To really understand and enjoy another culture, you need to jump right in. So says Charlotte Hawker, who’s working as an English language assistant in Nanjing, China.
I first came to China on a school trip when I was 14 years old. The trip gave me an insight into Chinese culture and made me realise what a unique and fascinating country it is. I’m now three months into a job teaching teenagers at a middle school in an area called Jiangning, and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.
If you are fortunate enough to make it over to China, here are a few things you can do to really immerse yourself in the culture and improve your Mandarin along the way.
1. Go to a karaoke bar
If you spend any significant amount of time in China, you will undoubtedly get invited to karaoke. Now, this may sound like the worst night out imaginable, but, I can assure you, once you’ve got the first few awkward songs over and done with, you’ll be singing your heart out and fighting for the microphone.
Karaoke isn’t particularly popular in the UK, not compared to China anyway. I’d say, for every pub you find in the UK, you’ll find a karaoke bar in China. The karaoke bars are called KTV. Each KTV venue comprises numerous singing rooms and a shop where you can buy food and drinks to take to your room. Karaoke stays open later than most clubs and bars — this means you can make a spontaneous decision at two in the morning to go have a singsong and make new Chinese friends. Either way, no matter how bad you think it might be, you should always say yes to a KTV session.
2. Drink a glass (or two) of baijiu
If you have never been to China, you are probably wondering what baijiu is. This is a traditional Chinese alcoholic spirit. It’s very strong, usually over 50 per cent, and to be honest, it tastes pretty awful. Some of us like to call it ‘the paint stripper’. I feel this nickname sums up the drink nicely. When you drink it, you get a tingling/burning sensation throughout your insides. In China, whenever there’s a celebration, there’s baijiu. The Chinese word for cheers is ‘gānbēi’ (干杯).
3. Practise your Chinese with a taxi driver
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to taking a Chinese taxi. I’ll start with the bad news, which is that practically none of the taxi drivers speak English. I have been to China four times and have not once found a driver who can. The good news is that this gives you the perfect opportunity to practise Chinese. In fact, you won’t make it home if you don’t. Although this may be a bit nerve-racking, it’s also comforting knowing the drivers cannot speak English — it takes the pressure off. At school, when you practise Chinese with a Chinese teacher, it can be a little intimidating because their English is so good. Nonetheless, the taxi drivers are just impressed you can speak some Chinese.
The majority of the drivers are very talkative too. They are interested in you because you are foreign. In some cases, you will be the first foreigner they have seen and therefore they are extremely curious about you. Occasionally, you may end up with a driver who will try to rip you off or will not know the way. You may end up bartering or giving directions. Yet, any situation where you are required to speak Chinese is only advantageous in the long run.