My experiences learning Chinese, travelling in China, and understanding China have been quite unique, mainly because I have a Chinese background myself, and my relationship with the country is coloured by an unusual mix of family ties, academic knowledge, and an inexplicable sense of familiarity.
Discovering China and the Chinese language: a late bloomer
I am half-Chinese on my dad’s side, but growing up, I never really learnt to speak Mandarin. My vocabulary consisted of ni hao, zai jian, and Nainai xin nian hao until about the age of fifteen. My parents didn’t make me attend Saturday morning Chinese school and we didn’t practise speaking Mandarin much at home. Yet after hearing the stories of countless Chinese children growing up in Australia fluent in Mandarin but totally uninterested in Chinese language and culture, I’ve come to think that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, being given the freedom to decide whether to learn Chinese definitely had the opposite effect – it made me more interested and determined to connect with my Chinese heritage, leading me to pursue a major in Chinese Language at Melbourne University. Plus, attempting to learn Chinese at home is not as straightforward as it might seem, and many others in a similar position have told me the same.
At first, it was strange sitting in a classroom, learning to read, write and speak so formally. I sometimes looked at my teachers and imagined them to be family friends sitting next to me in a restaurant and encouraging me to try all the dishes. As I became more proficient in the language, I also came to learn more about Chinese history, culture and current affairs. As a result, China was no longer just a fun and mystical land, full of noodles, dragons and smiling relatives, but a booming economic powerhouse that everyone wanted to do business with, analyse, and speculate about, in a way that was foreign to me.
Study and travel in China
My first trip to China without my family was at the end of 2010 when I completed a short-term Chinese language program at Tianjin Normal University, funded by Hanban’s Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) scholarship. As anyone who has studied the language in-country will attest, there is no better teacher than China itself. Within a few weeks, my ability to speak Mandarin had improved tenfold. Although, the key is to not just rely on the few hours of language instruction provided in the classroom but to actively learn by speaking and making mistakes out on the streets and in people’s homes.
However, those who have a Chinese background know that sometimes this can be difficult due to the ever-present assumption that you, of course, must be fluent in Chinese (“You look Chinese, so why can’t you speak Chinese?”). Upon uttering a few greeting phrases, the local Chinese person will usually assume that you are a native speaker and proceed to tell you everything about themselves, which quickly makes casual practice a bit more complicated. Fortunately, I was able to chat with the local university students who were very patient and generous in teaching me new vocabulary and phrases. Having a language partner to practise with (and one who understands your level of Chinese!) is invaluable, especially after returning home when the words begin to slip away at an alarming rate without regular use.
After my first short-term Chinese language program at Tianjin Normal University, I completed another intensive Chinese language course at Fudan University, Shanghai, at the beginning of 2012 (available to Melbourne University students studying Chinese). This was funded by a Melbourne Global Language Scholarship which enabled me to pay for the flights, tuition, and accommodation costs. Similar to my last experience, it was important to combine the formal language instruction provided in the morning and afternoons with conversations outside the classroom, and some travelling throughout China afterward, helped consolidate my skills further. Without a doubt, these Chinese language programs have given me the confidence to visit all sorts of places in China. In addition to Tianjin and Shanghai, I have been to Beijing, Xi’an, Luoyang, Suzhou, Wuxi, Yixing, Guilin, Kunming, Lijiang, Tibet (Lhasa), Chengdu, Chongqing, Hong Kong and Xiamen (where my family lives).
Returning to where it all began
Xiamen is a port city in Fujian province and is almost directly opposite Taiwan. It was one of the original four Special Economic Zones established in the 1980s to encourage foreign investment and trade in China. Xiamen is now a popular destination for domestic tourists due to its natural scenery, mild climate all year round, and relatively relaxed lifestyle. It is home to the famous Gulangyu Island, a picturesque islet which retains a ‘colonial’ character, due to the European-style architecture left over from Xiamen’s 19th Century experience of colonialism. Like most other coastal cities in China, Xiamen is a global economic hub. But to me, Xiamen is where my dad was born, where my parents met and married, and where my Chinese family lives.
My Chinese experiences: some unique, some less so
I can’t remember the exact moment when it happened, but somewhere between 2005 and 2015, I had my first proper conversation with my grandparents. It would have been about food, the weather, what I was going to do that day, or possibly even which card I should play during a game of Zheng Shangyou (aka ‘Big Two’) with my Yeye. One day, my Nainai told me about what life was like raising a family during the Cultural Revolution. I can’t begin to explain what it means to me to be able to talk to her on the phone now and tell her about what I’m up to. It doesn’t have to be anything exciting – often, she just wants to know I’ve eaten that day.
I think that everyone who has been to China will understand the profound feeling you get from making a connection with someone, noticing the sharp disparities and contradictions between ancient and modern China, being overwhelmed by natural and man-made vastness, and sitting in a teahouse or street-side restaurant observing people’s lives. Having a Chinese heritage certainly creates a unique experience, but the feeling of getting to know China, the language and the culture is the same for everyone.
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