Chinese Status Update Winter 2015

Another three months have passed, and I am a little further along in my never ending quest. At the end of the last blog post I mentioned that I didn't really have any set goals while traveling. Instead I would be following more of a framework, or set of best practices. All of these guidelines I set, are about making myself available to practice and learn. Below are the four big ones.

Participate, Participate, Participate. When we had meals with friends, or their family, I would always try to have some sort of compliment, or conversation starter, ready to go. Also, when we looked at buying something, I always made sure I participated in the transaction. Either I would order the food, pay the bill, or ask questions about whatever we were looking at. This rule was especially important for me. With a wife who speaks the language it can be easy to just take a back seat and watch. This rule most importantly kept me practicing. As an added benefit, for any place that we went more than once I was building a good rapport with the staff. This helped me in other ways.

Don't hide in your apartment.  This isn't the same as the first rule. It is easy to only participate once or twice a week, and hole up at home the rest of the time. It is hard to talk with strangers, and be open to new experiences. That is what I am doing. I am a remote worker, and our apartments, and hotels always had WiFi, but I still forced myself to work at a cafe, bar, bookstore, etc, at least a couple of times a week. I would frequent the same places most of the time. As I did this I got to spend less time doing quick orders, and more time chatting with people about random stuff. These act as substitute water cooler breaks. Like I would normally get at an office, but with an added bonus of language practice.

Group selfie on our way to the waterfall.
Do leisure activities that put us in contact with the locals, not just the people paid to talk to you. How do you make friends as an adult? I know lots of people who struggle with this. I have friends who move to a new city, and it takes them months to even have a few acquaintances. I have other friends who after divorces they find their friend pool drastically reduced, and have to start all over. The formula to make a friend is fairly easy. Talk with people, find a common interest, and bond over it, or move on. Yet that find a common interest, and bonding is scary enough to keep many from continuing after a failed attempt, or worse not even trying.

In Beijing interacting with the locals was easy. We had friends, there and they introduced us to their friends, and our friends parents introduced us to their friends. In Xiamen, this was a bit harder, because I had to talk my wife into meeting total strangers. She ended up finding us a kinda "make friends" field trip. A couple of guys put about twenty of us on a bus and helped us socialize, while driving us to an old tea village. From which we hiked to a scenic waterfall, had lunch and did more socializing. In Taiwan we are again around friends and family. There is no shortage of opportunities to eat at uncles house, or meet up with old friends. A note for people without the established connections we have. China, and Taiwan both have tons of meetup groups. There should be one there that matches your interests. I think I saw twenty that were just about locals and foreigners meeting up to exchange culture, or language.

Limit consumption of native material. Even though I am in Asia, it is still easy to listen to English music, and watch American movies, and English news. In order to combat this, I usually just substituted a Chinese version for the English version. Every once in a while I would get a hankering for Cheerleader, and give it a listen. I tried not to force myself to a hardcore regimen. The point is not to burn out, but rather make it easier to absorb the Chinese around me.

What have I done?

For the better part of the last three months I have been traveling through China, and Taiwan. I have made new friends in Xiamen, and Beijing. I was able to participate in many conversations. Most of them I was not only understanding, but was also able to play an active part. I was occasionally able to use my Chinese to help people with various things, like directions or answer questions. Understanding the Beijing accent got a lot easier, and swapping to the southern Chinese accent wasn't as rough this time. Things are coming easier in general.

Where Next?

So at this point I am at a comfortable level. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. This is good because for my day to day I rarely encounter a situation outside my comfort zone. For this very same same reason it's bad. My learning has slowed down. It is once again time to deliberately practice and learn. This means I need to again, start setting goals, and study routines.

My new daily routine will be a lot like my previous ones, but less intense. A bit of study time spread out here and there through out the day. I will do some Anki here. Work on a textbook there. Do a bit of writing in the middle, and  listen to some Glossika. It isn't super intense, but should be enough to get me pushing forward again.

What about goals? 

So this is a tricky one for me. I have been reading a lot entrepreneurial, zen, and confidence books lately. These books advocating big outlandish sized goals. Their point being don't limit yourself. But at the same time I am a huge fan SMART goals. So in the upcoming couple of days I hope to find a way to marry the two, while avoiding the two obvious extremes of overwork, and un-achievable. Some of the area's I want to cover are things like review my tones, some specific topics, and be able to better understand the nightly news. I also want to get my writing back up to par. I have slacked on it too long, I have forgotten how to write a lot of characters. 

I plan to post some more about my trip to China over the next few weeks, and at the end of March, I will give you another update. I hope everyone has a fun holiday season!


General Thoughts on China

I just spent two months in China. I lived about a month in Beijing, and about a month in Xiamen. We also visited a friend in Jinggangshan, and went to a few rural places with Chinese tourist groups. China is a big and beautiful place, with an interesting mix of old world rural, and modern mega cities. 

Part of the reason we first went to Beijing, was to celebrate our friends wedding. While in Beijing, we stayed in a studio apartment, like something you would find on Airbnb.  Our friends mother helped us find and set it up. One convenient thing about staying here was that it was really close to her parents' home. 

That is one building.

We ended up having dinner at her parents place several times over the course of the month. This was great for me. I got to see inside someones home, and eat their home cooking, and enjoy diner conversation. Our friend's father was retired military, like several of my friends' parents back home. And like their parents back home, he had a really similar world view as them, with just a few governments, or organizations swapped around. It was a fun twist to listen to him. 

Beijing itself was big, noisy, and dirty. The pollution problem is real, but it didn't seem as bad as everyone made it out to be. Back stateside news, and people would make it sound like one every couple of months a good weather front would clean out the city, and provide blue skies. While we were there only about half the time was smoggy. 

It is also full of history, and we did a lot of touring while in Beijing. We visited several of the famous historic landmarks. While doing that I got to see one big difference between Americans and most people there. Forming lines, and waiting your turn, are not customs they have. People tend to crowd in, and squeeze in and out of the high traffic areas. With that being said on the flip side, if you watch people on a crowded bus in China, you will see almost everyone doing their best to make sure the elderly, sick, and people with small children, get a seat if at all possible. 
These are buildings made out of mud brick, and wood. They were made around a hundred years ago, and people still live in them today. This village is a tourist attraction.

Xiamen was very different from Beijing. It is considered one of the cleanest cities in China, and has a much warmer climate. It also helped me see the difference between Between the politicalness of Beijing, and other places. While in Beijing my wife who is from Taiwan, would be "corrected" by Beijingers. When she told people she was from Taiwan. They would say, "Oh, Taiwan, China!" Whereas in Xiamen, and Jinggangshan, they would say "Taiwan! We love Taiwan!" It was interesting to see how being near, or away from the political center, affected people's language, and actions. 

So one cool thing about my job is I didn't quit work to travel the world. In Beijing I took vacation for the first two weeks, but the last two weeks in Beijing, and all of my time in Xiamen, I worked like everyone else. I am still telecommuting in on the weekdays. I maintain a regular schedule. Most of our fun, travel, and other picture worthy moments come from the weekend. While working there I made sure to work outside the apartment at least half the time. By doing this I forced myself to use my Chinese, and make several local contacts. 
Some guys we met while on an outing.

Since my work is internet based, I got to learn how to live in a world without google. The Great Firewall blocked a lot of things, I had previously taken for granted. The whole Google ecosystem was blocked, as well as Facebook, cpan, jquery website, w3schools, tons of other websites, and random intermittent outages for things like my personal e-mail server, and AOL messenger. While dealing with this was by far the most frustrating thing about China, I did become adept at using Baidu, and got better at skimming Chinese to find the info I need. Most of the blocked sites mentioned have a Chinese equivalent. I ended up spending time finding and working with those.

Ok that is enough rambling for now. I hope everyone has a good weekend.