This post was written by Zeineb Besrour, an AFS exchange student from Tunisia to China. Zeineb is one of the young deserving students who received the 2016 Investing in Africa’s Future Leaders scholarship to participate in a year-long school exchange program with AFS.
My biggest challenge ever was probably landing in China knowing two words in Chinese with even some doubt about their pronunciation. It was nihao (你好) which means hello and xiexie (谢谢) which means thank you, two words that have been useful so far.
In Tunisia, when you are in an incomprehensible situation or describing how complicated something is, people usually say, “It’s like Chinese for me.” But the funniest part is that the other way around is the same, because Chinese people also tend to describe an incomprehensible situation as something that is Arabic for them. And now, I cannot make use of this expression anymore knowing that during the last few months I’ve been intensely learning Chinese language. All those characters seemed to be difficult in the beginning. But in time I understood that logic helps a lot memorizing hundreds of characters.
One of the reasons Chinese is considered the most difficult language for a foreigner to learn is that it’s written with characters. Each word seems to be a drawing, something that leaves me fascinated even now and makes me thirsty to study harder and reach a better level.
I remember the first meeting with my host family… My host mother was the only person with whom I could communicate quite easily in English. My host dad was amazingly cute, he always tried to talk to me using a broken English or a funny body language. And with my host grandma–it’s crazy what a huge improvement in communication we’ve had. She keeps congratulating me and advising me to keep on getting immersed into the Chinese culture.
My answer to, “How’s your Chinese language learning going?” was always that my current Chinese helps me not get lost in the street. That’s not bad, right? But actually it was just a way of being funny. I often had heated discussions or long debates with curious taxi drivers or classmates who tend to speak Chinese to me.
Recently, the school held a competition where we had to write a composition. At first, I didn’t plan to participate. But, I think competing is exciting so I was in. The topic was quite hard for my knowledge of Chinese. So I decided to write about my exchange year in China and some of my adventures the last few months abroad, away from my own family. And when it was time to hand it in, I felt hesitant and I thought that the mistakes that my essay might have could make me feel embarrassed. My Chinese teacher was impressed. She chose to show my work to my 49 classmates and we finished the lesson listening to her speech about exchange students and how much I was special among them since according to her I had a good hand-writing and a developed vocabulary. I felt the very proud. She literally said “If this girl could reach such a good level of Chinese in few months, imagine how well she speaks English, a language that she has been studying for years!” It even made me wonder.
After seven months here I realized that to truly understand Chinese culture better it is important to speak its language. My advice for all those who are interested in learning Chinese is to know that conversation is the key. Chinese people are quite talkative, they will be always ready to open any conversation with a foreigner: ask for directions, order food or even tell a joke. I encountered hundreds of funny anecdotes about misunderstandings and I became a storyteller. Leave your comfort zone and be ready to put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations. Adventure is out there.