About linguistic baby steps, pinyin, changing schools and how Chinese characters are opening a whole new world to me.
Now where were we? Back in February I wrote about the language barrier. Something which cannot be ignored when living in China! I concluded that learning mandarin is extremely useful and that I was still determined to do my best to learn it. So how have I been getting on?
Timeline of classes, change of schools and change of teachers
From February to June 2016: Just over a month after I arrived in Beijing, I started taking classes at the School for diplomatic missions. The name is fancier than the facilities but I loved my teacher Zoe!! I took group lessons with 3 lovely ladies. We were all absolute beginners. We started with the pronunciation of vowels and consonants, combinations of the two and the four tones in Chinese language. I remember thinking "can we just move on to vocabulary now" but I've later realised just how important it is to pronounce syllables correctly and that it's FUNDAMENTAL to know which tones to use! As a beginner, you normally start with learning pinyin. Pinyin is basically Chinese written in the latin alphabet. It was only invented in the 1950's (published by the Chinese government in 1958) hence people who went to school before the 60's have never learnt it. So pinyin is really only useful to a certain extent and as you advance on the levels of Chinese learning, you completely stop using pinyin! What's very useful, on the other hand, is conversational Chinese! A lot of our lessons were spent on learning really useful everyday Chinese. Time, negotiating prices, directions, colours and even "Ayi vocabulary", Simply because most families in Beijing have an Ayi (house help) and they rarely speak any English, Ours is no exception!
August 2016: I'm back in Beijing after 2 months of break from studying Chinese. And yes I did bring my books on holiday in Europe and no I did not open them at all.
So a lot was forgotten but I wanted to pick up again and continue, Unfortunately, due to different plans, interests etc., we could not start up as a group again and since I was keen to be in a group class, I decided to change schools.
Mid September 2016: On my friend Alessia's recommendation, I contacted "the Bridge school" and luckily there was a group class for level two starting just a week later. A total of 6 lessons per week (2 times 3 hours) Perfect! The group consisted of 5 women including myself and we clicked from the first moment we met. And more importantly, although I definitely feel like the weakest link, we were more or less on the same level. But the enthusiasm didn't last long. Despite her being a very sweet person, we had to agree that the teacher was not living up to our expectations. The school took our complaint well and promised to find someone with much more teaching experience for groups.
Mid October 2016: And that's when Yǔ Laoshi walked through the classroom door. I was blown away by her energy from the first lesson. 3 hours of high pace and of speaking Chinese around 80 percent of the time. She gives (and checks) homework, is friendly and funny but firm. No mercy, no messing about, picks up immediately if we try to check our wechat messages in class. Exactly what I needed :-)
Learning the characters: I almost get emotional
Starting to learn the Chinese characters, was a moment I had dreaded and looked forward to at the same time! On the one hand, it seemed like an unmanageable task and on the other hand, it felt like a natural (and unavoidable step) if you really want to learn mandarin.
There are tens of thousands of characters but, according to Wikipedia, with "only" 3000-4000 you can obtain "functional literacy" in Chinese. Piece of cake, right?
A character corresponds to a word or a syllable, Not to a letter. For example; 马 (mǎ) means horse and 门 (mén) means door.
The way some characters are written makes sense! For example 人 (rén) which means person. Can you see how it's a little man walking?
Learning characters is both fascinating and useful! I would even say that it's the part of the lesson I now look most forward to! My aim is to learn enough characters to be able to read public signs and possibly "decode" a simple newspaper article in the very far future! Now I've said it. No turning back!
I am blessed to have quite a few Chinese friends and acquaintances so a linguistic exchange with someone who was keen to learn English, seemed like a perfect idea.
I met Lǐ Lìn at rehearsals with the International Festival Chorus, and we decided to meet up to chat partly in Chinese, partly in English. I casually brought my unfinished homework to our first meeting and luckily she didn't mind helping me. We drilled Chinese vocabulary and characters and she talked to me in English about her passion for travelling. We'll hopefully manage to meet again next week after she's back from 伦敦 (Lúndūn) - European capital - have a guess :-)
Recently I've been giving myself quite a few high-fives for convincing the rest of the family to buy a car. It turned out to be a good decision!
The first of October is the Chinese National day and the week following is known as "Golden week. So we decided to take the car on holiday! Yes, proper inauguration of our Volvo from 2003.
We chose Inner Mongolia (which is in China not in Mongolia) as our destination because it sounded interesting and is within a bearable distance from Beijing (see map below). That was the official explanation. I was later to find out that my husband suggested Inner Mongolia because there was a marathon there during Golden week. Sneaky!
We have many (rather long) road trips behind us. It's practical! Pack your bags, fill the car up with snacks and drinks, give the kids orders to bring enough stuff for them not to be bored during the trip. Electronics galore in our case. No, wait - to be fair, one child actually brought a BOOK too!
The highway on the first of October: Oh dear!
We were optimistic and left Beijing at 7 am. It was supposed to be 6 am but we didn't manage to get ready on time. And I wonder if it would have changed anything. The first 10 K went smoothly but then it changed. We should have listened to advice about avoiding the highways on the 1st of October!! It took us 4 hours to do the next 60 K!!! It cleared up after the exit to the Badalling Great wall section. Finally out of the woods! And into the first highway toilet and "restaurant" of the day. It wasn't pretty. And the food on offer was single wrapped chicken feet and boiled eggs. But we managed to find a roll of Oreos. Lunch!
First stop: Hohhot, Inner Mongolia
As most of our road trips, nothing was really planned. We did not book a guided tour to stay in yurts and drink sheep's milk for breakfast. In retrospective, that might have been a better way of doing it, but we never got round to looking into options, prices etc. So we booked the Sheraton in Hohhot (and I can hear you go "come ON"! Seriously?"). But it was the perfect base for a couple of nice temples, the Inner Mongolia museum and a fantastic day at the Xilamuren grasslands! Hohhot has 2,5 million inhabitants and is the capital of Inner Mongolia. It's quite interesting also thanks to its large Hui Muslim population, A city where temples and mosques lie side by side. However, I would say that 3 days there is more than enough!
Second stop: Bayannur, Inner Mongolia
4 hours further west lies Bayannur. A city of almost 1.7 million inhabitants which is famous for...nothing. And tourists are a very rare sight there. Check out my pictures below of us being treated like superstars. But the said Marathon (Bayannur International Marathon) took place here and more than the city itself, the Marathon became the reason why Bayannur was an unforgettable experience.
My husband Francesco was invited, together with other foreign runners, to participate in the race. Their travel expenses, hotel and food for 3 days were offered. As is a cash reward for finishing the race. This is a common practice used at sports events in China. Partly because these runners give the city an image of being attractive to foreigners but there is much more to it and rest assured that I will write more about this soon!
We stayed at a typical Chinese hotel in Bayannur. Good standard, rather clean and with a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I believe the food was the same for all three meals. Thank God for the owner of the hotel shop who had decided to stock up on Snicker bars!
Apart from the western runners, there was a group of professional runners from Kenya and Ethiopia. Rarely have I met such a nice and humble group of people! So much sacrifice and training. Travelling the world (when their agents manage to book them in) for weekly races to try to make a living.
The marathon went quite well for Francesco, the atmosphere at the finish line was great, and our visit in Bayannur ended on a high in the evening where a rock concert had been organised. Needless to say that the whole group became selfie targets again.
On the road again - back to Beijing!
We were around 950 kilometres from Beijing and decided to drive back in one day. The distance did not scare us but we were worried about what would happen once we approached Beijing. It was the third last day of "Golden week" and we knew it would be a busy travelling day. But it went smoothly! And once we were back home, we thanked the old Volvo and agreed that there will be many more self-drive holidays to come!
What to know when taking a road trip in China: