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Student Interview: Matthew Sweetman

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Matthew Sweetman. I was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, a moderately sized city in between Chicago and Milwaukee. I have been studying Chinese for some time and now and in high school I had the opportunity to travel to Beijing with my 老师 laoshi. However, the trip was out of my price range so I could not go.


What made you decide to study abroad in China in the first place?

Following up with that, I promised him that I would study in China while in college because scholarships are easier to get from universities and all of that. Along with my promise, I knew that I would have to come to China to fully develop my language skills in Chinese. You can’t really be fluent in a language unless you spent time in a country that speaks that as their main language, can you (no, at least not fully).


What intrigued you to come back another semester?

My first semester at TBC (fall of 2018) was amazing, and everything I expected and then 10,000 things I never even thought of. What really swayed my decision was directly after the Silk Road trip. We were on the plane back and I was reflecting what in the world just happened to me for the past 2 weeks, and realized more life-changing and eye-opening things than I had almost ever experienced in the same span of time. I suddenly got this awful panicky feeling like my time that semester was going to go by too quickly and that I needed to stay longer. As soon as we landed in Beijing, I began emailing my advisor about staying next semester, if credits could transfer correctly, how and when to re-apply for scholarships, etc.


What was your biggest excitement/fear in coming to China and returning back another semester?

I had no fear, only excitement and… a lot of excitement. I actually never returned home over Christmas break. My family came to China for about a week to celebrate Christmas with me, but then the remainder of the break I was by myself which I found liberating and fun – because I had to use my Chinese for EVERYTHING.


What were your hopes in gaining this experience compared to the first and second semester?

My hope is to develop my Chinese skills even more. After about 5 months in China (fall 2018) my language level undoubtedly increased, but staying for almost a year it should double right? Well I hoped, but that’s not exactly how languages work, but it still helped because I was constantly using my Chinese day in and day out for.


What do you do for your internship? Tell us a bit more about it.

My internship is through Atlas Education. It is an afterschool learning center for kids striving to attend an international university, so the teachers do 1 on 1 specified teaching with math, English, sciences, amongst others. There are also other branches of the company that do separate things besides teaching, but all work to benefit the students or other students in China. One branch I have mainly worked with is called Beijing Field Studies (BFS). BFS works to set up and host environmentally-related field trips or day programs for people of all ages throughout Beijing. I have mainly worked with them in organizing different field trips, as well as other intern tasks like researching, setting up things around the office, and assisting with whatever my colleagues need help with that day.


Is there anything you would’ve changed in experiencing China?

My fall semester I did not have an internship because I wanted to be able to focus on adjusting to living in China, school, and learning Chinese, however, I quickly depleted my savings from traveling which put me in a pickle. I did not have to work so I spent more time traveling throughout Beijing/other provinces, but I didn’t have anything to show for it on my resume. I would recommend looking for an internship because a lot of places understand we’re still students so you only have to come in a few days a week, and can work remotely if you are bogged down by homework or something.


Do you have any particular memory that you would like to share? How did it make you feel?

In this year I have traveled to a lot of places in China but one that sticks out is Haerbin, the city which holds the Snow and Ice Festival. I went with two other TBC students from the fall of 2018 who also returned for spring semester. It was about –5 degrees Fahrenheit and were walking around all day looking at ice/snow sculptures, then running back inside to drink hot cocoa. In the beginning of January, they hold a big festival which includes large towers, structures, slides, houses, benches, everything you can imagine made from ice with lights frozen inside. Everything was glowing vibrant and ever-changing colors as people were running and slipping around. It was absolutely stunning. We hiked to an overlooking area where you could take a tube down a large ice slide, but ended up taking tons of pictures of the colorful village. This feeling that I have felt quite a few times in China I can mostly describe by pure awe of the moment and place I am in. This reinforces every part of me that I want to continue learning Chinese and maybe even live in China in the future.


What is your favorite aspect about China (culturally, history, people, environment, etc.)?

This may seem very small, but my favorite thing about China is the culture behind food, and most specifically meal time. Yes, there are new foods, different ways to cook food that I also love, but when you eat a meal in China you don’t order individual plates. When the dishes are brought out, they are set in the middle of the table for everyone to grab with their chopsticks. It makes for a more talkative meal time because you also eat slightly slower and often times have less food in your mouth at once, so talking is more doable.


What is something you are going to bring back home to share with your family and friends?

After being here for so long it feels like things, I have been doing everyday are the “normal”. So, I am finding this the hardest question to answer. The first 2 things that came to mind are chopsticks and hot water. I have accumulated many pairs of chopsticks so I will be using these to eat as many meals as I can. Also, China’s water is polluted so if you want to drink water (non-bottled) it has to be boiled to take out the pollutants. That being said, there are tons of hot water dispensers all over which people tend to make tea with, so I have become an even more avid tea drinker than before. I think I will begin to do these things so much and advocate for them that my roommates in the States will follow my lead, I hope!


Any advice for future students studying abroad in China?

YES! So much advice! For starters if you’re thinking about studying in China there are thousands and thousands of scholarships you can find. Whether you have studied Chinese or not getting involved with peers can seem really difficult, but talk to people! You can meet people that speak your native language and they can connect you with tons more people in fields you’re interested in. Check out more obscure websites for tourist attractions, Trip Advisor is great but only includes places I guarantee you’ve already heard of, ex. The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple, etc. Find out everything you can do on WeChat! Add people as liberally as you may on Snapchat. You’ll see people post in their “Moments” tab which can be a great window for opportunities. There is also a “subscription” thread where you can find countless events/organizations that help you get out and experience all the opportunities in China. 4 that I would recommend are: GuideinChina, TimeOutBeijing, LiveBeijingMusic, and CETtrip. These can help get more used to the Chinese culture, show you the best food spots (western and otherwise) in Beijing, new music events in the city, and present opportunities to visit beautiful places for a cheaper price at group rates, respectively.