Some days it seems as though the majority of foreigners in China speak amazingly fluent Mandarin. Some days it feels like no one cares about it once they are able to order a plate of xiaolongbao and tell a taxi driver their intended intersection.
That’s the Taxi Chinese Plateau. And there are a lot of reasons why it is so difficult to get over. For me, those boiled down to two main points: time and questioning if it actually matters.
The Quick Fix: Making Time
Like going to the gym, eating right all the time, and getting enough sleep, most of the people working full time in China just don’t think they have the time to learn Chinese. But it isn’t really about the time, is it?
Speaking from personal experience, it can be incredibly hard to motivate yourself to head to two hours of language classes, homework unfinished – or probably never started – at the end of a full day of meetings, projects, and deadlines. Language studies take a back seat, even though progressing in Mandarin undoubtedly will help you get that next promotion or next job.
It’s borderline crazy to try and just wake up one day and start going to class, thinking that just because you paid, you have to get your money’s worth. After all, sunk costs shouldn’t factor into decision making, right? And it’s been a tough week, you deserve a break. Your couch is calling and you must answer.
The best thing you can do is talk to someone about it. No, not your best friend over beers on a Saturday. Your boss. Let them know that this matters to you and that you want to have the freedom to pursue mastering the language of the country you live in. If you’re up for a contract renegotiation, try and get them to cover part of the courses – that way, you both have a financial interest in keeping the classes going. It’s easier to hit the gym when you have a buddy counting on you and it’s easier to go to class when you are accountable to more than just yourself, too.
The Real Issue: Why Bother?
Why keep learning Chinese? I can get myself from Point A to Point B. Everyone at my favorite restaurants speaks to me in English. Everyone in the street speaks to me in English. And they all tell me my Chinese is amazing after only hearing me say 你好 (nǐ hǎo). Do I really need to devote myself to learning one of the hardest languages in the world (for many Romance language and English speakers) if it is almost never been useful in my daily life? I’m not even sure how long I’ll be in China, anyway!
No one can answer that question for you. There are no practical tips to get over the hump, nothing as easy as “talk to your boss.”
It’s the question I struggled with for months after I finished my first round of evening classes. Then, I got some perspective.
First, open a map online. Find the addresses of all your favorite spots in the city and chart them. Now, zoom out to see the entire city. If you’re like many people, myself included, your daily life barely covers a fraction of the city you live in. One of the reasons we move overseas is to broaden our horizons. If your entire life is centered on two or three central districts, how much broader is that than your life would have been back home?
Now, consider this: that is your comfort zone now. And, one of the reasons you rarely venture out of it is because navigating in a world of characters and regional dialects is daunting for even the most seasoned China Hand.
But, what parts of the city could you be missing out on? What galleries, restaurants, parks, shops, and museums are waiting just a few metro stops out of your new comfort zone?
Now, take a look at this map:
It’s every major language spoken in Mainland China. That huge swath of blue is the area that speaking good Mandarin opens up for you to explore in a way no mere tourist ever could. It lets you ask questions, dig around, and find places and experiences that are unavailable to non-Mandarin speakers.
And the other areas, you ask? There, it is so much easier to get around using the local lingua franca, Mandarin Chinese, than trying to brute force it with English. And exploring is why you moved here in the first place, isn’t it? You could have stayed home, saved for a bit, and spent a month touring the sites from Beijing to Xi’an to Hong Kong and had a blast dipping your toe in a culture so different to your own.
But, you moved here; you dove in. You were curious. And your curiosity deserves to be let off its leash. Let it lead you somewhere you never knew existed.
No one is saying you have to speak perfect Mandarin to get it done. But, there is a major difference between piling into a cab on your first day in a new city, armed with the cross-streets of what TripAdvisor says is the best restaurant in town, and hopping into that same cab and asking the driver where his favorite wonton spot is.