I was fortunate to be one lucky few who went to Renmin Daxue International Summer School in June/July 2009. We went as a group of 15 from our class to explore one the busiest cities in the world, and get to know this culture we're learning about. It was the best trips I've had in my life, and I've made lifelong friends because of it. However, in terms of my Mandarin abilities, this was just after I finished one year and about 5 months of studying, and it was not nearly enough to get me by. My vocabulary was just to little and sentence constructions non-existent. I struggled immensely.
One of the worst miscommunications happened when the lock on my dorm room broke. We stayed in the International Study dorms, so I went down to the reception to ask for help. There were older woman and one younger one. I brought my card (which opens the door) and helplessly started trying to convey that my lock broke. The more I gestured, the more I said "不明白" 'cause I just can't understand what they are saying. After a few minutes of nothing the younger girl came up with me to my room to see what's wrong. Another 5 minutes of my trying to convey that my door lock is broken. I couldn't get in. So, I looked like an idiot in a Charlie Chaplin film trying to show locked door behaviors. The girl responded, and I just said "对不起，我听不懂". Luckily in the end she grasped what I meant. She took my card and brought me a new one. That was surely one of my most frustrating moments in communication ever.
However, it just motivated me so much more. I wish I could go back now a year later, 'cause I've improved so much! I could actually talk to the old woman manning the register in the small convenience downstairs. Three weeks in Beijing wasn't enough to improve my Chinese dramatically, but it did help with listening a lot. And wow... 儿化 is just insane. Especially on the bus from the ticket sellers.
Alas, I'm definitely going back to China in the future. If you want to read more of my trip to Beijing, I kept a log of my trip on my personal blog. The highlights include going to Lush Open Mics and partying all night to watch the flag raising on Tiananmen Square. What an eye opener to world of China. And I would like to recommend this blog post to any future LaoWai: How to Make the Most of your time in China