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Learning Mandarin Chinese in China

Living, Communicating and Growing in a New Country and Culture

Bike trip in Northern China
Bike trip in Northern China.

Overcoming barriers, completing goals, and doing something you never thought possible are all results of hard work and dedication—and always worth the struggle. Learning Mandarin while teaching English in China was far from easy, but in the end I learned both about an ancient civilization and myself, made life-long friends, and experienced places even most Chinese people are unable to 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 so many of us aspiring and adventurous explorers) about the challenges that lay ahead, I sat on the plane to Shanghai one September day in 2007. As I left the arrivals gate nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. Everything around me appeared similar to the Vancouver airport, from which I had embarked only eight short hours earlier. Then I noticed a squat man with small black eyes holding a sign with my name. Walking up to him grinning, I 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 which sounded like a joke, and drove away. The apartment building seemed deserted. My life’s possessions in both hands, I stood shocked and terrified. There was nothing in the job description telling me how to do something as essential as buying water without knowing the Chinese word for it, let alone if I wanted to buy groceries or get to the train station. Like a helpless infant, I began to cry. This was my first memory of China.

Dealing with Culture Shock in China

Aside from the obvious 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 out walking and I saw a dog on a leash, barking, while its owner was yelling at it in reply. As I watched the scene I thought, Wow, even that dog understands more Chinese than I do! I knew in that moment I had to do something.

I began by dedicating the first five minutes and the last five minutes of each of my classes to asking my students how to say things, and then practicing the new sentences out loud. This 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, each night in my lonely apartment I scoured online resources 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 being frightening places, to opportunities to learn. Taxis were a particular favorite, since the driver is essentially forced to talk to you until the entire journey is over. One of my preferred activities was to make people laugh. As my listening skills improved, I was quickly able to use some of the sayings my students had taught me as well as 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, had brought my Lonely Planet Phrasebook, and had 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 entire shop stopped to stare at me. I saw myself in the mirror. Along with everyone else I stood, shocked. Even I had begun to think I look 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 up high, and yelled, looking around. Some of the workers laughed, others looked down, embarrassed. No one understood what I was saying, nor were they able to 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 just do not do in my country, while leading me to my seat. I worried that he just asked me how to cut my hair, but then 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, hair intact. But it took me months before building back up the courage to return.

What made learning Putonghua (Chinese) easy (though do not get me wrong, it was very convoluted) 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 come 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 nice smile and encouraging word were always the responses from my conversation partners.

The first language tools I used were numbers and words for food. From there—and armed with the phrases my students had taught me—I began to build sentences on my own. 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 was able to get my point across.

The intonations in Mandarin Chinese are often the most difficult for foreigners to grasp at the beginning of the learning process. Of the visitors who did come to see me from back home, most 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, without knowing the context or vocabulary, it could very well sound like someone is angry. The effect was also augmented by a trick of mine, which was to raise my voice a bit, sometimes to even yell, like the old men on cell phones in the subway.

What drove me were two things: fear and strength, in equal parts. By the end of the first year 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), and 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 actually 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

In 2008 I changed schools as well as cities, 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. This is due in large part to the city’s own dialect, which is as similar as Swedish is to Arabic—in other words not similar at all. To make matters worse, many of the locals did not speak Putonghua whatsoever. 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 on my second year, I experienced true 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.” This was in large part because I had begun 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, but it was equally electrifying: A 5,000-year-old puzzle, unveiling an ancient civilization and philosophy through brush strokes. As I learned each individual character, and wrote them out in the correct stroke order hundreds of times, both the history and odd behaviors I had become accustomed to slowly begun 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 was able to read the sign out front, I found it to be a store that sells shoes made of leather from pig skin, using a special skill from an adjacent province. Additionally, on my daily run to the park in the mornings, 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.

Even with all of the practice and lessons, I still more often than not felt like a child during that second year. This was due not only to my inability to communicate properly 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 on, 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 to me. The driver, astonished began bouncing in his seat, berating me with questions. Before I replied, I began with one of my favorite statements, "Not all foreigners are unable to speak Chinese, you know."

Chinese people say that the best way to learn English is to get an English partner. Though there are also ulterior motives (money), it is true that being with someone who speaks a foreign language will help you improve yours. The first boyfriend I had in China was named “The Bank Guy,” and he mainly just 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 every time I spoke in his language. The next language-partner-come-dinner-partner-come-boyfriend was Chandler. He encouraged me, rarely corrected me in public, 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. Things like their quarto-syllabic-idioms, the impact of Confucianism and Communism, Chinese relationships and guanxi, and the effects of the one child policy on our generation.

A Move to Beijing

After the 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 ever worked, and many of them had never traveled outside of 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 had learned “real world” Mandarin as opposed to “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 I had fun doing it. I might not have been capable of using words like “pristine” or “legislation” like my classmates, but neither does the majority of the people you are speaking to on a day-to-day basis. My philosophy has always been, if you are not going to use it, what is the point of learning it? In addition, being back in school full-time forced me to study Chinese characters more diligently, so much so that at the end of the year I was writing letters to friends by hand and reading the newspaper. My Mandarin was officially at a higher level than over half of the Chinese population.

Aside from the obvious gain of having leaned another language, my experiences in China also taught me the acceptance of differences in political, and moral beliefs, revised definitions of my own 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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