"Even though you're somewhere totally across the world, you can still find comfort in things that are universal." (Nenna, Episode 41)
Nenna Maduko and I were students at the same university around the same time, but I didn't actually meet her until a few months after I graduated. I was meeting up with a friend at a Lianne La Havas concert, and Nenna was a friend of that friend who was attending the concert with him. I kept in touch with her since that time, and recently got to speak with her about the summer she spent studying Mandarin in China.
Nenna was a business major at Michigan State University, and she started studying Chinese because she thought it would enhance her understanding of the business field on an international scale. It also just seemed like a non-typical language to study, and having Chinese friends also contributed to her interest in it. She took to it quickly and decided to add Chinese as a minor. She hadn't initially thought she would have the opportunity to study abroad, but after she learned that going to China for a summer would knock out a year's worth of language credits for her minor, she decided to go during the summer of 2015. This was her first time traveling outside of the U.S. without her family, and as the youngest of three children she was the first among her siblings to embark on an experience like this.
The program was focused on Chinese language and culture, and while Nenna spent the first and last weeks exploring Beijing and Shanghai with her fellow classmates, the bulk of that summer saw her in Harbin. A northeastern city that has some Russian influences, Harbin was actually a great place to practice and be immersed in a more "standard" form of Mandarin. She lived and studied at the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), and had classes four hours a day, five days a week. Outside of class and other activities or excursions that were planned for her cohort, Nenna used her free time to walk around exploring the city and trying all of the delicious culinary options that were available to her. She fondly remembers Harbin specialties such as lieba or da lieba (a large, round, sweet loaf of bread that has raisins in it), ma die er (a popsicle that has a sweet milk flavor), and Harbin beer.
It was hard for Nenna to pick a favorite part of that summer when I asked, so she broke it down by city. Her favorite part of Beijing was witnessing the massive scale of the Great Wall in person. Her favorite part of Shanghai was being on a boat cruise and seeing the waterfront and skyline at dusk, just as all the lights in the city were coming on. And her favorite part of Harbin was sitting on the edge of a river and taking in the Dragon Boat Festival amongst a crowd of her classmates as well as local Harbin residents. Additionally, Nenna relished the linguistic progress she was making. She went from barely being able to understand her professor to being able to follow along seamlessly in class and do day-to-day tasks in Chinese without much problem. Certain tasks, however, still required some extra help due to the language barrier. For example, withdrawing and exchanging currency was more complicated than she'd expected, but it got resolved thanks to assistance from her kind and patient language partner who was also an HIT student.
Throwing caution to the wind
Though going to China wasn't a completely random decision for Nenna, much of the process felt like throwing caution to the wind. She didn't make a concrete decision to go until four or five months before the program started. She decided to be roommates with the girl who happened to be sitting next to her at orientation; they hadn't known each other previously and the girl was in a higher level of Chinese than her. And while Harbin is small by Chinese standards, with a population of 10 million people it was still a huge city for Nenna, and one that didn't have as large of an English-speaking presence to fall back on like other cities had. As someone who tends to operate in a very structured way, living in China took some adjusting, but she doesn't regret her experience at all. On the contrary, she had a fantastic time and is glad she went through with it. Even with the occasional stares or odd comments from Chinese tourists who weren't used to seeing Black people, or relying in WeChat because her usual Internet haunts were blocked, those things did not mar her time there.
Nenna hasn't been back to China since 2015, but she maintains that she'd go back in a heartbeat if the timing, money, and visa were right. She also would like to go to Tokyo with her siblings during the 2020 Olympics. Her dad is Nigerian, and though her family went to Nigeria when she was a child, there are plans in the works for the whole family to visit Nigeria again within the next five years. In the meantime, she works in HR in Michigan, and wants to do more weekend trips within the States. Nenna can be found on Instagram (@nennamaduko).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Home Is Where Is Harbin Is (CHINA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!