I went to China with little expectations. Back in 2009 in Beijing, I got a pleasant surprise. I thought I’d be able to talk… at least a bit. Come on! But alas my use of Chinese was limited to spotting characters and using single words to communicate. A phrasebook could have had a better conversation than I did. So this time around I set myself with little expectations and a desire to use every opportunity to learn. Boy, was I surprised.

I could actually talk! It was like a validation of my years of learning Chinese. Needless to say, at times it was difficult and there were some gaps in my vocabulary, but I just told myself, now or never. Even if I don’t understand everything clearly, just roll with it. Get those pragmatic language skills working to make up for the lack of experience in speaking. I have to admit, one massive help was my Hanping Chinese Dictionary app.

Some stories

In Shanghai, most of my time was spent on sightseeing and being a tourist, but I remember the first morning walking to a metro station, stopping by a small cafe for a bottle of water. Besides checking in and being exhausted from flying, this was my first test of Chinese. Two minutes later I had a water in my hand, beaming, because I did all that just in Chinese. Yes. Yes. For most of the readers, this seems like non-point. An average every day occurrence. But for me, who don’t have these opportunities, this was the start of big confidence booster and a very interesting journey with Chinese.

Later in the Hostel I sat and chilled in the lounge and heard one of the owners playing a beautiful Chinese song on guitar. I immediately told him it sounded great and asked the name of the song. He showed me his guitar tab book with the name. Just I was about to write it down, he said he had it on his phone. He sent it to me via bluetooth. The song’s name was called 陌生人, which means stranger. I noticed 陌生人 three more times written on TV and across China. Now I’ll never forget this word. Immersion is so easy! :)

Booking Hotels & Renting Apartments

I never spoke English to Chinese people. If I couldn’t say what I wanted, I forced myself to try and explain. If my vocabulary failed me. I quickly pulled out my dictionary app. In Xiamen, I did not even have the opportunity to switch over to English, because frankly, it is far less pervasive than in Shanghai. I remember landing in Xiamen, heading straight to a hotel to book a room for two nights. To my surprise (I don’t even know why? I should have expected this), they couldn’t talk ANY English. I booked my room for two nights, I even went to check out the room before taking it, all in Chinese. I did however stumble a bit when they told about the free breakfast. They kept saying times, but I had no idea why. After some negotiation, I realized it was breakfast. My girlfriend somehow helped me on this too, ‘cause they said the breakfast was “送”, but I haven’t encountered this before. She said it was free. Like complimentary in a sense. She was right. In shops I often saw this: “买一送一” which means, buy one get one free!

The day after that I went in search for an apartment building to rent a short-term apartment. It was cheaper and more convenient (girlfriend could sleep over, had a fridge and a better view!). I did some research before I went to Xiamen and knew where to look. I found the offices, but I had no idea what to expect. I entered the lobby of the building asking the security personnel sitting behind the frontdesk how to get to the offices. They looked at me funny. I thought my Chinese was clear. After some talking and stumbling, I realized the frontdesk WAS the office. Had a chuckle. But I couldn’t manage to book a room just yet, because it was too late in the day. I came back the morning to book a room. Then it hit me: I totally just rented an apartment all in Chinese. At first they couldn’t understand why I would want to rent an apartment (guess they don’t get many foreigners there), but I signed the contract and paid my deposit and got the key. Yay!

I did read the contract (only in Chinese) first thing I put down my bags though. Just to make sure I didn’t get screwed… even if I was, I already signed, but at least I could prepare myself.

A Visit to the Barber

A few days later my girlfriend and some of her classmates decided to go for a haircut, Chinese style. I tagged along. In the end I got a haircut in typical androgynous Chinese boy band style. However, before we went I tried to look up words to use. Some like catalogue (编目) for example. I’d have no chance to explain the intricacies of a haircut and specialized vocab, but pictures always help. My girlfriend opted for big cut with straightening and everything. My cut was quick, but I ended chilling with the hairdressers, about 10 guys while my girlfriend got her cut. Throughout that time, about two hours, Chinese was spoken, from politics to clubs in Xiamen to even learning the hairdresser some English words. I laughed and joked around with them. I truly felt like being on top the conversations most of the time. Once again, my dictionary app worked overtime!

The Flight Home

One last story.

One the way back from Shanghai to South Africa. I took the metro to Pudong Airport. An old man and what looked like her daughter sat across from me on the train most of the way. I stopped over in Kuala Lumpur for a few hours. When I boarded the plane from KL to Cape Town, lo and behold, I sat next to them on the plane. The odds of course astonishing. They also realized it and I could see they recognized me too. Most of the flight I tried to sleep. Close to the end of the flight I filled in a departure card. They didn’t seem to get any the first time around. They asked me to interpret for them talking to the air hostess to get them cards as well. When the cards came I realized it had no Chinese on it. I helped them fill out the forms translating/interpreting as we went along. It was very interesting experience and one of the first times I actually acted as a connection between Chinese & English. It was a great moment & I realized just how good my Chinese has become and how useful it is. I loved it! I talked to them a bit more. The old man is visiting his son and the girl, who was in fact his niece, was also tagging along.

In the end. I was very impressed with my Chinese. I still probably won’t hold up to many expats or people living in China, who learned to speak a lot quicker and sooner than I did, but I feel a lot more comfortable now. However, no need to slack now though!

I’ve got some interesting posts on specific Chinese I picked up while travelling, coming soon. Hopefully this week!