When I first arrived in Beijing, my talent in Chinese was about the same as Kim Kardashian’s talent in anything (aka it was non-existent). It was a painful experience.
On my first day, I set out from my apartment to go get some snacks from 7-11. I left at 11am and expected to get back in around 20 minutes. I returned home at 6pm.
Our apartment building was identical to the rest in the local area, and navigating amongst the maze of hutongs was impossible for someone who didn’t know the area. After walking around for 2 hours, I was finally able to find one person that spoke broken English to help guide me home. Unfortunately, she had no idea where my apartment was, so I called my flatmate who told me to wait 4 hours until he got off work and he’d pick me up. A fantastic start, no?
My next few days were just as unsuccessful. Traumatized by my previous ‘adventure’, I decided to stay in my apartment until it was absolutely necessary for me to leave. I spent the next two days inside, rationing the two packets of crisps and four apples that I had bought at 7-11 (I also stole half a packet of my roommates Kellogg’s moons and stars cereal – sorry Max, I would have certainly starved to death otherwise).
On the fourth day however, I had my first class. Once again, I had to enter the jungle of Beijing with zero Chinese. I gave myself an hour and half head start before I would normally leave, because I wanted to prepare so that I couldn’t possibly be late. I was still two hours late. Google maps doesn’t work with Chinese addresses and I’m such a stubborn Google elitist that I refused to use Apple Maps (spits on the floor in disgust) so I was very much screwed. After wondering around for an hour in the complete wrong direction, I stumbled across a taxi whose driver was in a toilet next door. For 15 minutes I waited for him to come out of the toilet only to be rejected by him saying: “no English, no go” after I pleaded for him to take me to my school. I doubted that he spoke any Welsh (the only other language I had any experience with – three lessons in high school to be precise), so I decided to move on. What must have been ten decades later, I found my school (only because I showed passer-byers a picture of my school and they pointed in a general direction).
What studying Chinese is really like
This is what you can expect your experience to be like in China if you decide not to learn any Chinese at all. However, if instead you have a brain and do decide to learn Chinese, you’ll have more fun than a cocaine addict in an unguarded DEA warehouse.
After, ten months of studying with Hutong School, I have recently begun preparing for my HSK 5 exam (the highest recognised level of Chinese proficiency in Europe – so as you’d imagine I’m sort of a small-time celebrity in Beijing). The once naïve and illiterate Dave has become the gāo fù shuài大伟 (my name in Chinese – it fittingly translates to great power).
My non-Chinese friends are now reliant on me anytime we go out as they find it impossible to communicate with taxi drivers, waiters, bar staff and bouncers. So, it doesn’t matter how humorless and uninteresting you are, if you learn Chinese, your friends will have to keep you around.
For all my nerds out there who prefer a book to a social life, I also began reading one of the most popular contemporary Chinese authors, Yu Hua in his native Mandarin. If you study enough (which I’m sure you will because you’re a nerd), you can look forward to similar results!
For all my fellow Don Juans out there, my Tinder has been on fire too. After adding a short Chinese sentence in my bio, my matches per month has doubled! I now get two! I doubt your tinder pictures are as enticing as mine though, I don’t care how good your Chinese is, so don’t expect similar results.
To add to my success, I went to the fake market last week (for fun, not to buy – I swear my Purple Label Ralph Lauren cashmere sweater is 100% real) and had a great time. Marriages and relationships were broken up before my eyes because husbands and wives would spend half of their partners’ life savings on fake Gucci jeans. Amongst this chaos, the shop owners and I would cackle and gossip in Chinese about these customers and their foolishness. From time to time, the store owners would praise me for having the decency to learn some of their language, unlike so many foreigners that come to China. For them it was a sign of respect to their country and culture. It delighted them, and as a result they offered me far greater ‘discounts’ than they did to the other customers (which of course, I didn’t take up, because I don’t wear fake clothes… seriously, I swear).
Learning Chinese whilst in China is necessary if you want the best possible experience. If my story hasn’t convinced you to do so, then imagine this:
You’re in a restaurant with someone you’re trying to impress. Last night you ate an extremely spicy Sichuan hotpot (which you were somewhat doubtful about whether those shrimp balls were in fact, truly made of shrimp). Suddenly, world war three erupts in your stomach! It’s necessary that you find a toilet within a minute. You can’t find it. 30 seconds. You find a waiter… but they don’t speak English. What now?
David Murray is currently a Hutong Student doing the Intensive Chinese Language course in Beijng.