Today’s guest post is from Casey who works for Live The Language Mandarin School. She talks about her experience of learning Chinese in Chengde.
It’s true when they say you won’t see any foreigners in Chengde. The only ones I met during my three months there were fellow LTL students or tourists, and even those were just a handful. In the shops, if I didn’t understand what people said to me, the reaction was always the same: “哇! ! 你是外国人吗?” (Wow, you’re a foreigner?) As if this was the first time they had met one. But that was the whole point of why I chose to go to Chengde: full-blown immersion!
It was both easier and harder than I expected. I made sure I was staying with a family that spoke no English, which meant that all communication had to be in Chinese. But I quickly realized that, despite three months in Beijing, I didn’t know how to say simple every-day vocabulary like ‘broom’, or ask simple questions like “where do I throw the rubbish?” These important words and grammar structures I just hadn’t needed while in a classroom. Now instead of learning ‘classroom’ Chinese, I was learning the language to be able to survive!
At the same time, Chengde is a big enough city that it was easy to adapt – even if by Chinese standards it’s tiny with a population of ‘only’ 300,000-400,000 people. There were shopping centers, big supermarkets, movie theaters, even several KFCs, McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut. Street signs were bilingual, ATMs had an English option and a few restaurants and cafes also had a menu in English. Of course, as with so many other things in China, this wasn’t completely thought through as none of the staff would understand if I ordered in English, so I still had to use the Chinese names or resort to pointing. But it was a good daily lesson that if I wanted anything, I was just going to have to speak up and learn from my mistakes.
Every day, I did six hours of one-on-one classes with a tutor, this was useful for me as I could learn basic words or make lots of mistakes in a safe and open environment, but what I found to be very helpful was the ‘lessons’ outside of the classroom. We roamed around the Mountain Resort (the emperors’ former summer residence) and met up with other students and their tutors for outings; we toured a wet market one early morning and went to the cinema to watch Chinese movies. One tutor took me to visit her grandmother outside Chengde and we picked long beans and salad from her garden and helped her prepare a hotpot in her simple home. Even just window shopping brought up a whole new range of topics and useful new words, and my spoken Chinese improved quickly because of that.
Through my host family, I discovered new foods including silkworms and pig intestines, which I tried out of courtesy and then left to the others to devour. The day-to-day life in a big Chinese family, which included a two-year-old toddler running around and two sets of grandparents that I completely confused at the beginning, was eye opening for me. The family all welcomed me like another family member. I learned to make ‘jiaozi’ and became quite good at it, ‘Nainai’ (奶奶) – the grandmother – also took me ‘square dancing’ on the street in the evening a few times, which I highly recommend trying!
Chengde itself was a great place to live in. I walked or took the bus everywhere. And I loved exploring the city’s sights, from Potala Palace and the Outlying temples to Shuang Ta Shan (Twin Pavilion Mountain) and the strange Sledgehammer Rock. I could spend hours at the Mountain Resort, with its beautiful pavilions and lakes, and deer in the forest. On weekend mornings, what felt like most of the Chengde residents, gathered in the park to square dance, play badminton or practice taijiquan (太极拳). It was fantastic to watch: young and old, friends and family, all come out to play together for a few hours.
Of course, the same habits were present here as elsewhere in China: people spat loudly in the street and tossed ice cream wrappers into the river, and obnoxious drivers seemed to honk even more than in Beijing if that was possible. But hey, that’s China!
Thinking back, I can’t point to a favorite moment from my three months in Chengde: it was all part of an experience. I didn’t even realize how much I’d learned until I left. Suddenly, things that had seemed so complicated a few weeks earlier were clear as daylight. Words and expressions that I struggled with before, or didn’t even know I knew, came easily when I spoke. And that’s probably the best thing about Chengde: you’ll learn a lot, whether it’s about the language, the culture, or just life in China and all without even realizing, just by being there and immersing yourself.
Live the Language Mandarin School is dedicated to helping our students achieve Chinese fluency by offering an immersive Mandarin learning environment.
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