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Obviously, learning the language has been one of my biggest challenges whilst I have been here. I think actually one of the hardest things about learning Chinese was maybe the resources that were available to me when I first started learning, they were mind –numbingly dull. Things definitely seemed to have changed in that respect and thank goodness. Gone are the days when the go-to for students was still the library and books published by respected (but not necessarily good) institutions. Basically books written by the Chinese elite who probably had a plethora of PHDs or professorships in linguistics, pedagogy or other clever-sounding buzzwords. No doubt, these books were written by the very intelligent people of the world but unfortunately, they also had no idea how to teach a language effectively. The materials were politically safe and usually quite boring. I remember doing a particularly tedious reading exam about the different kinds of Tofu available for instance.

I don’t think this is the case so much anymore, so don’t worry if your interest in Tofu doesn’t expand past fried or baked, as there has been an explosion of new materials that have surfaced primarily because of the joys of the internet. There are many resources available, some no doubt that I am yet to discover but I have really found these three resources to be user-friendly and making learning ten times easier and importantly, more fun.

  • Lessons online with the BBC
  • Reliable Chinese to English (or whichever other language) dictionary Bab.la with a useful phrasebook also.
  • Application called Anki which teaches you Mandarin the millennial way- via flashcards on your phone which you can do anywhere, including your commute to work.

Practising Chinese

Of course, after learning the basics, it was important for me to practice by chatting to as many people as was humanly possible in Mandarin. Although perhaps scary at first, I didn’t find this too difficult to do. In my experience, the Chinese are intensely curious about the outside world and relish the chance to speak to foreigners but are usually limited by either opportunity or language. For example, I really don’t feel I was often patronised because Mandarin Chinese is primarily a language of convenience- Most people don’t speak it as their first language and many Chinese people actually speak it very badly, meaning perhaps people are more patient when mistakes are made.

The hardest thing when it comes to converations, is of course, the total lack of cultural things we often have in common. At least with Italians we can talk about history or wine or football or sunbathing, but with the Chinese the cultural aspects are far fewer and farther between. Not many people have the capacity to chat for hours about the Three Kingdom Period or Chinese wedding traditions so there is a limited vocabulary that can even be translated in the first place. But it’s all part of the challenge. My tip is to keep conversation to stuff everyone can relate to like cats and food- perhaps not cats as food but I guess that could be food for thought also…no pun intended.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Language is of course only part of the challenge of moving abroad. You also have to get past the adaption process of an entirely new way of life and culture. I struggled with a few, and obvious things like being far from friends and family, but mainly my biggest integration issues came from 1) the difficulty in making real friends, and 2) pollution.

The making real friends aspect, partly could have been an issue due to linguistic reasons, it always takes a while to find yourself in any new language. However, it was also because I felt many people just wanted to be friends with a foreigner, any foreigner, because of either the face they gained from it or because they wanted to practice their English-perhaps an issue when moving to any new place? I guess all friendships are partly based on need, but I think the above motivations meant it was hard for friendships ever to get fully off the ground. It just meant that it was harder to find people who were that keen to open themselves up to me. One of my best friends I met in China was a guy I met in a gym and we became friends because he was open, interested and not really (initially at least) expecting much from me except my exceptional conversation skills. It could have been also that he intensely hated his home life and needed to get away…either way, a win/win for me.

The other thing that got me down at first was the very high rates of pollution. I am from Scotland, and I guess I was used to air looking and smelling different from how it does in Shenzhen. Annoying maybe, but that also, can’t really be helped.

The best part about living Chinese is the newfound freedom that I found there. You are pretty free to reinvent yourself with all the new doors that become open to you. Of course, in the long run you need to learn the local language and culture for this to be sustainable and to really gain from life there but that only drives you to learn faster, and so can only be a good thing.

Over all it has been a really positive experience so far and even after 7 years of learning Chinese, I can promise you, there is always something new and exciting to keep you on your toes.


Expat Blogs Living ChineseBen Swainson hails from the windy city of Edinburgh, Scotland. He moved to China to learn the language, live a completely different culture and integrate himself as much as possible. After 7 years living and working between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and despite some challenges along the way, Ben would now safely say he has adapted to the Chinese way of life.

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