By Charlotte Hawker

17 December 2014 - 16:18

'The majority of the drivers are very talkative.' Photo (c) Ernie, licensed under CC BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.
'The majority of the drivers are very talkative.' Photo ©

Ernie, licensed under CC BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.

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.

4. Eat authentic Chinese food

This may sound like an obvious suggestion. You’re probably thinking that, if you move to China, of course you will eat Chinese food. However, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to stumble across KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut etc. Although it is reassuring to have the option of western food, it is important to leap out of your comfort zone and try the dishes in your area. I recommend going to Chinese restaurants and street vendors near your school, learn how to use chopsticks and learn to order in Mandarin. At first it may be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, it’s extremely satisfying.

Authentic Chinese food is actually very different compared to what we think it is in the west. It’s not all spring rolls, egg-fried rice and prawn crackers. A dish I particularly enjoy is ‘xīhóngshì chǎojīdàn’ (西红柿炒鸡蛋). This is extremely tasty and is made from scrambled eggs mixed with cooked tomatoes. Another popular dish worth trying is ‘yú xiāng qié zi’ (鱼香茄子). This is essentially a plate of fried aubergine mixed with soy sauce, cooking wine and garlic. It’s not something you would consider as a meal in the UK. People would think you were joking if you went to a restaurant and just ordered a plate of aubergine. Nonetheless, in China it’s a go-to meal. 

In addition to many restaurants, there are also fantastic outdoor markets where you can buy fresh local produce at a very reasonable price. Many markets will have ‘shāokǎo’ (烧烤), which is an outdoor dining area where food is freshly barbecued on skewers. It contains a great variety of fresh meat, fish and vegetables, along with some rather bizarre items, such as pig tails, pig’s brain, chicken claws and scorpions. I’d strongly recommend going to these outdoor markets, their food is delicious and it’s a great way to mingle with the locals.

5. Make at least one journey in a tuk-tuk

For those of you who do not know what a tuk-tuk is, imagine a box on wheels. Or imagine a horse and carriage, but without the horses. Now imagine the carriage attached to a bike powered by a person. This is a tuk-tuk. They vary in design; some may be rather sturdy with doors and windows and are attached to an electric bike, whereas others may be a mere plank of wood, propped up in an open trailer, attached to a bicycle. They are definitely not the safest form of transport. They also don’t conform to any traffic rules — the drivers take them on roads, cycle paths and even pavements. This can however be useful if you’re in a hurry.

Once, I was squashed in the back of the tuk-tuk with a friend who is over six feet tall, and he had to duck down for the entire journey with a leg poking out the side. Although it may seem like dicing with death getting in one of these things, you should try this at least once, because a journey in a tuk-tuk is never a dull one!

Apply to become an English language assistant.

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