When most people think of learning Chinese in China, images of life in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an or Chengdu are often some of the first to come to mind.
There’s a good reason for this. Every year, thousands of new foreign students from around the globe arrive at universities and private schools all throughout these big cities to study Mandarin Chinese.
I was not one of those students.
I’ve never been much of a “big city” kind of guy, so back in 2006, when I was presented with the opportunity to move to China’s remote western region of Xinjiang, the adventurous side of me decided to go for it. As an entrepreneur, my goal was to eventually open a business in China, but I first needed to learn the language.
I had already laid a foundation of Mandarin Chinese by using tools like Rosetta Stone and textbooks, but I knew that nothing could replace the value of being in China while learning the language.
At the time, I didn’t give much thought to how my decision to move to a relatively unknown part of China would drastically affect my language learning. After all, studying Mandarin while living anywhere in China is technically “immersive”, right?
The difference is that I was living in a Chinese city that had fewer than 10 foreign expats, compared to the tens of thousands who call Beijing or Shanghai home. Over time, I began to see both the benefits – and the challenges – of learning Chinese in a totally immersive environment.
There are certainly a lot of benefits to studying Chinese in a major metropolis like Beijing or Shanghai that I knew I wouldn’t get in Xinjiang.
For one, it’s comfortable – at least when compared to inner China. A thriving expat community means a fun night life, available imported goods and recognizable brands like Starbucks or McDonalds.
Students also have access to some of the best teachers in the country.
However, my prior experience in business has taught me that there is often one thing that separates those who want to achieve a goal versus those who actually achieve it.
I knew that if I moved to a big city like Beijing, it would be too easy for me to pull away from the immersive environment I wanted in China. I would want to attend foreign meetups, go to foreign concerts, frequent foreign restaurants, attend foreign parties.
Some people have the determination and will power to set boundaries and maintain their commitment to the local language even in major, multi-cultural cities. I knew I needed more than determination to learn Chinese quickly – I needed desperation.
So, I threw myself in at the deep end! In Xinjiang, weeks would go by without meeting another foreign person who spoke English. There were no foreign brands other than KFC to be found. The theaters never played a movie in English.
My classmates were all Central Asians, which meant that between classes, the only common language we could use to communicate was Mandarin Chinese.
I kept my phone, TV and any other electronics set to the Chinese language so I had to navigate the menus using Chinese characters.
This was a challenge, for sure. Being in a totally immersive environment is tiring, but when it’s sink or swim, you usually find a way to keep your head above water.
One unexpected benefit of enduring these language challenges was the way it prepared me for the difficulty of doing business in China.
Two years after I began studying Mandarin Chinese at a local university in Xinjiang, I transitioned to a business visa. Starting a company and developing an income stream from scratch is hard at home; doing it in a foreign country is downright crazy.
I wish I could say that I have completed my language learning and that I am officially “fluent”, but I’m not.
I continue to study Mandarin Chinese every day. Whether I’m picking up new vocabulary through conversations on the street or reviewing old vocabulary via phone apps on the bus, the learning never ends.
Language learning truly is a life-long pursuit. Whether you’re able to immerse yourself in a city like Beijing or if you’re like me and you need a totally immersive environment, don’t let it be boring.
Get out and try something different. Get as immersed in the language and culture as you possibly can. There will be setbacks and it will be hard, but don’t be discouraged!
What an inspiring story! – Thanks for your contribution Josh.
You can find out more about Josh, Western China, and learning Chinese on his site: www.travelchinacheaper.com
Josh Summers is a British expat and businessman living and working in China - and running sites about the country: www.travelchinacheaper.com
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