At the Temple of Heaven: Studying Abroad in China

Chinese Temple
After observing China through the lens of landscape paintings, history books, and Jackie Chan movies, a deaf student immerses herself in the "China of today."

Hannah Mann describes herself as independent, a go-getter and a risk-taker. She is also a deaf cochlear implant user who is fluent in Cued Speech and American Sign Language.

She has traveled to China three times, including a semester abroad studying Mandarin at Peking University in Beijing. Her Mandarin studies began when she signed up for a summer class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“My interests have always centered around Asia,” she says. “I’d always been fascinated with Chinese history and culture since I was a little girl. I think it started with Jackie Chan movies; I loved watching the fight scenes, and the other aspects of Chinese culture shown in these films also fascinated me.”

During her first trip to China, she spent a month volunteering at two international camps in Yunnan province. “It was an amazing experience and I knew within one week of being there that I wanted to go back, possibly as a study abroad,” she says. A year later, she was studying at Peking University’s China Studies Institute. Her program consisted of full immersion Mandarin classes that went from 9 until 5 every day, as well as a two-week study trip at the end of the semester.

Hannah used Cued Speech transliteration as an accommodation in Wisconsin but decided not to ask for a transliterator for her classes at Peking University. (Cued Speech uses hand shapes placed near the mouth to assist with lip-reading, while transliterators convey spoken English as Cued Speech.)

“I opted out of Cued Speech transliteration for the semester because I felt I was becoming too dependent on watching my transliterator’s cues instead of listening to the Mandarin itself,” she says. However, she requested a transliterator for her two-week study trip at the end of the semester.

She began the process of requesting accommodations six months before the beginning of her semester abroad because she says “the more time, the better.”

“I won't lie; the classes were very, very difficult. I mean, it was hard for the hearing students too. I had no interpreter or transliterator, so I struggled to understand people every day,” Hannah says.

“I definitely felt like a fish out of the water, just kind of feeling my way through various situations. I was fortunate to have a very dear Chinese friend who lived a fifteen minute walk away from me. I would go over to her apartment after class to do homework and eat dinner, and if I didn’t know what was ‘normal’ for that culture, I would just ask her.”

There were many rewards that came with her study abroad experience.

“I did take a weekly calligraphy course with one of my Chinese teachers, which I enjoyed immensely,” she says. “It's hard to describe, but calligraphy is just very, very calming for me. The seemingly simple strokes require a lot of concentration, and it was a great way to block out all the stress from my courses.”

On weekends and for class trips, she visited destinations like the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, and the Lama Temple. She also spent her free time walking around the old parts of Peking University’s campus and enjoying the fall colors, and her classes were in a traditional building with a curved roof and a courtyard.

The highlight of her semester, though, was the two-week study trip at the end of the term. She visited seven cities with her program during those two weeks, and had the opportunity to see the ancient Buddhist grottoes in Longmen, the Panda Research Center in Chengdu, and the karst rock formations of Guilin, which have been the inspiration for many Chinese landscape paintings. She also visited the giant Buddha of Leshan, the biggest Buddha statue in the world, and the terra cotta soldiers of Xi’an.

“There is a saying, ‘If you want to see China of 100 years ago, visit Shanghai; China of 500 years ago, Beijing; China of 2000 years ago, Xi'an,” Hannah says. Through her program, Hannah saw both the China of two thousand years ago while interacting with the China of today.

“I would say I’ve gotten a lot more hands-on cultural experience now, the kind of stuff you really can't get out of books,” she says. “I had many conversations—spoken, written, or otherwise—with quite a few native speakers and we would ask each other questions about our respective countries.”

“Overall, I think [my study abroad program] made me more confident about facing challenges and traveling. It’s easy to feel scared and overwhelmed when you're in a new country, especially when you're obviously a minority there. But you’d be surprised at how many people go out of their way to help you, just because. Just putting on a friendly face, no matter how you feel, can do wonders for improving your relations with other people, even without a common language. You really can’t let fear get in the way of what you want to accomplish.”