“Lao-why” study in China? A day in the life of a language student

I became aware of just how poor my Chinese language skills were about 12 hours after I landed into China for the first time. I found myself an hour and a half and three iced teas into a bus trip to my exchange city of Ningbo, on a bridge, surrounded by water, with no land in site.  It was on that bridge that I became acutely aware of the fact that, in a moment of crisis, I could not effectively communicate in the language I had studied for two years and was, most unfortunately unable to articulate to my bus driver that he needed to stop at the next restroom. 

The benefits of a language exchange are numerous. Being surrounded by the language even outside the classroom means you are constantly learning and improving your ability to express yourself. In my first few weeks of exchange, I would constantly order a bottle of 帅-shuài (handsome) instead of a bottle of – shuǐ (water) until one kind waitress corrected me. Though slightly bemused at having asked for bottles of iced handsome all around Ningbo, I never made the same mistake again.  Learning a language in its country of origin is invaluable and being exposed to native speakers, along with the intricacies of the culture make the value of your language studies tangible in a way that sitting in a classroom and reading from a text book can’t.  The most valuable lessons in Mandarin have come from my interactions with locals, whether it be my taxi driver teaching me the proper directional phrases when driving, or the security guard of my building explaining the Chinese view of ancestry and good fortune (…. and the proper remedy for a nose bleed, which is in fact a cow’s gall bladder, would probably just rather the nose bleed.) 

Guilin Tavel

The next time I found myself in a predicament surrounded by water, I was much better prepared. About six months after arriving in China, I travelled to Guilin with some friends who were visiting. Cruising down the Li river in our bamboo raft, admiring the karst mountains and natural scenery that has inspired Chinese art and poetry for centuries, our profound appreciation was cut short as our driver stopped our tiny vessel in the middle of the river. Realising that he had not in fact collected tickets for our journey he turned to ask where our blue ticket was as proof of payment.

Mandarin Shooter Quest, Stage 10 - Yangshuo near Guilin

Mandarin Shooter Quest, Stage 10 - Yangshuo near Guilin


Taking a moment to appreciate that I actually understood why he had stopped in the widest part of an icy river, devoid of any other human life, I turned to see my other passengers looking extremely apprehensive.  Turning back to our driver, more than a little smug, I took out the yellow slip of paper in my pocket saying,  “I’m sorry I only have this one!” a rather puzzling exchange proceeded for ten minutes with our boat driver attempting to take the slip of paper from my hand, and me insisting this was not the correct ticket.  All was resolved however, when I realised that he was in fact correct, and I needed to review my knowledge of primary colours.  But hey, I never got blue and yellow confused again!


Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Throughout my time in China I have definitely found this to be true. Even the most stilted and awkward attempts at speaking Chinese have often been met with surprise and appreciation.  After my first exchange experience in China, I returned home resolved to go back as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree. It’s the mistakes and blunders along the way that make any foreign exchange experience memorable and definitely contextualises what you’ve learned in the classroom. For me, moving to China was affirmed why I decided to take on the language in the first place, and gave me the motivation needed to continue with it long after I move home.


Considering a language exchange in China? Here is a list of things to consider!

  • Learning Chinese in china? Makes sense! Being able to step outside the classroom and continue with your studies is a big plus!
  • Cost of living- taking on a language exchange, particularly in a more rural city, can be very cheap! It is also worthwhile to look into the numerous scholarship opportunities provided by the Chinese government. Some of which can be found here
  • Exposure to a diverse range of language and culture- learning a language, while being immersed in the culture of its origin definitely makes for a holistic learning experience
  • Having a desire to learn a language such as Mandarin take a particular type of person. While you will no doubt meet a diverse range of people from all over the world, having Mandarin as a common denominator means you will undoubtedly make friends for life!
  • Being able to live in a country such as China, does equip you with the ability to be adaptable, resourceful and outgoing!  The downside is…. It may also give you the travel bug and may leave you with perpetually itchy feet!

Having trouble remembering key words?  The best way to remember vocabulary is repeat, repeat, repeat! Mandarin shooter quest allows you to review Chinese vocab while taking you through metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing as well as natural wonders like Guilin, sans icy water and irritable boat drivers.