Student Stories, GRIP, Internships Abroad

Another Window from Which to View the World

November 26, 2018
By Rebecca Schleimer, CAS '20

Cadence Translate - Beijing, China

The fact that I'm studying Chinese language at Penn has certainly enhanced my experience interning here in Beijing this summer. I personally think that in choosing to intern abroad, knowing a bit of the language of the country in which you are interning allows for some amazing and hilarious moments and or conversations. The three most amazing moments of my experience here that come to mind all relate to my ability to speak Mandarin. 

The first moment happened near the beginning of my internship when I was out with a co-worker who was showing me around the beautiful Gulou area of Beijing. We were walking around for a bit all the while having a conversation in Chinese. We sat down for a bit to take a break, look out at the large man-made lake in front of us, and talk a bit about Chinese history. She asked me which Chinese dynasty was my favorite, and as I was answering her question, I saw that a middle-aged Chinese man who had been walking by with his wife overheard me speak and had to do a double-take. His jaw dropped as I spoke his native tongue with fluidity. He started to tell his wife what he had seen as they continued to walk away along the lake.

Weeks later, I had an even more remarkable experience with a Didi (Chinese Uber) driver on the way back home from a cooking class. For some context, most Didi drivers in China are relatively poor, do not have as much education, and therefore do not speak a word of English. Therefore, most drivers do not speak throughout the entire ride when they pick up a foreigner. At least, this is what I had noticed from the several Didi rides that I had had up until this point. Right after the driver picked me up from the cooking class, he confirmed my destination with me. Since I visibly understood what he said and used the Chinese word for "Yes" to confirm, he started talking to me in the middle of the ride back. He was telling me how good he thought my Chinese was as I was explaining that I still had a lot to learn and practice, especially with my speaking and reading. We then started talking about my internship, travel, etc. Meanwhile, I felt myself sweating both from the intense summer heat and from how nervous I was to be having my first full-blown Chinese conversation since coming to Beijing. Although there was one moment that I had to admit to him that I did not understand a phrase that he had just used, the feeling I had after arriving back at my apartment was incredible and indescribable.

More recently, I had a hilarious elevator encounter. On the way out for my lunch break one day, I stepped into the elevator in my office building and found myself surrounded by a bunch of Chinese women. I silently waited as the elevator slowly lowered, while at the same time somewhat eavesdropping on their conversations. I would say one of the many perks of knowing some Mandarin is that around 85% of the Chinese population will simply assume that if you are a foreigner you probably do not speak or understand any Mandarin. With that said, the women were talking about me, and I understood what they were saying. One of them told another that they should stop talking because the "foreigner just entered" and the other said, "she doesn't understand." Before I had the chance to respond cleverly in Chinese, another group of Chinese people swarmed into the elevator blocking my direct view of the two women. I walked out of the elevator and could not stop laughing and smiling for at least 20 minutes after the incident. 

It might sound cliché, but these moments are why I love learning languages. Knowing another language is like having a superpower, and I think going outside of your comfort zone for an extended period of time into the center of a foreign culture, either by working or studying abroad, is the best way to use and strengthen this superpower. 

"To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world."
-Chinese proverb


The Global Research and Internship Program (GRIP) provides outstanding undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to intern or conduct research abroad for 8 to 12 weeks over the summer. Participants gain career-enhancing experience and global exposure that is essential in a global workforce. Placements and funding awards are available.