Real Experience of China in Foreigners Eyes

Choosing the location in China and other language learning methods
I chose to go to the Hebei province in the North of China, as this is where the most standard Mandarin is spoken. I realised that I had to work at either a University or a College. Working for a state institution means that the working hours are much less than a private run company. I have 12 hours of classes a week and over four months of holiday a year! For a dedicated language learner this is paradise. I can, and do, spend the majority of my free time learning Chinese.

The College I teach in is in the polluted industrial city of Shijiazhuang and only has one foreign teacher, me! This suits me; as for the 6 months I’ve been here I’ve not had to make friends with other English speakers. All my friends are Chinese. At times this has made me feel lonely and homesick. It’s not for everyone and it does take discipline but, I have resisted finding European friends as the rewards of learning the Chinese culture and language have more than made up for the lack of good English speakers.

The students are another resource I’ve made good use of. Most are only too willing to help as usually they get a chance to practice their English. I try to have a one-hour conversation with a student every day. Being in the dominant position I am able to determine the content of the lesson and I have found this sense of being in control of my language learning further increases the speed of learning. I also record the lessons and record new vocabulary onto my MP3 player (Pimsleur style).

As for materials: I started learning using Pimsleur and now use the Rosetta Stone software. Being in China I’ve also got access to a wealth of cheap language learning material. I’ve bought many excellent books to learn oral Chinese. Having a vast range of materials means I never get bored. I don’t try to memorize each book thoroughly. I find my language learning process has been much quicker when I come across a language point again is another book which triggers my previous memory.

Talking to taxi drivers, shopkeepers and others blissfully ignorant of English have only helped to speed up my communication skills. The one language-learning tool I’m missing is a girlfriend. However, though easy to find my morality has stopped me. Northern China’s morality seems similar to Britain’s in the 50’s. I’m 26 now and in my ‘comrade’s’ eyes I should get married soon. Dating is not usually casual like in the West and should lead to marriage. Considering I will leave this city this year marriage is not something I can even contemplate.

Fuel for my learning has come from the Chinese people who are some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have been the greatest motivation for my success in learning Chinese. The compliments are never ending to the extent that I must always keep a reality check on my ego. Indeed, the Chinese like modesty.

Before coming to China I could speak very little Chinese. I had completed half of Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese level 1. Now, after six months of living in China I can now get around without an interpreter and can have conversations. I’m far from fluent but my learning has been exponential and I hope with hard work that another six months will bring fluency in speech. I’ve recently met other Westerners here learning Chinese who are impressed at my standard. I’m no cleverer than them. My short-term success has been due to planning my trip to China and learning how to learn a language.

My advice to anyone wanting to learn Chinese is to come to China. Rather than paying for a substandard university course you can have a true immersion experience and get paid for your efforts. If you did want to go to University then fee’s (and living costs) here are cheap. For example, you could study Chinese for a year at any Chinese university for around $1500 – $1800

Chinese Culture
Living like a native I’ve had a chance to see China for real and this has helped me absorb Chinese culture. This is something I think would be impossible for many to learn without living in China. Here are some of my experiences.

When first eating in a restaurant in China I was shocked to see such delicacies as pigeon heads displayed in front of me. The Chinese will eat all the parts of an animal and are very fond of dinning. At meals the uninitiated can cause offence by sitting at the wrong place at the table; toasting another’s glass at the wrong height depending on seniority can also cause offence; not drinking enough alcohol at specific occasions is also a no, no.

The pitfalls are endless but the Chinese are forgiving to foreigners. When I first arrived I hugged a couple of female colleagues. I even put my arm around the female president of our college who is also a famous lawyer in China. When I think back now I cringe as touching in this manner is reserved for lovers.

On the other hand, those with homosexual tendencies casting a virgin eye on China might think they were in paradise. It’s not uncommon to see two women holding hands or sitting on each other’s laps, cuddling each other. Male friend will often place their hands on your thigh and even walk with their arm around your waist/bottom! My boss (a ladies man) even walked past me and slapped my bottom once, as a sign of affection! Believe me these displays of affection still take a little getting used to.

Some bad things about China
The negative cultural aspects of China for me are few but I should mention them. The Chinese don’t queue and often push their way onto public transport old and young must fight to get onto trains and busses, which as overcrowded.

The Chinese smoke everywhere (though not women). As a westerner it seems shocking to have someone light up a cigarette next to me in such mundane places as an Internet bar and let the smoke waft into my face without any care.

The Chinese spit on the streets all the time. Actually this doesn’t bother me. But, it might others.

The Chinese can’t drive. The Chinese government in their bid to increase car ownership have a very relaxed driving test. A taxi driver even let me drive his car once. I agreed then realised while driving I was not wearing my contact lenses. He kept insisting that I overtake vehicles at dangerous corners as a result I nearly hit a pedestrian. I even overcharged myself at the end of the journey.

In general the Chinese are very helpful. If you are carrying things friends will automatically want to help, such is their communal nature. They will help you do all manner of things that you never thought you needed help with before. Sometimes for an independent westerner this can seem intrusive.

Being asked awkward questions
Many westerners know that the Chinese upon first meeting you will ask how much you earn or what your job is. This may feel uncomfortable to some but the probing questions go much deeper.

The Chinese will often comment on your looks and will freely say if they think you’re fat, beautiful etc. When I ask the Chinese if they think their lovers are beautiful often they may say “no”! Students introducing themselves to me have in the past said such downright honest things such as “I love eating food so I’m fat”.

Depending on where you live in China you will have to cope with others seeing you naked. As a reserved English man I felt quiet shy at first. Many toilets even some modern ones will just be a number of holes in the middle of the room where you must squat for everyone to see.

The Northern Chinese will rarely go to a bar like westerners do. If they drink it’s at a meal. Perhaps much alcohol will be consumed. However, there is a ritual to drinking alcohol. People do not sip their drinks individually they must always toast others. This communal feeling creates a feeling of great solidarity. It seems the drunken Friday night fights you find in England are not seen in China.

The streets are always full of people playing! Playing Chinese Chess, or outdoor ball games. Not just the young but also the old. You can go to a park at night and it’s full of people some ballroom dancing, others dancing to disco music, some playing their instruments in the park other playing sports and of course there’s martial arts. The vibe is truly amazing. I explained to a Chinese friend of mine that, parks at night in England could be dangerous places inhabited by just the young. It seemed an alien concept to him.

All in all, the TEFL language learning method is a way to get immersed into a culture and furthermore get paid for your efforts. If you’re dedicated and efficient you’ll be able to learn your target language quickly. I know that when I do return to Europe I will always have friends in China and so people to practice Chinese with, and a reason to return to this great country.

From Keith

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