Brendan Nuse '17: What Am I Doing with My Life?
Brendan Nuse is the 2017-2019 Shansi Fellow to Shanxi Agricultural University. This is his second year narrative.
Before starting my fellowship, one of my biggest concerns was whether or not I would have anything to do. My job at Shanxi Agricultural University would only require 14 hours of teaching a week, less time than I spent doing work-study in an average week at Oberlin. I know a lot of people love having free time to relax, but I am not one of those people. When I have free time, I usually spend it all worrying about how I don’t know what to do with my time.
I thought that I could use this chance to help future fellows who may have the same fears as I did. Of course, everyone has different interests and goals, but I thought it might still be helpful to get a sample of some of the things that I spend my time doing. So, below is a list of some of the things I spent my two years hear doing (besides my job).
One thing that I didn’t consider before coming here was that 14 hours of teaching does not necessarily mean 14 hours of work. In addition to in-class time (and grading), you need to actually plan what you’re going to do during the class. My first year here, I had to spend many hours thinking of ideas, looking up advice on the internet, and making PowerPoints. While I don’t spend as much time doing this as I did last year, it’s still a major part of my life.
Before coming to SXAU, I was really hoping to have the opportunity to audit classes at the school. I thought it would be a nice way to learn some new things and work on my Chinese. I’ve audited several classes here, and it has been a great experience. Over my four semesters here, I’ve taken classes in geography, translation, grassland science, and Japanese. Of these courses, I particularly loved the two translation classes I took. One of my goals for my time in Taigu was to figure out what I wanted to do after leaving Taigu, and these two classes definitely helped a lot with that. I found that I enjoyed translation so much that I ended up applying to translation and interpretation graduate programs, and I will be attending one this fall. I also really like the grassland science course that I’m taking now. I hadn’t taken a natural science course since my sophomore year of college, so I have really enjoyed learning more about science now. It’s also been interesting to learn about science concepts in Chinese- I’m glad that I can come away from this fellowship knowing how to talk about thermodynamics and ecological succession in Chinese.
Overall, auditing courses has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my time in Taigu, and I’m so glad that I’ve had the opportunity to continue taking classes while teaching here.
My parents have been talking about their Fitbits for years. I’ve always thought that it sounded fun to challenge your friends to see who could walk more in a day or a week, but I’ve never wanted to shell out the money to buy a Fitbit. You can imagine my excitement when I found out that WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform, includes a feature that allows you to track how many steps you and your WeChat friends walk.
I’ve always been someone who enjoys walking, but WeChat has taken that to another level for me. While I try not to care too much about my ranking, I still think it’s fun to see how I compare to my friends, even on something as meaningless as steps walked in a day. I’ve also started listening to podcasts and audiobooks during my time here, and I really enjoy walking while listening to them. Taigu is really nice in the spring, so I’ve been walking whenever I have the opportunity this semester.
Going into the fellowship, my biggest goal was to improve my Chinese. I studied Chinese at Oberlin, and I thought that living in China would give me a lot of opportunities to improve. The fellowship also includes language tutoring, so I made sure to find tutors. I’ve had quite a few tutors during my time here. I think that meeting with someone with the express purpose of improving my Chinese at least once a week has really helped me get better at Chinese.
Last year, I was considering applying to Chinese universities for graduate school. International students need to pass a Chinese language exam called the HSK in order to get into Chinese graduate programs that are taught in Chinese (kind of like how international students have to get certain scores on the TOEFL or IELTS in order to study in the United States). I spent a lot of time last year doing practice exams, and I eventually ended up passing the exam in the summer. Of course, that was only the first step, as most graduate programs in China require students to also pass a test given by their university specifically. Some of my Chinese friends here were also preparing to take the graduate entrance exam, so I ended up teaming up with one of them to practice translation together and correct each other’s mistakes. In the end, I ended up deciding to go back to the U.S. for school, but the school I applied to also had an exam, so all this studying ended up paying off anyway!
I sometimes find it hard to study without the structure and demands of being a formal student, but the times I manage to make myself study always leave me feeling good!
A quick selfie taken with my current Chinese tutor, Irving (王英凡), during our weekly lesson.
Getting into Chinese TV shows, music, and podcasts:
After arriving in China, I immediately dove into the world of singing competition shows. Although I enjoy singing, I had never really watched any singing shows in the United States, so this was a new experience for me. There are many singing competition shows in China, so I spent a lot of my first year here catching up on all of the major ones. I had never really been into Chinese pop music (“Mandopop”) before, but watching these shows opened up a whole new musical world for me. I think a lot of my Chinese friends find the amount of Chinese music I listen to a little weird, because many young people in China prefer to listen to foreign musicians. I think Chinese music has been really helpful in building my vocabulary, though. The app that I use to listen to music includes lyrics for all the songs, so it’s easy to learn new words by singing along.
I also started listening to podcasts during my time here. For years, I’ve thought that people who listened to podcasts were really cool, but I could never get into any myself. I thought that listening to Chinese podcasts would help my listening comprehension, so I started searching topics I’m interested in Chinese on the Apple podcasts app. Whenever I found a podcast I enjoyed, I would check out the related podcasts to see if there was one I thought would be interesting.
Podcasts are definitely not as popular or common in China as they are in the U.S., so it took me a while to find ones that I enjoyed- especially because many Chinese podcasts are about learning English. However, I think that the lack of podcasts has been beneficial in a way. Since so few people in China listen to podcasts, the Chinese people who do make podcasts tend to be people who are more open-minded and forward-thinking. It also seems that government censorship hasn’t quite reached them yet. After living in Taigu, which is a fairly conservative small town, for two years, it has been nice to hear about Chinese people having different perspectives on controversial issues than those that I’m used to hearing.
As soon as I decided to accept the fellowship, I started making plans to find jobs outside of the work I was required to do. I had heard that it was easy to find jobs teaching children. After being here for two years, I can say that that is definitely true. I have taught 1-5 classes of children each week during my time here. Teaching children has been a really eye-opening experience- it’s made me reconsider ever wanting to have children in the future. Personally, I dislike teaching classes of children, and I turn down most of the requests I get to teach them, but they have still been something that has filled up a lot of my time during my fellowship. Luckily, I’ve also managed to find several other part-time jobs that I enjoy a lot more.
I mentioned earlier that I discovered a love of translation during my time here. As my network in China expanded, I found it easier and easier to find freelance translation jobs. I’ve translated documents for all kinds of clients, ranging from a research institute preparing a guide for researchers studying pregnancy to an art museum preparing an exhibit about Picasso. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to translate, and it’s given me a lot more clarity about my future plans.
Another common part-time job for fellows in Taigu is editing academic essays. Many Chinese academics want to publish articles in international journals, but need help making sure their English writing is up to par. Personally, I have created a relationship with one economics professor, and I am working on editing my sixth paper for him now. I really enjoy editing papers because it’s something that I can do alone whenever it’s convenient for me, and I learn a lot while editing them, too. I’ve also been lucky to have the chance to edit several papers about subjects in which I have pre-existing interests. For instance, I used to be obsessed with personality tests. I even spent a week in my classes last year talking about the Big Five personality test (and introducing relevant vocabulary about personality). I never imagined that I would ever play a role in creating an academic paper about Big Five traits’ relationship with wages, but that is something I’ve had the opportunity to do now.
Growing up, I always loved to read. I have many fond memories of filling up logs for my local library’s summer reading program. Like many people, as I grew up, I found that I had less and less time to read. While worrying about having too much free time, I realized that I could use some of this time to read, so I bought a Kindle. Unfortunately, I didn’t use my new Kindle for about a year after arriving in Taigu, since I found upon arriving that our house had a bookshelf that was already fully stocked with books! (I’ve been using my Kindle a lot this year, though!).
This year, two other English teachers who like reading and I formed a book club. I’d never been in a book club before, although it was something I had always been interested in doing. It’s been a great experience getting to choose and discuss books together.
My friend Allie and I pose with some books during our winter vacation.
Hanging out with friends:
My first year here, I was very worried about making friends, and I spent a lot of my time trying as hard as I could to find friends. Eventually, I managed to make a few close friends. I mostly watch movies and go to KTV with my friends, but every so often we do something a little more interesting. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in Taigu include going strawberry picking, going to my first ever escape room, and hiking on a nearby mountain.
Some strawberries I picked with my friends this spring!
Some Final Thoughts:
The Shansi Fellowship (at least in Taigu) truly gives you a lot of free time. It’s really up to you what you make with it. It’s very easy to get sucked into feeling like you’re doing nothing with your life and just wasting away- if I’m being honest, I feel that way sometimes. It’s also easy to get overwhelmed by the differences between what other people think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing on a daily basis. For example, my friends, both here and in the U.S., often make comments about how my life must be so cool and interesting, since I’m getting to live in a foreign country in my early 20s. When I’m feeling like I’m doing nothing, it’s easy to feel disappointed or like I’m wasting my time here. That being said, there is a whole world of possibilities here. Taigu is a small town, but there are still plenty of things to do. One of my biggest regrets for my time here is that I feel like I too often turned down opportunities because I was worried that they wouldn’t turn out well. In reality, most of the things that I have decided to try have turned out great!
I think that, coming out of college, I didn’t really know what I liked to do. This made it difficult to think about what I wanted to do with so much unstructured time. If I had to give one piece of advice to people coming into this fellowship in the future, I would say: think about your goals and what you want to achieve, then work towards those goals. When else will you have two whole years to work on whatever you want?