Expat Magazine

Spoken Like a True Expat: Learning Chinese!

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

Copyright: bartekchiny / 123RF Stock Photo

What’s the first question you ask Google madly, when you find out you’re moving to another country?

For me, “Do they speak my language?” is up there with the best of them! 

And what’s the one question I get asked by friends and acquaintances who now know I’ve moved overseas and immersed myself in the Orient? 

How much Chinese can I speak? 

Oh yes, that old chestnut. The expat’s nemesis! 

My answer usually involves my eyes quickly averting (shamefully) to the ground. I hear myself stammering,”umm, errrr not much I’m afraid – ok just taxi lingo – you know, Jik Hui, Lee Doe, N’goi (Go straight/Stop here, Thank you)!”

Then I mutter something about not really needing to and how you can get by ‘perfectly fine’ in Hong Kong, without Chinese. Thank you very much!

Repeat, Perfectly. Fine.

Which is absolutely true! You can. (Tip: Head further north to the Mainland and you’ve got buckley’s!)

But, oh how there are those days, when I’d LOVE to know how to speak a little more of the native language rather than screeching at my seemingly impervious taxi driver, “Stop here!” (Sometimes with added expletives.)

It seems the longer you live here, the LESS you try to learn and the less, it seems, you care! Expats are such a Laissez Faire bunch aren’t they!

When I first arrived in the frenzied financial hub of the East, I remember being mildly shocked that some friends had been living amongst the delectable Dim Sum and dazzling dancing dragons of Hong Kong for almost five years and yet knew little more Chinese than I did. 

Huh? But how can that be, I pondered into my Jasmine tea (embracing my new oriental environment with a naive enthusiasm).  I frantically Googled where to learn Cantonese and then wondered if I should learn Mandarin instead? Or both!

 Copyright: michaeljung / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: michaeljung / 123RF Stock Photo

I won’t survive here, without learning Chinese, I shuddered. 

But all and sundry put me off….

Understandably, there’s a gentle whiff of ‘negative attitude’ wafting through the expat air when it comes to embracing the native lingo.

“You’ll never be able to learn it unless you’re forced to speak it,” they implored.

“You don’t need it.” “It’s REALLY difficult.” “Did you know there are tones. Four in Mandarin and NINE for Cantonese. Impossible!” And, “Have you seen those Chinese characters? Talk about complex.”

(FYI there are around 80,000 characters and to get through a Chinese newspaper,  you need to know about 3000! Woaahhh..)

 Copyright: simlik / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: simlik / 123RF Stock Photo

One-fifth of the world’s population, speak some form of Chinese as their first language Cantonese is primarily spoken in Hong Kong, but Mandarin (or Putonghua) is spoken on a more global level.

In those early days not speaking the local language mattered to me. Sitting in a hair salon not being able to communicate exactly how I wanted my hair (first world problems) or ask the hairdresser where he lives (no I wasn’t trying to stalk him, though he is cute). Getting my nails done while the ‘girls’ bantered in Chinese all around me (probably about the Gweilo and her insatiable demands) was frustrating! Catching a taxi, heading in the wrong direction, unable to tell the driver where I wanted to go was often torturous! The very idea of catching a cab with a new baby, alone, would have me sweating pools of water for days in advance! 

While, many, many Hong Kongese speak English and speak it exceptionally well, for a lot of locals, it’s limited to basic conversation level. If you want to get any deeper, you’ll go round and round in circles and usually end up smiling politely, both parties none the wiser for your efforts. 

I’ve given up trying to explain to my ever so lovely hairdresser, “I’d like a less ‘gold’ slightly more ‘ash’ tone through my hair and if you could just blow dry it without so much of the ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ volume, that’d be bonza mate!” 

Our conversation is mostly limited to “Hi and how are you?” (Big toothy smiles.) “Are you busy?” With the odd (throw caution to the wind) chat about going on holidays (and more often than not, in the end realizing we are talking about two completely different places! What it’s Yantian not Vietnam! Oh).

As for the taxis, I now know enough about the geography to gesture madly or simply get out and walk…. and I know there are places to catch taxis and places to avoid! 

As for the constant stream of Chinese conversations going on around me… these days as a more often than not brain dead sleep-deprived mother, I’ve come to appreciate it as a great opportunity to, quite frankly, tune out.   

Chinese signs

Thankfully, interpreting those incomprehensible characters is generally not required with most signs in Hong Kong in both English and Chinese, making for an incredibly easy city to navigate, sans the native language. 

But…(there is always a but) whilst I’d long given up hope of learning anything remotely oriental to dazzle you with, my 3.5 year old daughter – who is now in nursery class at school – has two teachers, one who is solely mandarin speaking! 

She’s started coming home spouting off words, phrases and songs, supposedly in Chinese. Well, to be honest, it was that or gibberish and telling the difference for me, was nigh impossible!

In fact, out to dinner one night, a friend pointed out to me, “You know she’s counting to ten in Mandarin?” 

“Say what!!?”

At the parent-teacher interview (yes they do those for three year olds here) the Mandarin teacher was trying to explain Ava’s progress IN Mandarin. Shoot! 

Learning Chinese at School | Mint Mocha Musings

And so…it began. 

The Gods heard and clearly realized an intervention on my Chinglish was required. I ironically had some inquiries about collaborating on this very site with some local language schools and before I knew it, I was logging-in ‘online’ for my first ever lesson in Mandarin.

I know, I’m just as baffled.

SO…my original thoughts were to put myself through the paces, mainly in the name of #blog research (naturally with my curiosity levels piqued at just how hard it would be). 

I’d do a few lessons in a few different formats to gauge the best learning tools and environments out there and regale you all with the best options for YOU.

Honestly, I was a little anxious about the online classes, very skeptical about how well it could actually work. I didn’t even really ‘get’ how it could. Some sort of course you loosely navigate your way through between bouts of lazy procrastination? 

With Beijing Mandarin it was a case of being sent an email to join the class about ten minutes before. Being technically challenged I wasn’t sure how I’d get myself in to the class (it’s amazing what happens when you follow the instructions). Voila! I was in and there LIVE (just like Skype) was the sweet smiling Michelle – ready for action!

We jumped straight into the Wo Shi Nicole and Ni Hao Ma?….I thought it would be awkward, stilted and difficult to understand. Michelle had headphones on and suggested I get some too but reassuringly I’ve found it perfectly clear and easy to understand, without. (Don’t want to ruin the hair-do, do we!)

The classes are 45 minutes and I’ll admit, they are intense. After my first one, my head was threatening to spin off my stiff and strained neck, in fact I needed a stiff drink!

I don’t think my brain had worked that hard since French in high school (no wait, French was my best subject, this was more like economics)! 

But I was also elated. By the end of it I could say, “Hello, How are you? I’m very good thank you.” The basic greetings and name all of my family members. (Even you Poppy!) 

Of course, I’m not going to be able to sit down and rattle away, fluently in Chinese about the ins and outs of the current political climate; like any language I imagine, unless you are immersing yourself in the middle of said country, it’s not going to be a sure thing …. but baby steps, are currently walking the talk. 

I’ve even practiced Chinese with my girl AND mysteries have been unravelled! I finally realized the song she sings constantly around the house is the Chinese version of her end of the day “goodbye” song. Huzzah! 

Progress! High fives all round sister! 

Mind you, she did get a little over excited at practicing with mummy and started peppering her Wo Hen Hao’s with “mintmochamusings dot com!” (Have I really brainwashed her to say that!?) 

But in all seriousness, it’s a win win – hopefully it helps refresh the little bits she’s learning at school in her mind too. I even found myself chiming in smugly, saying “good bye” in Mandarin to the teacher!  Check me out, sista!! (Struts out of the classroom!)

I also went to a group lesson. Ok, so definitely not feeling as smug out in the big wide world!! Live it China is an umbrella platform for all sorts of Chinese learning opportunities. They embrace many schools, including Beijing Mandarin and another called Celebrity Mandarin (you know how much I love a Hollywood theme) which is where I ended up one Thursday evening in downtown Central – oh yes, in the midst of a Mandarin Challenge!! (I registered the words “for the super ambitious” and clearly got a little carried away, imagining myself at this superior level!)

Oh yes! They were beginners alright, but with quite a few more lessons tucked neatly under their celebrity belts, than I. We were talking tones, the time and full on ’round the table’ fast and furious conversations. Did somebody say, “I’ll have a round of cocktails please!”

There is the small but persistent issue in Chinese of one word having many meanings, depending on the tone.

Chinese words

They say it helps if you are musical. Unfortunately musical ability and I are about as compatible as chocolate and fruit.

I was so obviously in another league, but with a clever and fantastically patient teacher and two capable and easy going class mates we battled through and I let my head inhale as much of the Chinese mother tongue as I could. 

I emerged totally overwhelmed, but the adrenalin was pumping!  

This challenge is three months of intensive ‘one on one’ lessons, group lessons and weekend catch ups with language partners. If you need to learn Chinese and learn it fast, this is the place for you! They are fun, friendly and first rate.

As much as I’d like it to be the place for me, sadly at the moment, it’s not….BUT with six lessons under my belt plus this liberating group lesson, I’ve realized it’s not quite as daunting as I’d always anticipated. It’s also (surprise surprise) rather enjoyable! 

The best part is there are a limited number of sounds in Chinese. To give you an example, there are around 1200 syllables, where as in English there are over 8000! Chinese grammar also appears pretty straightforward. (Yep! You read that right.) Plus there’s an amazing little thing called the Pinyin which converts the word into a phonetic spelling! Winning!! 


So guess what? I have decided to continue with my lessons, albeit at a slightly slower, more measured pace, for now.

(In future, I may hook up with a Language Partner to help with the progression and if I’m game, go back to a group lesson or three.) Whatever stage you’re at, it’s possible.

Dare I say it, I am feeling empowered! (Just call me powerful Chinese dragon woman!)

Stay tuned….I promise to keep you “posted” in all senses of the word (and characters…and tones)…. 

Pssst….if you see me on the street, promise you won’t start conversing in Chinese.


Copyright: surabky / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: surabky / 123RF Stock Photo

If you’re interested in stepping off the plank and learning Chinese with me, here are a few great places to start. 

LIVE IT CHINA http://www.liveitchina.com/

BEIJING MANDARIN http://www.beijingmandarin.com/

CELEBRITY MANDARIN http://www.celebritymandarin.com/

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