Alumni Spotlight: Adrian Jennings

Adrian is a South African student at Wheaton College, MA, studying an independent major in Postcolonial Studies combing English, Political Science, and Sociology. When African dance music comes on, Adrian drops to the floor, sometimes leaving his rather tight pants in varying states of ruin.


Why did you pick this program?

I picked this program because I wanted to learn as much Chinese language as possible in a short amount of time, but I didn't want to go during normal school-time, so I chose the summer program, and I preferred to be in Shanghai rather than Beijing (this time).

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

I tell them to do it!!! Especially if they want to learn a foreign language. I think that the best way to learn any language is in an immersive environment, so if they really want to master a language then they really should go to the country where that language is spoken.

Studying abroad is challenging, but I think it offers you challenges that you can't experience anywhere else or in any other way, so everyone should take the opportunity to study abroad while they can, especially since colleges generally offer it for the same price as a normal semester at their college (Wheaton is one such college).

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be bold, especially with speaking Chinese to Chinese people! It's easy to isolate oneself within the small group of American and other foreign students on the program, but the best way to improve one's Chinese and to get to know Chinese culture is to meet Chinese people!

Chinese people are famously friendly and encouraging to foreigners trying to speak Chinese, and they will be very patient with you. The more you speak Chinese, the more confident you will become and the better your Chinese will be!

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

It was midnight in Shanghai, so public transport wasn’t running anymore. It was a Thursday night and I had a test the next morning, so I left my friends drinking their Tsingtaos in the bar just up the road from the Tonghe International Student Village, where they were staying. I was doing a slightly different program, Intensive Chinese Language, and so I was doing a homestay with a Chinese family a 45-minute commute from the Village. There was a taxi idling just outside the bar, so I climbed into the front seat and told the driver my destination. Thankfully, a taxi ride home would only take about 20 minutes.

As we set off we began to chat. He was a native of Shanghai and had never met anyone from Africa, let alone from South Africa. He asked the typical questions: There are white people in Africa? They speak English where you are from? Is it very dangerous? Did you go to the World Cup? Nelson Mandela?

I answered all these questions with good humour: after all, he was blissfully ignorant, not malicious. I spoke with him about my experience living in Shanghai for two months. We spoke about his family. We spoke a lot about football (the variety where you actually use your feet, not the American misnomer). Soon we arrived at my homestay. I paid him the elevated rate taxis in Shanghai charge late at night to take advantage of stragglers making their way home from the bar or the club – still, it was much cheaper than a taxi in most Western nations. I bade him farewell, and we parted ways.

This interaction may seem commonplace, especially to those who have spent much of their lives in major cities. However, it stands out for me for one major reason: the entire conversation happened in Chinese.

When I arrived in Shanghai, my Chinese ability – and most importantly, my confidence speaking the language – was laughable. In those first weeks, I would use an app when I took a taxi that would give my driver directions in Chinese. In restaurants, I would just point at the pictures on the menu. One time my friends and I mistakenly ordered donkey meat – and it tasted like ass.

As part of my program I took a language pledge to only speak Chinese all day. Of course, I didn’t follow this very strictly. However, after a few weeks I began to notice subtle improvements in my Chinese ability. Soon, I was confidently discussing South African politics with my homestay family over dinner. After just two months in China!

What was the hardest part about studying in China?

Probably the loneliness. It can be very isolating studying Chinese in China, since almost everyone around you only speaks Chinese. Until your lingual ability reaches a certain level, it can be very hard to make friends outside of the small international communities that exist throughout China. Even once your lingual ability is sufficient, the sociocultural contexts that govern Chinese interactions are complex and numerous, and so it can be difficult to connect with someone from such a different sociocultural context.

Outside of this, it's hard in general making friends in a big city, since people generally already have their own defined social groups that they tend to stick to. However, I think if you can overcome these challenges bit by bit then you will be left with an incredible wealth of experience and personal growth, and friends who will never leave you (because you fought so goddamn hard just to have them!!!) The feelings of loneliness and isolation you experience also teach you a lot about yourself and how you manage time alone; it can be an important lesson in self-sufficiency.