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Deciphering Chinese Dialects

One thing that eluded me until I studied abroad in China and started my intermediate Chinese studies was the countless number of dialects. What many Chinese teachers neglect to tell their first-year students is the fact that Mandarin itself, or the concept of a standardized language, is called“国语”(In Pinyin: guó yǔ). Directly translated it means “country language.” This idea dates back to the early 1900s, but was only created and implemented in the mid-20th century, but I’ll spare you all a long history lesson. What I’m trying to get at here is that every region of China has its own unique, and for the most part indistinguishable dialects, but they’re essentially entirely different languages. For example, the city my study abroad program is in has its own dialect, and lucky for me, it’s very similar to Mandarin. Sometimes, dialects vary from province to province, or even city to city, which can make the task of communicating quite difficult. Of course everyone speaks Mandarin, but for many Chinese people the first thing they learn is their dialect, and use the way they speak their dialect to speak Mandarin. This is mostly why you get so many variations in pronunciation among the Chinese. I asked almost all of my teachers if their grandparents could speak Mandarin, and they mostly told me they only spoke their dialect (I even had one teacher whose grandma spoke French!). From what I observed and heard, the elderly mostly speak their dialects, unless you’re in an area near Beijing.

Some of the main dialects of China are: Yue, Ping, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Hui, Wu, and Min. (Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list. Many minority groups have their own language, and there are many different variations between cities and provinces.)

Some of the main dialects of China are: Yue, Ping, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Hui, Wu, and Min. (Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list. Many minority groups have their own language, and there are many different variations between cities and provinces.)

To Americans and other outsiders looking in on this phenomenon, it seems so foreign and daunting to fully grasp. The way I like to think of it is that the Chinese have retained their languages and culture for almost four thousand years, and the way their dialects work is very similar to how the Native American tribes were. Each tribe had its own distinct language, and whenever I think of dialects I just think of it as the same thing, but the Chinese were never uprooted like the Native Americans were.

Since we’re on the topic of history, I came across this huge diorama of what Kunming would have looked like in ancient times. You can’t see everything (it was in a glass case, it was a pain to take a picture of!), but I wonder what life was like living there?

Since we’re on the topic of history, I came across this huge diorama of what Kunming would have looked like in ancient times. You can’t see everything (it was in a glass case, it was a pain to take a picture of!), but I wonder what life was like living there?

Just thinking about what life would have been like before Mandarin is exhausting! I can barely understand people talking amongst each other at the airport, let alone somewhere where the people don’t speak much Mandarin. There is one failsafe though: if you don’t understand what the people around you are saying, write out what you want to say. Although different dialects use different characters than Mandarin for certain words, if you write things out they’ll understand your meaning.

For example, people who don’t speak Mandarin but another dialect could read the sign.

For example, people who don’t speak Mandarin but another dialect could read the sign.

I know I barely scratched the surface of this topic, but I hope you find it as interesting as I do! It’s pretty much impossible to describe the differences in dialects, so if you’d like to hear the differences, check out this video of Frozen’s “Let it Go” sung in Chinese dialects, which should give a general idea of how the sounds differ, but there’s always some words that sound similar. A random goal of mine is to learn Cantonese, a dialect spoken in Hong Kong and the surrounding areas. Alright, until next time! Stay wonderful!

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Filed under East Asia, Garrett in China

Warning: Cliché Up Ahead

Zachary Schmelzer - Warning Cliche up ahead

This look out point is a fantastic five-minute walk from my apartment. The bridge in this picture is one of two bridges in Istanbul that connects Europe and Asia. When I took this picture I was standing on the European side looking toward the Asian side of Istanbul. This is also the spot where I first really talked to someone in Turkey.

Living abroad is an amazing thing. So amazing, that you start to realize all of your firsts when you look back… The first time you correctly use the host language, the first time you successfully use the subway system, and even the first time you are going down the slippery steps of said subway system and you fall and nearly break your wrist. Every time you do something even close to noteworthy you feel as if you should write a novel about it: “The time I was being chased by a dragon in Istanbul and I slipped down the stairs to the subway…”

Seriously though, I had been in Istanbul for about a week and I had yet to really talk to anybody. I already finished all eight Harry Potter movies, so I think I was more than ready to take on the city. It was early September, so the weather was perfect, and I wanted to take full advantage of it. I grabbed my wand and went for a walk. I had absolutely no idea where I was, so when I left my apartment building I took a left and hoped for the best. Fortunately, it turned out great, and I ran into this amazing place that overlooked the Bosphorus.

After taking some pictures I noticed someone had joined me at the lookout. I pretended to not notice the new company, while silently hoping he would come talk to me because I hadn’t had real human interaction since the flight attendant asked if I wanted the normal or vegetarian meal. Finally, I noticed he was approaching me. For about two seconds I was excited until I realized I knew zero Turkish. I was about to turn away until I heard him say “hello.” I vividly remember thinking, “Thank God, English!” (Now, I love the Turkish language, but it is a beautiful thing to understand someone and to be understood fully.)

Anyway, we started talking about who we were and what we did. We even helped an elderly Turkish man take a picture of the view with his non-camera phone… See what I mean by fully understanding someone?

Now, this guy and I never became friends. I talked to him probably five more times after the lookout, and he has since graduated and moved away. However, this is the first conversation I had with someone while abroad, and I walked home that day with a smile on my face. My confidence level grew exponentially and since then I have met more people than I could have ever imagined. The friendships I have made with people here are some of the best friendships I have ever made. There is something about knowing you both have this new, foreign land in common that makes you skip the boring acquaintance step and move to close friends right away. I’m glad this is how my friendships here have played out because we don’t have the same homeland in common, and my time here will unfortunately come to an end.

With that being said, I have made friends all over the world and I know these friendships are permanent. I cannot wait to further my travels while visiting my new friends’ host countries and let them visit mine.

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Filed under Western Europe, Zachary in Turkey

Friendly adventures with a cup of culture shock

Shanghai has a way of making many foreigners feel very special. Everywhere you go people always want to take a picture with you, buy you drinks when you’re out, or attempt to snap a picture of you when you’re not looking. When I’m waiting in a metro stop or an elevator, people always want to practice and develop their English skills as well, sometimes even their Spanish! After a week, stage two of culture shock sneaks up out of nowhere. People keep asking for the same thing over and over, you start to become a bit irritated. Next thing you know, the only thing to do at this point is to blend in with everyone by popping in ear buds and walk with the beat.


A few day of ignoring people as you walk around the city definitely causes a case of homesickness and stage three of culture shock hits you hard. At this point I begin to remember the comforts of home and how I really needed them now. I kept questioning myself as to why can’t I navigate the metro station yet, why can’t you speak Chinese yet, and every other negative thought.

Having more of a positive outlook a few days later, I found a solid group of friends that are from the US, France, Singapore, China and a few other place around the globe. We have done so many things together; without them there would be no way I would have done such crazy things. Busy days are always the best, especially with others. Culture shock becomes a thing of the past, and you finally begin to feel at home.

I think the hardest part of being abroad for me is when one of your friends you have made abroad end up leaving the city for good. With mixed emotions and uncertainty of when you will see them again, this part always puts me back a step within the culture shock. As for now, I will enjoy every moment I have with them and not worry about anything else.


Alex Montoya

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Filed under Alex in China, East Asia

My Future Plans

Even before going abroad, I knew what I wanted to as a professional career: I want to become an international interpreter. My experience abroad will no doubt be invaluable to me as I continue to pursue that goal. They say that learning a language is easiest when you’re completely immersed in it. I lived with a Spanish family, who knew very little English, and had a Spanish class Monday to Friday from 9am to 1:30pm. This left me very little room to lose the idea of immersion. When I first arrived in Spain, I was incredibly shy and was afraid to make an error in my speaking ability, so I spoke very little. However, by the time I left Spain, I spoke fluidly, confidently, and happily. Sure, I was still slightly afraid of making an error, but that’s a fear that I’m going to have to overcome, if I’m going to achieve my goal of becoming an international interpreter.

While abroad, I also traveled to other countries via plane, bus, and train, often times going completely alone. Initially, I was also afraid of traveling alone. What if I got mugged? Could I navigate airport security on my own? Can I carry my luggage on my own? All of these questions buzzed through my head when I decided that I would be traveling. But, I’d promised myself that I’d take risks and put myself out there and try new things. My first trip traveling completely alone (from Zaragoza to London to Chester and back) was a complete success. I did my best to blend in and not act like a tourist, and it seemed to do the trick. After that, I had a lot more self-confidence and trusted myself to not get lost, or to find my way out of a difficult situation if necessary. I had a couple of close calls (getting on my train to London as the doors closed), but I made it to each place safe and sound. A tour group I met up while on Semana Santa (Spanish Easter holiday) even expressed their surprise and astonishment as I told them I’d been traveling alone for a few days before meeting the group. I don’t think I’d ever be able to acquire the skills and confidence necessary to travel alone if I hadn’t decided to study abroad in the first place.

Academically, the Spanish course I was enrolled in was definitely challenging! My professor had high expectations and would settle for nothing less. At first, it was incredibly overwhelming for me, and I thought that the professor was being especially hard on me. However, in hindsight, I realize that she was doing that because she knew my potential, and she knew that if I truly applied myself, I would be extremely successful. Now that the course is over, I’m very happy that I had her as my professor; I don’t think I would have learned as much as I did, had it not been for her. When it came time for the final exam, she spoke with me afterwards to offer any final comments and give me my grade. She gave me a 9/10 and said that I was a rare case because I actually speak Spanish better than I write it, and she offered me a few words of advice to help me in the future. Thanks to her, I now know what I need to focus on when I return to school in the fall in order to make myself successful, both academically and professionally.

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Filed under Tyler in Spain, Western Europe

Embracing the Unexpected

Since the day I started my journey to Kyrgyzstan, unexpected opportunities have become a daily occurrence for me. I can never be completely sure what my days are going to hold or what new people I am going to meet. One of these unexpected opportunities presented itself during my second week in Bishkek. One of our program assistants mentioned that there were many opportunities to teach English if any of us were interested. Two other girls from the program and I told her that we would be interested and she responded later that day with a teaching opportunity for us. A few other people in our program had already started teaching English here, and all of their situations seemed to be teaching one or two small children at their homes once or twice a week. At first, we were under the impression that this was going to be the same kind of deal, but we slowly began to realize that what we were in for was going to be a very different experience.
We got our first clue when we received a call telling us that a taxi was being sent to pick us up. We got into the taxi with no knowledge of our destination and watched the city fly by as our driver maneuvered his way through rush hour traffic (driving in Bishkek is absolutely terrifying by the way, mostly because lanes and general traffic rules don’t seem to exist.) We finally stopped at a building that had the words ENGLISH ZONE emblazoned across the front and climbed out of our taxi. We were greeted by one of the managers and then taken into a room where the owner began to talk to us about our time in Bishkek so far. After a few minutes of small talk, he suddenly became very businesslike. “So you want a job” he said. “Before we go further, I want you guys to tell me about the most influential teacher you’ve had and why they impacted your life so much.” At this point, the three of us realized that we would not be giving one on one lessons to small children while their parents made us snacks, and that we had quite literally stumbled into a legitimate job interview. We scrambled to get into professional mode and somehow managed to get out coherent and decently intelligent responses to his questions. After the impromptu interview, he told us we would have a five-day trial period and explained the premise of English Zone to us.  English Zone is a school that is trying to revolutionize learning. Students are not given lessons on vocab and grammar directly, but learn it through learning other subjects in English. They give presentations on topics, debate controversial issues, watch videos, learn songs, and are just generally immersed in English the whole time they are at English Zone. “Moderator” is also substituted for the word “teacher” because the idea is that the moderator should facilitate discussion and learning more so than teaching information directly. I found these concepts fascinating and on par with my own feelings on education.
We began our trial week that day and observed a class. The next day we showed up for training and our supervisor said “Rachel and Alex you’ll be observing my class. Gabby you have a class in ten minutes that you will be leading.” I’m not going to lie; there was a moment of pure panic where my thoughts went something like “What. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve had no training. I should run…Or play dead… Is it possible to do both?” I managed to clamp down these thoughts however, and shakily walked into my class ten minutes later with a very sparse and haphazard lesson plan. That class was one of the most fun and eye-opening experiences of my life. All of the students were my age or older and were already at a conversational level. They were also hilarious and my nerves disappeared almost immediately. Since that day, I’ve been volunteering there Monday through Friday and loving it.

One of my friends told me once that he thinks that there are people we meet who are like puzzle pieces and that, throughout our lives, these puzzle pieces come together and help shape who we are as a person. For me, the students and the people I work with at English Zone are definitely some of my puzzle pieces. They have not only taught me a lot about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but they have taught me about myself. They ask me questions that make me think and come up with answers to my questions that I have never considered before. They have taught me about an aspect of myself that I didn’t really know existed and helped me discover that I am passionate about helping people learn. They have told me about their dreams and ambitions and inspired me to follow my own. They are funny, smart and dedicated and make me want to strive to be better every time I moderate a class. Many of them have also become my friends and the time I have spent with them outside of English Zone has resulted in some of my favorite experiences here so far.

I had no idea when I applied for this summer program in Bishkek that I would become part of a startup company that is trying to change the education world. I didn’t know that I would find a new passion or that I would meet my students and learn so much from them. They have opened up parts of this culture that I would not have gotten a chance to see as a foreigner. Before going to English Zone and meeting the people there, I hadn’t really considered the possibility that I would come back to Kyrgyzstan down the road, this trip seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of deal. The unexpected friendships and connections I have made there have made me want to return and learn more about this country and become more involved in the work that English Zone does.

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Filed under Gabby in Kyrgyzstan, South & Central Asia

Food and Culture in Kyrgyzstan

Food is a rich and important part of Kyrgyz culture. The staple ingredients of meals tend to be meat, vegetables, and rice. Ган-Фан (gan-fan) and манты(manti) are two of my favorite dishes so far. I would describe Ган-фанas a type of thick sauce with chunks of meat and vegetables over rice. Манты are dumplings with meat, potatoes, and onion inside and are usually steamed but I’ve also had fried ones in restaurants and they are quite delicious as well. I tried the other day to learn how to fold мантыinto in its dumpling shape, but most of what I accomplished was proving that I am not cut out to work in a Kyrgyz kitchen. My host family assured me that I folded them perfectly but I have learned that, when it comes to my cooking skills, they lie to me out of love a lot. The fruit here is also absolutely delicious. The first thing I ate when I arrived in Bishkek was a plate of fresh strawberries. They are smaller than the strawberries I am used to but the flavor is amazing. I have developed a slight obsession and I get irrationally excited when I see them being sold on the side of the road by the bucketful.

One thing I’ve noticed here is that food is not wasted to the extent that it sometimes is at home. My host family makes many dishes that reuse ingredients from the previous night’s meal so as to make the most out of the food they have. This has definitely made me think about the attitude toward food in the US and the amount of times I have seen leftovers tossed out instead of being reused to create another meal. Another thing I have noticed, with my host family but even more so at restaurants, is how popular tea is. My tea consumption at this point is off the charts because pots of tea seem to be equivalent with complementary glasses of water one gets at restaurants in the US. Any time I have a meal here, I can be sure that there will be some type of tea on the table.

Hospitality is a very important part of Kyrgyz culture and it is believed that a big part of being hospitable is making sure that guests are well fed. I have noticed that this mentality about food and hospitality reaches into the professional world here as well. I am interning with the Soros Foundation in Kyrgyzstan and have been to a few meetings and a conference so far. At each of these events, I can always be sure to find a spread of tea, jam, cookies, and bread at the very least and on various occasions I have seen four-course meals laid out.

Food is also used to bring the family together and is a way to show that you care about someone. I share my host family with another girl from my program and the phrase we hear the most from our grandmother is most definitely “кушатькушать!” (eat eat!). It seems to be her constant mission to make sure that we are either drinking tea or eating bread at all times. I have stumbled sleepily out of my room at midnight to go to the bathroom only to find my grandmother waiting for me with a fresh cup of tea when I come out. Our host sister Aychurek, or Chuci, told us that this is because cooking and providing food for members of your family is a way to show affection and that you care about them. Meals with my host family are one of my  favorite parts of the day because it is a time when we are all together talking about our days and other random things. The mentality of eating as a thing to be enjoyed and savored and not just a process to get through as fast as possible, is something I really love about this culture and something that I want to bring back with me when I leave here.

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Filed under Gabby in Kyrgyzstan, South & Central Asia

Home Again

Our experience in Jordan flew by! At the beginning of my family’s time there we dove right into the culture. We tried to make our time there as authentic as possible. We ate their food, learned their customs, and relished in the odd feeling of being in a totally foreign place. With time, we started missing our food, our customs, and the comfortable feeling of being home. We started doing little things like eating at McDonald’s (which was conveniently located above our supermarket), and planning and looking forward to coming back home.

Fast forward a few weeks. We constantly talk about the things we used to do in Jordan. We miss the fresh fruit and vegetables from the corner market. We miss taking taxis all over the city and playing soccer with the building manager’s little kids. We even thought about starting a Middle Eastern restaurant for goodness sakes! Now we are just planning for a return trip which we hope to do soon. I think the best part about being back is sharing our experiences with those we meet. They are ALWAYS fascinated to discover more about Arab culture and eager to overcome stereotypes. It is such a pleasure to meet somebody from Iraq or Jordan or Palestine and be able to speak to them in their own language and share common experiences.

Having now gone and come back, it has given us more time to think about what changes we will make as a result of our time in Jordan. Thinking about the abundance of everything that we have here helps us to live in a more sustainable and simple way. We are definitely more conscious about our the way we use water. We are more careful to finish all of the leftovers in the fridge instead of throwing them out. We try to feel less possessive of things in general and be as generous here as Jordanians were to us. These are just a few ways in which the study abroad has impacted us and has given us a little reverse culture shock. Though we are happy to be home, we miss Jordan like our home and strive actively to turn our experience into action and changing the way we live. We are so grateful to the Gilman program for providing this opportunity to attend this study abroad. We encourage all who are on the fence or have never considered going on a study abroad to set it as a goal and plan for it; you won’t regret it!

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Filed under David in Jordan, middle east