Hutong School Alumni Stories: From the Wild West to the Wild East

This week we have a special interview from a former Hutong School student, Michael Danahy. Originally from the United States and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History. Michael took Hutong School’s intensive language course for 3 months at the beginning of 2018 in Shanghai and will be attending graduate school to further study Chinese Mandarin in the fall of 2019.

How did you find Hutong School and why did you choose to come to China with Hutong School?

I had initially searched online for some sort of program where I could learn Mandarin Chinese and gain invaluable work experience at the same time while living in China. I pooled together a handful of possible opportunities, but Hutong clearly stood out from the others because of its genuineness, flexibility, and its high recommendation. After talking with one of the program advisors I knew this would be an excellent opportunity with the right people.

What Program did you do at Hutong School? (ICP/ IP)

So, initially, I was looking for a dual internship/intensive language program, but after speaking with my personal program consultant, we both had agreed that the intensive language program would best serve my interests and provide the best experience for me while I was with the school.  I had registered for three months of intensive language classes and I believe that was the right choice.

Why did you choose to go to China? What were your expectations before coming?

I believe with globalization and trending economic opportunities, Mandarin is becoming, if it is not already, a crucial language to learn for anyone with a wide variety of interests. By learning Chinese in China, I would not only increase my language aptitude by living and experiencing the authentic environment every day, but I would also meet people from around the world and learn from cultures vastly different from own. My expectations were honestly rather simple, I wanted to become a better Chinese linguist and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How was the reality compared to the expectations you had of China?

There was no amount of preparation I could have done to completely prepare for living in China.  I had spoken with my personal consultant, and tried to think of everything as best I could, but I believe I also needed to just let it wash over me and go with the flow.  I was in awe at first, I had never been in a city 1/10th the size of Shanghai before in my life and I was on the other side of the world away from everything that was familiar to me, but I had unquestionable support and encouragement from Hutong School’s staff.  They did an outstanding job from the beginning.

What was the biggest culture shock you experienced when you arrived in China? How did you deal with that?

I was not prepared for Chinese cuisine.  I had not once seen any “authentic” Chinese food in my life before arriving in Shanghai, and every day there was something new to try that was fully prepared from scratch.  I was hesitant to try it at first, but either by peer pressure or general curiosity I was eventually able to eat most of what was served to me.  It is important to understand and observe the cultural norms of living in a foreign place and not rely entirely on things you are comfortable or familiar with back home.

Why would you recommend Hutong school to new students?

I would recommend Hutong to anyone regardless of his or her Chinese language aptitude. The opportunities the school offers to students, or interns, is going to last the rest of your life. The staff and teachers work tirelessly at everything they do whether it is preparing bespoke lessons to your abilities, making sure your accommodations are satisfactory, or just checking in on your wellbeing, as any good friend would do. They have all been in your situation and understand how daunting something like this could be to someone who has doubts about taking part in this experience. They have also invested an immense amount of time while living there and have the best recommendations about what to do in a place like Shanghai or the surrounding area. I had only stayed at the Shanghai location, but I have absolute confidence that Beijing and its other branches operate with the same integrity and professionalism that only add to an already incredible opportunity.

What did you gain from this whole China experience?

Every day I had learned something either about myself, about other people or literally in Chinese class. I cannot overstate how meaningful the experience was to me, because by meeting this challenge head-on I was able to grow as a person, but also through relationships where over a year later I am still talking with the teachers, staff, and classmates at the school almost every day because of the friendships I was able to build while I was there. I went from being many years removed from my previous elementary-level Chinese language experience to an HSK Level II proficiency in only a few months. This experience is a highlight on my resume and without a doubt helped me get into graduate school. There is always something I look back and reflect on every day.

What are the things you miss about China?

I miss the people. Everyone was always friendly and made you feel welcome. I always looked forward to going to school to see everyone and the classes were always educational and meaningful. After 3 months of lessons, it was never repetitive, but they did an excellent job to make sure you were the priority and that the lesson was not lost on you.

How has your China experience helped/changed you when you returned to your home country?

I believe my experience in China has given me a great deal of confidence both as a person who can travel to such a foreign place with minimal assistance and supervision but has also given me a modest understanding of different cultures and how people live differently and still make it work. I believe it has helped me become more accepting, more knowledgeable, and, of course, I have improved my Chinese fluency dramatically.

Do you see yourself returning to China one day?

I would absolutely return to China one day and hope I get the chance to explore even more of the country, I also hope I get to revisit everyone back at Hutong.

Thanks very much to Michael for sharing his incredible experiences with us! Everyone at Hutong School wishes you the very best in your future endeavors and hope to see you again soon!

If you’re interested in hearing more about other former students’ experiences, check out our previous posts on doing a gap year in China or about Delphine’s unique story of how studying with us in Shanghai inspired her to participate in a humanitarian rally in Morocco.

Feeling inspired and ready to embark on an international adventure of your own? Check out our wide range of award-winning programs, from intensive Chinese programs to internships. Get started today!

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Hutong School is now operating as That’s Mandarin. Now you can expect the same great Chinese lessons with access to online Chinese learning platform NihaoCafe.