Alumni Spotlight: Ronnie Blackburn


Why did you choose this program?

I chose CLI for two main reasons: 1) its structure, and 2) its flexibility.

1) Structure: The classes are entirely 1-on-1 tutoring. This has a lot of critical implications. Firstly, you can enter the program at any level of existing knowledge. You can be a complete beginner, or you can have any level of proficiency beyond that: even if it's lopsided proficiency (e.g. being able to read well but needing more work on speaking/listening). Furthermore, there's no opportunity to hide at the back of a big classroom from a mispronunciation or a lack of understanding: if you aren't grasping a concept, it will be immediately obvious and your teachers will guide you & work with you until you get it. On one hand, this may seem intimidating (and it certainly can be!), but on the other hand, this is exactly the kind of structure that will guarantee thorough, effective learning.

2) Flexibility: Because of CLI's 1-on-1 structure, there are no pre-set "classes" -- you can start whenever you want, and study for as long as you want. I had an existing 60-day Chinese visa and a limited amount of time I could take away from my job, so I chose to stay at CLI for 8 weeks. However, I made friends who studied anywhere from 2 weeks to a full year.

What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

CLI is so incredibly thorough! Their welcome packets (the documents sent prior to your arrival as well as the physical welcome packets you receive on your first day) include all the information you could possibly need about the surrounding area and more. They arranged my pickup from the airport, and the interns who greeted me when I arrived at CLI helped me with everything I needed on my first day: getting a meal, getting a new SIM card, and touring the school.

Beyond that, anytime I had a question or needed help, the staff and interns were there to assist. This was especially critical when I got very sick during my 6th week and needed to be taken to the doctor. Two very kind and helpful interns escorted me to the doctor, helped me pick up my medicine, and even made sure I got lunch afterward.

To be honest, I can't think of anything that they wouldn't have helped me with if I needed it. I would never take advantage of their kindness (as I saw some other students do: effectively treating the interns as personal servants) but the staff and interns are truly exceptional in this regard.

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

SPEAK CHINESE. SPEAK CHINESE ALL THE TIME. Because there is no enforced language pledge, many, many CLI students fall into the trap of only speaking Chinese in the classroom and when interfacing with locals.

I know it's hard to express what you want to say in Chinese when you're first starting out, and I know that it's mentally tiring. But that's the point. This is the only thing that will make you better. And when you start setting the example of speaking Chinese outside the classroom, you'll be helping your fellow students, too.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

In total, you'll have three different teachers (one Speaking/Listening, one Reading/Writing, one Comprehensive). Each day will consist of two 2-hour classes: typically, you'll see your Comprehensive teacher each day, and then either have Speaking/Listening or Reading/Writing as your second class. Lunch is provided at CLI for a fee, which I highly encourage: the meals are delicious and the pricing is extremely reasonable.

After classes, you'll spend some time doing homework (a healthy balance is about 2 hours, in my opinion). Most days, CLI has activities you can sign up for. Some are as simple as playing volleyball together, while others are as involved as weekend trips to the rural rice terraces. I especially enjoyed the activity where we made moon cakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival, not to mention the awe-inspiring trips to Yangshuo and Longji.

There are many great dinner options nearby if you prefer to eat out (shout-out to the local 拌面 [ban4mian4: mixed noodles] restaurant with the amazing 荞麦 [qiao2mai4: buckwheat] tea!), though you can also use the CLI kitchen if you prefer to make your own food. Then, you can chat with interns, continue studying, play mahjong in the activity room, use the CLI computers, or explore downtown Guilin!

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was not being good enough: not progressing fast enough, not learning as much as I wanted to, etc. I overcame this by realizing that I'm not a machine. I can't just cram a bunch of inputs and expect perfection immediately. Language learning, especially Chinese, takes time.

I learned how to be patient with myself. I learned how to forgive myself for missteps. And I learned how to swallow my pride and communicate with my teachers honestly about my shortcomings and where I needed more work.

What's something that surprised you about your stay in China?

I'm a big PC gamer, and I expected to spend a fair amount of my spare time in a local 网吧 (wang4ba1: PC cafe). However, after going to a Jimmy's exactly once and experiencing the cigarette haze (despite smoking being "forbidden"), grimy equipment, and less-than-kind employees, I ended up becoming a full-on mobile gamer during my stay.

As a researcher in video games, I gained a deep, tangible empathy for mobile gamers in China, and learned to love many new games! :) (Although it was a real pain to get a QQ account to verify my age...).