I have lived in Beijing for almost 2 years. One game-changer that I clearly remember during these months in China is the day that I was able to break the language barrier.
First of all, let me briefly introduce myself. Having lived in France, I decided to move to China when my former company offered me a good position at their office in Beijing. It all happened very quickly, and lot of people told me I was crazy since I had never been to China before, nor did I know how to say a single word in Mandarin. Panicking, I learnt ‘Nǐ hǎo’ and ‘Xièxiè’, but these were the only words I knew as I stepped on the plane from Paris to Beijing.
First months, first difficulties…
I was surprised to find that in Beijing, China’s capital city, only a minority of people can speak English. Some people had warned me about this before I moved to China, but I was not expecting that I would be unable to find hardly any English speakers.
After a few days in Beijing, I started to have a tough time. I found that I was struggling to do anything by myself and I always had to give someone a call to accomplish the most basic tasks: traveling around the city, ordering food, asking for directions on the street… My only way to move around Beijing was by taking the subway, since the stops’ names are written in English. Travel proved very difficult for me, as I was constantly afraid of taking the wrong bus or walking in the wrong direction.
But my struggles were not just limited to difficulties getting around… I’d rather not go into details about how many embarrassing hours I spent at the bank trying to open an account and get a credit card. Witnessing my desperation and obviously feeling sorry for me, the lady at the bank tried to use some broken English to me, but to no avail. Once again, I had to try again the next day, dragging my colleague and stand-in ‘translator’ with me.
I had similar, disheartening experiences when I tried looking for an apartment, or visited the Chinese Visa Office. I couldn’t even put a number on how many strange and uncomfortable situations that I faced during these first days in China. They happened so often that I quickly decided to put “Start to learn Chinese in Beijing” at the top of my to-do list!
I can’t think of any other foreigner who hasn’t had exactly the same trouble upon arriving in China. Newcomers always seem to struggle with managing their rent with their landlords, and almost all have had some kind of difficulty with Chinese administration.
I tried to start learning Chinese with my colleagues during my first few weeks at work. I learned some of the ‘survival Chinese’ basics but that was not really sufficient so I decided to join a Chinese school, equivalent to Hutong School. I was lucky enough to have classes with a personal teacher, twice a week for 2 hours.
I’ll be honest — it was pretty hard at the beginning; my teacher didn’t speak English, so I struggled to understand even basic instructions. I now laugh at this situation when I explain it to my friends but during the first few courses, it really was a huge challenge. If I really think about it, I think that learning Chinese is one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. It requires a lot of work – from intense concentration during the classes, to making the effort to do homework, even if you have a million other things you’d rather do. I had the good fortune to be in a great environment and my colleagues (who were all Chinese) helped me enormously during my training. I can clearly see large improvements now.
I am still not close to being fluent in Mandarin after more than one year of study, but I can confidently have conversations with local people. I can easily move around China (buy train or bus tickets) and am becoming more and more able to manage my administrative logistics on my own (bank, phone, electricity).
I also noticed that Chinese people’s attitude change when you start to use their native language. Firstly, they are rather surprised and want to know more about you. We are still ‘Laowai’ in their mind but they also respect and appreciate our interest in learning Chinese, and trying to fit in with their culture. Therefore, they respond with kindness and are a lot more likely to help you!
I don’t know if I will be able to become fluent in Chinese in the near future but I think that learning Mandarin is absolutely worth the effort for anyone coming to live in China. Moreover, Chinese is today the most spoken native language in the world, so the time that you spend studying it will definitely pay off – here or maybe even elsewhere in the world. You never know!
Guest post provided by Julien Giner, a French Man in Asia
Julien Giner is a French blogger who left his homeland to enjoy a new life with several adventures in China and around Asia.