China’s natural beauty.

Studying abroad was the opportunity of a lifetime for Goldberg, allowing him to become immersed culturally, educationally and geographically in the culture of a language he had been learning for years.

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