“Ten ‘did that really happen’ moments every Laowai will experience”

Moving to a different country has its challenges no matter where you go. But as anyone who has travelled to the Middle Kingdom will realise, China has its own list of… unique experiences that might leave you asking “为什么?” (Wèishénme/why?)

1.  Menopause Dancing

We start our count down with a personal favourite: If you’ve ever fancied an evening stroll through China’s bustling streets, you may have come across a group of (mostly) elderly women performing uniquely choreographed dance routines. With soundtracks ranging from stirring traditional Chinese love ballads to uniquely Chinese takes Western songs such as the Madonna classic “Like a Prayer,” these ladies sure know how to take it to the streets.  Sometimes referred to as 绝经舞 or “menopause dancing,” this practice is seen as not only a social outlet, but also a free and easy way to exercise. Keep it up ladies!

2.  Spitting Image


Imagine. You’re walking through the tree-lined streets of Shanghai’s French Concession, a milk tea in one hand and fresh baozi in the other…. Suddenly the serenity is shattered by the discordant sound of someone or something attempting to jettison all fluids from their mouth cavity. The wind shifts. There is a moment of suspended horror and you attempt to locate the source of the noise.  Ah yes…. Spitting is a permanent fixture of the Chinese soundscape, something many expats never quite get used to.

3.  Photo Ops

Funny photo

Ever wondered what it was like to be a celebrity? Travel to China! While visiting such wonders as the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, or even just taking the metro, foreigners may find themselves to be the unknowing subject of a not so subtle selfie, be approached to join a family photo or even be handed a baby! While some may find this practice bemusing, it has to be a confidence booster to think that someone finds you to be just as photo worthy as some of China’s most famous tourist attractions!

4.  Pyjamas in public

Chinese in Pajamas

In the lead up to the 2010 world expo, an initiative called "No pyjamas in public places- be civilized for the Expo" was implemented to attempt to stop the practice many Shanghai locals have of wearing pyjamas in public.  Comfort won out however, and you can still see many Shanghainese taking leisurely evening strolls in their quilted jammies.

5.  Caught Napping

Chinese sleeping funny places


Whether you’re in the office, classroom or even walking the streets, come lunchtime you may notice a city-wide snooze fest as people put their heads down for a post lunch nap. According to Chinese medicine, by midday, the body is tired and needs to regenerate, making naptime a common practice in most Chinese businesses and schools. Perhaps Western companies can also adopt the saying '中午不睡,下午崩溃', meaning if you do not take a nap at noon you will collapse by the afternoon. Words to live by!

6.  Very…Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation China

You walk into a restaurant; eager to try the culinary delights of the orient. You look down at the menu and are provided with such delicacies as “customer gets angry face” “urinating in pool you are the best,” and “spicy cold children.” If you aren’t lucky enough to read Chinese, you might be left having to rely on some not so accurate translations. While we doubt children really are a staple food source in Chinese cuisine, these mandarin mix-ups do often prove very entertaining!

7.  Gan Bei!

US President cheers

干杯! Literally translates to “empty your cup.” But don’t fret! The phrase is often used as the Chinese equivalent to “cheers!” In Chinese culture, the emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on what you’re drinking, but whom you’re drinking with.  Countless toasts will be had and, if you’re at a business dinner, there are specific traditions that are observed. If you do happen to find yourself out to dinner or drinks with Chinese constituents, try and avoid the baijiu…trust me.

8.  A Breath of Fresh Air?

batman pollution china

After living in China for an extended period the term “getting some fresh air,” tends to take on new meaning.  In January 2017, much of Northern and Central China was rocked by the worst air quality in recorded history. With over 32 Chinese cities on “red alert,” the “airpocalypse” as it was dubbed saw flights canceled, highways shut down and businesses closed. For those traveling to China, air quality index apps are highly recommended and the more industrial your mask looks, the better!

9.  Crowded House

Claustrophobics beware! With a population of over 1.3 billion people, being lost in the crowd is almost unavoidable. Whether it be lining up to board the metro, or waiting for a lift, sometimes the best policy is to push or get pushed! Fancy a trip to the Great Wall during Spring Festival?  Or a dip in the pool on a public holiday?  Might be best to reschedule…

10.  A Crappy Situation

And we round off this list with a rather unsavoury practice,  but as they say“千金难买早知道”- it’s better to know early.  Many Chinese children wear adeptly designed clothes that prove unrestricting when nature calls.  Reports of kids being allowed free reign on streets, in restaurants, even planes have flooded social media, particularly in recent years, with debates erupting on the Mainland and Hong Kong regarding ways to cease this…. crappy practice.

Though China does have its eccentricities, it should also be the top of anyone’s “must visit” list.  With its buzzing metropolises and breathtaking natural wonders, China does not lack in experiences for the avid traveller. The best way to embrace any culture is of course, to learn the language. If you want to learn more or like what you’ve read, head over to our Facebook page for more language and culture tips!

How failing Chinese was the best thing for my language learning

By Bronagh Marley

At the end of my first year of university, I failed Chinese. Twice.  I was told that due to my poor performance in my language modules, I was no longer an eligible candidate for an exchange programme, and thus no longer able to continue as a student of my chosen degree. After much discussion, numerous email threads and few tears, I was permitted to continue with my chosen field of study, but was, most understandably, advised not to continue with my study of Chinese.  Thinking that third time was definitely the charm, and no longer under any illusions of the challenges associated with Mandarin, I re-enrolled the following year and scraped through the rest of my university career with lack lustre Chinese language scores. But hey, I passed! Despite my dedication to the study of Mandarin, I still struggled to find effective methods of retaining information presented in my classes.

The study of Chinese was a point of much trepidation over my four years at university, but were I to do it over, I would enrol in Mandarin without a second thought.

“Just memorise" - An introduction to Language learning

Over my four years of varying degrees of Chinese study I have tried and tested numerous methods, resources and class structures and can say that, though far from an expert, I have been able to find a method that works for me. My first attempt at Chinese was in my first year of university.  The textbook used, Integrated Chinese, taught in no other way than rote learning; a large slab of vocabulary was given followed by a passage that I would come to find out from my Chinese friends were often inaccurate and more Taiwanese than Mandarin.  I was told by my teachers to “just memorise.” A long list of words memorised in a week were just as soon forgotten. Exactly what was required in our mandarin classes was dubious and exam time would, no matter how many hours of study went into preparation, be met with panic and a complete lack of understanding.  My classmates and I would lament the fruitless hours spent writing out a long list of characters, only to open the test paper and realise none of it was relevant.  As a result, Chinese students dropped like flies, going from a class of 125 to a mere 24 by the end of the year.

In my third year of university, I participated in year exchange programme to the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.  Unfortunately, due to complications with subject approval, I was unable to fit Chinese language modules into my schedule, something which in hindsight, I should have been a lot more proactive about pursuing. As I have come to learn when dealing with certain aspects of Chinese administration: persistence is key.  While this year was an excellent introduction to China and fortified my resolve to come back at the end of my degree, having an extra year of language study in China would have made a significant difference in my progress.  This was made even clearer to me a few weeks ago when an old classmate from Ningbo showed me her textbooks, which are in fact the same ones used in my courses at Jiaotong.

Studying in China

Studying Chinese in China - a turning point in my language endeavours?

Having studied Chinese for three semesters at this point, I felt confident in my ability to perform daily tasks easily. I was mistaken. My university’s Chinese course was heavily geared towards reading and writing skills, something which doesn’t prove useful when stuck in a Ningbo bus terminal for three hours while trying to get back to campus, or in a doctor’s surgery when a bad batch of soup dumplings could very well be your demise. It was these moments of incompetence that emphasised the importance of speaking and class participation in language learning.  With this in mind, I enrolled in a Chinese language buddy programme, where local students were paired with exchange students wanting to improve their conversation skills. My buddy, Cucumber (yes, his self adopted English name) seemed utterly terrified at the prospect of speaking Chinese with a foreigner, and thus my first and last meet up was spent speaking broken English as his side long glances at his watch and the door did not prove encouraging to my already shaky Chinese skills. I watched on with a mixture of resentment and interest as my friend from Liverpool, whose previous knowledge of Chinese did not extend beyond her local takeout, caught up to my level within a semester.  This was largely owing to her language buddy, who would invite her out for meals and insist on speaking Chinese at least two hours a week. I now view my exchange year in Ningbo as a year of trial and error, where I formed my appreciation for Chinese culture, and a resolve to continue my study of Mandarin.   

At the end of my degree I chose to undertake a year of intensive Chinese study at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. My goal at the end of the year would be to comfortably pass HSK level 4, something that relies heavily on my ability to recognise vocabulary.  I noticed a marked difference in the teaching style and materials from my first class. All of my teachers used little to no English in class, and introduction of vocabulary was done so in a practical sense, with dialogues and example sentences, rather than rote memorisation at home. By understanding the words in context, I found that my rate of recognising words was much quicker than my study attempts back home. I can now identify that the textbook and teaching methods used during my undergraduate approached advanced topics and vocabulary, when the basics were not yet cemented.  With dedicated listening, speaking and reading classes, vocab and grammar are often touched on three times, and now find myself with a much stronger foundation for continued study. Though the textbooks used (汉语教程- Hànyǔ jiàochéng) are somewhat out-dated, often with mistakes in the English translation, when used by a competent teacher, I have found them to be a useful resource. 

Great Wall of China Walking Down

Studying without study:  the changing face of language learning

I feel the biggest issue facing language faculties in both school and universities is the retention of students, as many become demoralised when their hard work does not produce expected results. It is realistic to assume my competence in mandarin will not lie in my ability to write characters, but in my recognition of them.  As an aural learner, I particularly like online tools such as FluentU and Mandarin Shooter Quest as they provide an audio-visual way to learn new words. I have recently started using fluentU after lamenting to a classmate about my lack of exposure to Chinese outside of the classroom or the back seat of a taxi. While Shanghai is a fantastic city, it is very easy to remain in the “laowai” bubble and get away with very little Chinese. The app provides well subtitles and interactive Chinese videos, where in depth definitions of vocabulary can we clicked on and studied further.  This is a fun way to stay engaged with Chinese popular culture, while improving vocab recognition.

With the date of my first HSK exam fast approaching I have relied heavily on Mandarin Shooter Quest (MSQ), a shooting style game that breaks up the monotony of rote learning, something that has become the bane of my four-year struggle with Chinese.  Players choose from Most Used or HSK world lists then progress through 24 Chinese cities while identifying pinyin, characters, and English words. I feel a tool such as MSQ complements traditional forms of study as time otherwise spent mindlessly scrolling through my newsfeed could be spent practising HSK characters with very little effort. I think that a product that presents an exciting, educative experience to help even the most language challenged individuals (myself included) can improve their rate of character memorisation. Pronunciation can also be improved by turning on the sound function, something that I find particularly beneficial, as I am more likely to remember a word when I hear it.

There are no short cuts

Throughout my Mandarin endeavours, I’ve learned that there are no real short cuts to mastering the language, but by making study enjoyable and suitable to my own learning style, I have noticed a marked improvement in my progress. Moving forward I need to remember to stick to my study plans and not be deterred by the “Cucumbers” of the world and find any opportunity to practice speaking. Through none traditional forms of learning, I’ve been able to break up the often tedious hours of study and make vocabulary learning engaging and relevant. My biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to embark on Chinese learning came from a University lecturer of mine. In response to a particular Mandarin related outburst he told me, “it is often unfair to paint a picture of weakness of students, as perceived “weaknesses” can often become strengths and vice versa.”  When it comes to my relationship with Chinese, this is definitely true.  I don’t think I would have realised how important Chinese was to me if I had not failed in my first year. By recognising the weaknesses in my study habits I was able to form the best methods of study for me. Though this still an ongoing process, by recognising how and why I study mandarin,  I think I am in a much better position to achieving my goals!

Harbin Ice Festival