As an exchange student in China it can often be difficult to surpass cultural and language barriers and connect with local Chinese students. Particularly in Shanghai; given the incredibly international city that it is, it is often too easy to stay within the confines of the international student and expat ‘bubble.’
Discovering my local conversation corner in Shanghai’s Jing’an neighbourhood has been fundamental in driving me to venture outside of more culturally comfortable environments. These non-for-profit organisations aim to connect native English and Chinese speakers to enhance their language skills and cross-cultural awareness (and are a fixture at most Universities offering international exchange programs throughout Shanghai).
My local corner directly links international exchange students up with locals to participate in two-hour conversation sessions. One hour in is English and one is in Mandarin to facilitate an equal exchange. In my experience, these exchanges provide an informal space to build on classroom language learning through exposure to the actual, common vernacular currently used by people in Shanghai. To give just one example: despite the many words for ‘potato’ listed in my textbook I have learnt that Shanghai locals only really use two of these words!
Moreover, interacting and developing friendships with Chinese students and professionals at my local conversation corner has extended my understanding of the potential for language skills to build inter-cultural understanding. Over the course of my visits I have cultivated friendships with young Chinese people who share my passion for acquiring cross-cultural communication skills.