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If anyone is qualified to recommend the best way to learn Chinese, I am. I moved to Shanghai in late 2009 to start a course (from complete scratch) with MandarinHouse.com. I spent 3-4 months there, had a great time, met some fantastic people, but my Chinese was appalling. Now, I chose the course partly because it had a high rank on Google and partly because of the misplaced advice given by a family friend who suggested that I should choose a school which is a member of the ‘International Association of Language Centres’. As a result of the high Google ranking and the prestigious awards and associations it belongs to, it was inevitably expensive. The price of the course, combined with the price of living in Shanghai, ate up most of savings rather quickly. A clue to who the courses were intended for was given by some of my fellow students, which included a Microsoft millionaire, a Californian state attorney, a retired gynaecologist and lots of students with wealth fathers. The other students were very friendly but had a slightly different financial background! In addition to the expense of the course, the other main problem was that it was focused on learning pinyin: it was largely a course targeted at businessman who wished to learn how to converse with colleagues. My interest was to learn characters as well. Finally, another reason why my Chinese didn’t progress was because my circle of friends consisted solely of people from the course or other expats – not a single Chinese.

I decided that I needed to try something completely different if I were to make progress in the language. A friend of mine recommended that I study at a university, so I applied to Dalian University of Technology to start a Chinese Language course. [Why Dalian? Because the north of the country was meant to be good as the dialect is more standard. In addition, it was cooler than Ha’erbin, which was one of the other options available. Unfortunately, I had to take an entry level test when I got to the University. As the test was in Chinese and I had not yet had a chance to learn characters, my first 4 -5 months was wasted as I had to start from Chinese 101 again!

 

Fresh goat meat outside DUT

 

I spent a year at the University of Dalian and made some good progress. However, my downfall was that I still spent most of my time with the international students on my course. My reading and writing had improved somewhat but my oral Chinese still had a long way to go. After 1 year, my funds had dried up so I had no choice but to find some sort of work if I didn’t want to return home with my tail between my legs, having failed at my ambition. Fortunately, I managed to find a job teaching English, which was not only well paid (compared to the standard of living) but also only part-time, which give me ample time to work on my Chinese.

Whilst working part time, I studied at a private school which aimed itself at Japanese students. I haven’t posted a link, partly because the bloody website is impossible to find, partly because they ignored my numerous request for paperwork, which gets them a black mark! I chose the school largely because the price was the most competitive and the main focus for me was on conversation, as I could already speak a basic level of Chinese. All the courses were one-to-one and they were charging about 45 RMB an hour at the time.

I travelled extensively around China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Xi’an, Shandong, Ha’erbin and others.This was a good way to practice the Chinese I had learnt. In fact, I would recommend taking local public transport as a great way to practice: I had a long conversation with a local on the 10-hour bus trip to Jiuzhaigou, who was delighted that the foreigner he sat next to could speak some Chinese!

I have recently moved to Lyon in France. Whilst perhaps not the most obvious place to practice Chinese, I have enrolled on a Master’s in translation using Chinese, French and English.

Whilst my level of Chinese is not as good as it should be considering the time I spent in China (you can see my level of Chinese on italki.com) it is passable for now. My main problem was finding Chinese friends to meet with to practice my Chinese. Had I managed to do this, my Chinese would have been a lot better.

 To sum up: My best advice would be to learn Chinese at a university – ideally one where there are few foreigners. If possible, try and stay in the Chinese dormitory on campus (it won’t be as nice as the foreign block but your Chinese will benefit enormously); alternatively, think about a Chinese homestay.

For advice on practicing your language, take advice from the expert at Fluent in 3 months.

 

 

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Before we arrive somewhere new, we always have an impression in our mind of what the place is going to be like. [Take for example, this recent article on the situation in Greece: our expectation is one of a country covered by riots]. Not once have I arrived somewhere and found it to be as I expected. My experience with China has been no different.

 

Most of the news I heard about China whilst back in the UK was regarding its incredible economic growth and its enormous population. The impression was one of a new world superpower in the making, determined to eclipse the US as the largest economy and to restore itself to its former glory.

Other than what was read in the press, you’d have had to have been stupid not to have noticed how many products used in our day to day life were made in China. You could pick up almost any object and it would have the inevitable ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom.

 

Exhibitions such as the Terracotta Warriors in London and the (false) claim that ‘the Great Wall of China is the only manmade object visible from space’ emphasised the country’s long history.

Chinese films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee or House of Flying Daggers by Zhang Yi Mou demonstrated the countries renowned martial arts skills and also gave us a glimpse at China’s history through its use of clothes, hairstyles and architecture from China’s past.

I had little to no knowledge of China’s history prior to arrival. The only knowledge I had was picked up from other people’s ideas and views, which were usually related to the atrocities of General Mao, human rights problems and the lack of democracy and freedom. Probe a little deeper and you would find that most people are actually fairly ignorant on China’s history and that they only have a fleeting understanding of China’s past – but they know enough to form an opinion, however inaccurate it may be.

 

Speaking to those in my parents’ generation, they often had the impression that the Chinese people are all small (similar in stature to more southern countries such as Thailand and Malaysia). There is also the perception that the Chinese will eat everything – including dog, cat, tortoises etc – which many people find repulsive and inhuman.

So, how accurate did my initial perceptions of China turn out to be?

On the economic growth side, the evidence can be seen by the number of new buildings being erected all over Dalian (the place where I lived for the good part of two years). What one year ago was an empty plot now contains a new apartment block. My flat overlooked an enormous development site, a complex of about eight apartment blocks surrounding a shopping plaza. The construction work goes on 24 hours a day. Besides new buildings, an underground system is also currently being built – the explosions at four o’clock in the morning testify to this fact.

On the surface development is happening at an astounding rate. However, beneath the surface things are not always as they seem. Due to the speed at which buildings get constructed, the quality tends to suffer. Buildings constructed over ten years ago are considered old. The interior walls are full of cracks, the skirting boards are falling off and plug sockets hang off walls. If you live on the uppermost floor (as I once did) you may find that the roof hasn’t been constructed too well, so that it leaks after rain – requiring buckets to collect the water and the soggy lumps of plaster that fall from the ceiling. I have spoken to a number of Chinese who said they won’t be using the underground system once it’s completed as they don’t think it’s safe. [In fact, it is the construction sector of the economy that is keeping much of China ticking – providing new jobs and economic growth].

In addition, many graduates are finding it difficult to get jobs. As the jobs become scarce, the competition gets greater and greater, meaning that many students choose to stay on at university for as long as possible in order to gain an advantage in the job market. I met a large number of students who had opted to complete a Master’s and even a PhD after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree. The target for many is to work for the CCP (China Communist Party), mainly because of the future prospects it offers.

I was expecting to find lots of winding alleyways, old buildings and courtyards as depicted in films. Alas, besides places such as the hutongs (which are rapidly being destroyed) in Beijing and other small preserved sections in some of the older cities, most of the architecture has been disappointing. Most of the cities I have been to have block after block of the same old ugly concrete apartment blocks, similar to the kind that were popular back in the 60s and 70s in the UK. I also saw a lot of what one might call a Stalinistic style of architecture – great big imposing rectangular structures made out of concrete – not a good look.

On a plus side, the new developments I have seen are now starting to incorporate a little more design into their style – in a few years the cities should start to feel more welcoming.

Regarding history, the ‘Mao’s a bad guy’ idea is really very simplistic. And wrong. True he made some bad decisions which resulted in the death of millions of Chinese through starvation but this was not a purposeful massacre. The goal was to build China into a great country again. It was very nearly torn apart by internal disagreements and by foreign influence – especially the Japanese domination in World War II. The older generation often talk about the hardships that they lived through under Mao. However, it seems that it’s the younger generation who have benefited from the sacrifices – many of the elderly still live in relative poverty.

Worthy of note is that many of our beliefs about the Chinese have stemmed from those that live in our country. However, the overwhelming majority of those who have set up Chinese restaurants or have spawned Chinese communities such as Chinatown were originally from Guangdong province (originally Canton) in the South of China. It is here that people are generally shorter in stature, are renowned for the wide range of cuisine and speak Cantonese which sounds very different to Mandarin Chinese. In the north of China people are generally much taller than in the South but every large city now has people from all over the country so the population is much more mixed.

Finally, although most of the culture was wiped away during the Cultural Revolution, there are still traces left to find. One of the most common sites in China is the dancing and Tai Chi sessions that take place (largely amongst the older generations) in the public parks. There are also a number of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries that have been preserved outside the main cities. Traditional Chinese medicine is still incredibly popular, although perhaps less so amongst the younger generations. I also find the obsession with white skin rather amusing: people will carry an umbrella when it’s sunny, cover themselves with ‘whitening’ cream and even don Doctor Who/Star Trek style costumes (enough to give anyone a fright!) to fend off the sun’s rays!

Further articles:

China’s cuisine

China emigration

China’s economy

What’s made in China?

Famous tourist sites

Chinese Films

General Mao

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