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Learning Mandarin Chinese in China

Living, Communicating and Growing in a New Country and Culture

On bike trip in Northern China.
Bike trip in Northern China.

Overcoming barriers, completing goals, and doing something you never thought possible result from hard work and dedication — and always worth the struggle. Learning Mandarin while teaching English in China was far from easy. Still, in the end, I learned about an ancient civilization and myself, made life-long friends, and experienced places even most Chinese people cannot see. I not only survived, but I thrived in a new environment. To peel away the layers of a country's culture and customs through learning their language is a grueling task and a boundless gift.

Naive (like many aspiring and adventurous explorers) about the challenges ahead, I sat on the plane to Shanghai one September day. As I left the arrivals gate, nothing seemed too unusual. Everything around me appeared similar to the Vancouver airport, where I had embarked only eight hours earlier. Then I noticed a squat man with small black eyes holding a sign with my name. Grinning, I approached him and exclaimed, "That's me!" He looked at me blankly. We arranged my luggage in silence.

Arriving in Suzhou, the small man emptied my things from the trunk, gave me a key, said something that sounded like a joke and drove away. The apartment building seemed deserted. My life's possessions in both hands, I stood shocked and terrified. I needed to know the Chinese words in the job description to tell me how to do something as essential as buying water and if I wanted to buy groceries or get to the train station. Like a helpless infant, I began to cry. The episode was my first memory of China.

Dealing with Culture Shock in China

Aside from the noticeable cultural and environmental differences, what struck me during that first week in China was that seemingly no one spoke English. Suzhou is a city of nine million people, only one hundred kilometers from Shanghai. I very quickly discovered that not all societies learn English. Furthermore, I immediately realized I had two choices: put my adult pants on and start learning — and fast — or run back home, tail between my legs. One day in my second week, I was walking and saw a dog on a leash barking while its owner was yelling at it. As I watched the scene, I thought, Wow, even that dog understands more Chinese than I do! I knew at that moment I had to do something.

I began by dedicating the first and last five minutes of each class to asking my students how to say things and then practicing the new sentences out loud. The approach usually involved a lot of screaming, laughter, and blushing. "I am from Canada," "I am a teacher," "Where are the toilets?" "Hi, you're cute, what's your name?" Furthermore, I scoured online resources each night in my lonely apartment and downloaded mp3 "songs," which I then listened to ritualistically on my morning runs. Every chance I had, I sat, staring at the notebook where I wrote in "Chinglish," using my letters to make their sounds. I repeated everything I learned hundreds of times. I started to explore being sassy and witty in another language. I learned to say: "Not all foreigners are dumb Americans, you know!"

After the first few months of culture shock had begun to fade, night markets, Starbucks, and "my" local nail salon went from frightening places to learning opportunities. Taxis were a favorite since the driver was forced to talk to you until the entire journey ended. One of my preferred activities was to make people laugh. As my listening skills improved, I could quickly use some of the sayings my students had taught me and the odd local joke on my unsuspecting audience.

Learning the Chinese Language One Step at a Time

But it was inexplicably frightening sometimes, being unable to read, understand, or communicate in a land far from home. One such example took place during my first visit to a hair salon in China. I had been in the habit of having a local colleague write things out for me in Chinese, trying to minimize the unavoidable event that I would pronounce the tones wrong, thereby changing a sentence from "I want that" to "My medicine is where?" I felt confident and prepared. I had a neatly written note to the hairdresser, brought my Lonely Planet Phrasebook, and practiced several key hairdressing-related phrases that day on my students, colleagues, and in front of my bathroom mirror.

When I finally arrived, everyone in the shop stopped staring at me. I saw myself in the mirror. Along with everyone else, I stood, shocked. Even I had begun to think I looked strange in China.

Nihao,” I said, trying to break the ice.

They all remained silent.

Nihao!” someone replied from the back.

As a short man came around the corner, I took a deep breath and using my two fingers, mimed “cut,” and said, “Jian tou fa yi dian dian” in exactly the way I had been practicing all day.

The man looked at me quizzically, and I smiled, poised with my backup plan, confidently handing him my pre-prepared note. He took the paper, held it up high, and yelled, looking around. Some of the workers laughed, others looked down, embarrassed. No one understood what I was saying, nor could they read the note. The scissors came out, and with my heart in my throat, I considered running.

"How?" replied the barely 15-year-old who came at me from the left, touching me in a way that people do not do in my country while leading me to my seat. I worried he just asked me how to cut my hair, but then I remembered Hao means something like "OK." Suddenly, I started crying (only the second time since having arrived), and without warning, I was flipped down into a chair and had my hair washed. In the end, I survived the ordeal, my hair intact. But it took me months before I built up the courage to return.

What made learning Putonghua (Chinese) easy (though do not get me wrong, it could have been clearer) were the people. Chinese people often ask for your photo or autograph. On a good day, they will often yell and scream for everyone to look at the tall laowai (old whitey). When you speak, even if your grammar or intonation is not perfect, they hail you as a hero. No matter how frustrated I became with myself, a pleasant smile and encouraging words were always the responses from my conversation partners.

The first language tools I used were numbers and words for food. From there — armed with the phrases my students had taught me — I began to build sentences independently. I measured my progress using age rather than grades. By the fifth month, I was about 3-years-old. I did not know local manners and could not understand words adults should know, but I got my point across.

The intonations in Mandarin Chinese are often the most difficult for foreigners to grasp at the beginning of the learning process. Most of the visitors who came to see me from back home expressed their worries that I was constantly angry, and this perception was quite understandable. The fourth tone in Mandarin is called a "descending" tone and occurs in about 20% of syllables. Understandably, it could sound like someone is angry without knowing the context or vocabulary. I intensified the effect through a trick of mine: to raise my voice a bit, sometimes even yell, like the older adults on cell phones in the subway.

What drove me was fear and strength, in equal parts. By the end of the first year, my experiences in stores, on the street, and through night markets also became much less horrifying to me. Learning the local language brought freedom, and freedom to me meant travel. From Nanjing (Japanese war) to Xi'an (Terracotta Warriors), Hangzhou (silk), Lijiang (Tiger Leaping Gorge), Beijing (Great Wall), and Shanghai (Pudong), I tried exploring a new province each month and improved my Chinese in so doing. During my seventh month, my parents came for a visit, and it was with them that I realized how much Chinese I had learned already. I felt like a Big Girl and graduated to being a 5-year-old.

Continuing to Grow: A New School in a New City

I changed schools and cities the following year and moved to one of China's four furnaces. Wuhan is approximately the same size as Suzhou, with about half the charm and twice the challenges. The difference is primarily due to the city's dialect, which is as similar to Swedish as Arabic — in other words, not similar at all. To make matters worse, many locals did not speak Putonghua. However, after work every day I received one-on-one lessons for one hour and began making local friends.

As my language skills improved and I jumped from a 5 to a 6-year-old in the first half of my second year, I experienced genuine Chinese hospitality, made friends who treated me better than family, and learned even more about the history and culture of the country I had begun to call "Home." The change was in large part because I had started to learn Hanzi (Chinese characters)

Learning to read and write in Hanzi was almost as terrifying as arriving in the country in the first place. Still, it was equally electrifying: A 5,000-year-old puzzle, unveiling an ancient civilization and philosophy through brush strokes. As I learned each character and wrote them out in the correct stroke order hundreds of times, the history and odd behaviors I had become accustomed to slowly began to have meaning. Learning to read allowed me to understand my environment in ways that had previously been inaccessible to me. For example, a store that sells shoes is no longer just a shoe store. Now that I could read the sign out front, I found it to be a store that sells shoes made of leather from pig skin, using a particular skill from an adjacent province. Additionally, on my daily morning run to the park, I realized for the first time that the park is dedicated to the People's Republic Army. Reading began to add another dimension to my experience, and I felt as if I had been blessed with a sixth sense.

Despite all of the practice and lessons, I still felt like a child more often than not during that second year. The feeling was due not only to my inability to communicate correctly but also because I still could not read or write all that much. However, as I persevered, people motivated me. One of my favorite stories occurred at Emei Shan, one of China's four sacred mountains. While on the bus, I listened to the driver talking about me for almost half an hour. At our next stop, another laowai (foreigner) asked him for directions in perfect Putonghua. The driver was shocked, and after giving the foreigner directions and continuing, he looked back at me and asked no one in particular where the other foreigner was from. I finally could not resist and explained that I did not know for sure but that he looked Scandinavian. The driver astonished, began bouncing in his seat, berating me with questions. Before I replied, I started with one of my favorite statements, "Not all foreigners are unable to speak Chinese, you know."

Chinese people say that getting an English partner is the best way to learn English. Though there are ulterior motives (money), being with someone who speaks a foreign language will help you improve yours. My first boyfriend in China was named "The Bank Guy," he mainly loved how everyone looked at him when we walked down the street together. "The Bank Guy" took me out for dinner, helped me with my homework, and giggled whenever I spoke his language. The following language partner-come-dinner-partner-come-boyfriend was Chandler. He encouraged, rarely corrected me publicly, and was always up for a good laugh. Together, we traveled to Fuzhou, Xiamen Xi'an, and Guangzhou. We pondered the differences between our cultures, and he taught me endless things about the Chinese and China. We discussed subjects such as their quarto-syllabic idioms, the impact of Confucianism and Communism, Chinese relationships and guanxi, and the one-child policy's effects on our generation.

A Move to Beijing

After two years of trying to balance work with what has quickly become my passion, I made the great leap to Beijing in order to study Mandarin full-time at Beijing Language and Culture University (Editor's Note: Now the best option for many may be online due to the 2020-202x pandemic). It was interesting being in school full-time again at the age of 29. My classmates were all young, wide-eyed Koreans and Indonesians, most of whom had Chinese parents or had been studying Chinese since childhood. None of them had worked, and many had never traveled outside Beijing. Their grammar, writing, and lexicon all surpassed my own. But in a pinch, I could out-speak and out-comprehend any of them. In my first two years in China, I learned "real world" Mandarin instead of "book" Mandarin and felt at an advantage because of it. I used slang unknowingly, which my teachers found adorable. I spoke like a boy (since most of my teachers had been male friends and boyfriends), and what mattered most was that I had fun doing it. I might not have been capable of using words like "pristine" or "legislation" like my classmates, but neither do most of the people you speak to on a day-to-day basis. My philosophy has always been, what is the point of learning if you are not going to use it? In addition, being back in school full-time forced me to study Chinese characters more diligently, so much so that I was writing letters to friends by hand and reading the newspaper at the end of the year. My Mandarin was officially higher than over half of the Chinese population.

Aside from the apparent gain of learning another language, my experiences in China taught me to accept differences in political and moral beliefs and revised definitions of my values, including feminism, idealism, privileges, family, perception, happiness, and success. It was a gift to tackle China and Mandarin — a gift that will never cease to keep giving.

Related Topics
Studying Chinese in China: Articles and Resources
Living in China: Articles and Expatriate Resources

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