Hannah Filley: I’m going to China, I’m going to China, I’m here!

This is the third in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Shanghai, China: Second Language Acquisition in China and the USA program this summer with Professor Lydia McDermott. Hannah Filley ’19  is an English major.

When our plane landed at the Shanghai–Pudong International Airport, I woke up from my dazed and completely restless not-actually-asleep-dream-state with a start. Twelve or so hours had passed since leaving Seattle and my body was going on hour thirty of being awake. Stir crazy and completely exhausted, I managed through two hours of customs clearance and baggage claiming, essentially unconscious as I wobbled through crowds of people and onto a bus that would take us an hour into the city. My fellow Whitties and I would later float off the bus and zombie our way through narrow sidewalks, strange faces, and odd smells until we would at last find our hotel—and temporary home—for the month of June

A view from our daily walk through East China Normal University Campus

All I could think the whole time was I’m going to China. I’m going to CHINA. And eventually: I’m in CHINA. CHINA!—in attempt to believe that my pretty impulsive choice to participate in a month-long study abroad course in Shanghai was coming to fruition. As you can likely gather from my nervous anticipation, my experiences traveling had yet to compare to something as new as this. My discomfort, though, was exactly what I had set out to achieve when I applied to participate. I was here for the same reasons most students study abroad: to push the boundaries of my comfortability, increase my global awareness, take advantage of the opportunities Whitman creates for students that aren’t quite so easy to come across in the “real world”, yadayadayada. It feels silly to even attempt putting this experience into words. After all, I’ve only been in Shanghai for a week. Yet, somehow, maybe because of the constant noise and busy nature of our days here, I feel like I’ve been here much longer. I know that gushing about how much this past week has made me fall in love with home anew and appreciate—to some degree—how deeply isolating it feels to be submerged in a sometimes unrecognizable culture with no language skills is all, without a doubt, overly self-congratulatory. But, I also feel pretty cool for diving in.

Our program is focused on second language learning and educational practices in China and the U.S.A. The catch: only one member of our ten person class/adventure group speaks Chinese. One of the many things we’ll be doing during our weeks here besides attending classes, seeing sights, and doing our best not to get lost, is teach English. So, only a couple days after my delirious arrival to this beautiful, strange city I walked into a room teeming with pure curiosity and elation. It looked a little like this:

After stumbling through a few simple games with these second graders, I soon realized I had definitely overestimated myself and vastly underestimated the group of brilliant kiddos. Their English vocabularies loomed far beyond what my two co-teachers and I had anticipated. We had to think on our feet to make things more challenging, all while struggling to maintain control of a classroom in which we did not speak the dominant language. I don’t know if I taught them very much English during the hour I had with them, but I was excited to take what they had taught me to the next classroom I would teach the following week. The best part? When we said goodbye to the room full of students, one ran up to the front of the classroom, handed each of us a bright colored piece of paper, and said “thank you teacher”. One by one the rest of the students looked at each other and, in varying levels of hurried excitement, fumbled through their desks searching for colored papers of their own to do the same. We each left the building with a hefty stack of colorful “gifts”, smiling ear to ear. Seeing first-hand the kinds of enthusiasm and respect students have for teachers, and learning for that matter, in a culture where teachers are generally valued and celebrated far more than what I’m accustomed to was a gift in and of itself. 

Madi Crowley: First impressions

 This is the second in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Shanghai, China: Second Language Acquisition in China and the USA program this summer with Professor Lydia McDermott. Madi Crowley ’20 is a Computer Science and Spanish Major.

There were a lot of things that I found somewhat jarring about Shanghai when I first arrived here.

First, I’ve lost all ability to sense intonation in the conversations around me.  The language is comprised of four tones that, to me, make each sentence sound like a jumble of angry exclamations and questions.  It may seem like a simple shift compared to the biggest one, losing the ability to tell what people are actually saying, but it has made a big difference in my ability to understand my environment.

Although I can see some emotion in strangers’ faces, the tones obscure the reflection of that emotion in their voices.  Walking down any street, the conversations of other people are usually completely lost on me.  There is also, of course, the insane phenomenon that is traffic in Shanghai.  The nonverbal cues that govern the toad are unknown to me.  It seems impossible to tell if a honk or the act of invading personal space indicates “Get out of my way!”, “I’m here!”, something else, or nothing at all.

In the few days that I have been here, it has definitely been difficult to avoid being closed off to many new experiences at once, especially with a full schedule.  As strange as it sounds, listening to the banter of the people working in the bakery and coffee shop next door to our hotel is comforting and encouraging.


These conversations are different from the conversations I hear on the street.  Given context, I know that they’re discussing tasks around the shop, telling each other what was ordered, and joking about people that come in during the day.  Watching one waitress, I see the familiar look of boredom and longing for freedom from the long day of monotonous work ahead.

As our group of ten, only one of whom speaks fluently, has begun routinely inhabiting the shop, there seems to be a growing mutual understanding.  The same waiters and waitresses usually take my order (AKA read to what I point to on the menu), and now pull the menu closer and smile when I walk up.


Amidst the big and small differences that sometimes make the city seem like an altered reality, it is comforting to have similar situational experiences and be reminded that different elements and cues of cultures don’t change the fundamentals of the human condition.  Even if methods of verbal and nonverbal communication are slightly different from those I know (or I just don’t fully understand them yet), it is important to remind myself that making an effort to reach out and get involved goes a long way.

Stacey Amezquita: Food Adventures in China

This is the first in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Shanghai, China: Second Language Acquisition in China and the USA program this summer with Professor Lydia McDermott. Stacey Amezquita ’19 is a Politics & Psychology major.

I’d like to think that the realities of being a tourist in a foreign country don’t really settle in until you’re trying to find food on your own. A few days ago, our group had the opportunity to get dinner anywhere we wanted. Kate, Hannah, and I decided to go to Global Harbor Mall because it’s so close to our hotel and we thought it would be easy enough to find a food court there. Oh, how wrong we were!

For starters, we walked ten minutes in the opposite direction of the mall. We laughed it off and made our way down the correct path. Once in the mall, we were overwhelmed by its looming size. We realized soon enough that it wouldn’t be as easy as we thought to find a place to eat. Most of the restaurants we passed were quite pricey and we weren’t willing to part with a lot of money so early on in our trip. The mall started to feel more and more like an endless maze as our hunger grew. Eventually, we ran into Emily and felt a boost of confidence in our skills to navigate now that we were a group of four. Unfortunately, we still managed to wander aimlessly up and down elevators and escalators.

Emily embodying how tired we all were, by taking a seat on the escalator.


But! A ray of hope: She was smart enough to bring a phrase book given to us by the CIEE staff! We tried stringing together a variety of words and phrases to ask for “a cheaply priced restaurant” somewhere in the mall. We found a friendly hostess and tried asking our question but she simply looked at us in confusion. Clearly, we weren’t speaking Mandarin at all. We were so sure that this would work!

A nice couple saw us struggling with the hostess and tried helping us out (they spoke English! We were saved!). They were nice enough to point us in the direction of a nearby street with food. They even wrote the order for us to minimize complications once we found a place to eat. It was heartwarming to see such kindness and patience when we were all feeling exasperated and lost.

The wonderful couple who lent us a helping hand by giving us directions and writing down our order. They gave permission to have the photo posted.

Before we made it out of the mall we found a cute restaurant that we decided would suit us just fine. We didn’t use the couple’s instructions in the end, but we were so happy with the choice we made. We ate a satisfying, much-needed meal — and agreed that we had been through quite a hilarious ordeal.

An example of the cute food found at the restaurant we settled on.

As frustrating as this experience was, it’s been one of my favorite moments from the trip. I’m proud of how much my group is able to take obstacles in grace. Our willingness to laugh at ourselves makes our time here much more enjoyable when it would be just as easy to be upset at the challenges we face. All in all, I loved that night in the mall but I’d prefer not to do it again!

The triumph and utter relief we felt is pictured here as we finally found a place to eat.