我去中国 – I’m going to China!

In the early hours on Saturday I will be embarking on my maiden voyage to China. I’m headed first to Beijing for a language course. After that, I’ll be travelling, before coming home in time for New Years Eve. As the date draws closer, any little doubts about my Mandarin skills or worries about liking busy Beijing are being pushed aside by a building sense of excitement. My friend Francesca has been a great help too with her unbridled enthusiasm and advice, and confidence in my success. I’m very grateful for this opportunity, and my family has been very supportive.

Just anecdotally, I think there are many Australians for whom China isn’t on the radar. It’s a big unknown to them. Chinese culture is considered traditional and exotic rather than fresh or intriguing like Korean pop music or Japanese manga. The political system is repressive; their products cheap; and the people have different ideas about nose-blowing etiquette, driving rules, and table manners. The food is good though – san choy bow, Mongolian lamb, sweet and sour pork, fried rice…

Okay, so I may be verging on the insensitive with that account and for that I apologise. Even with my ancestral Chinese roots (via Malaysia), I too am Australian, and no expert on China. Without the ubiquitous presence of a pop culture machine akin to America’s Hollywood, without the shared history of the World Wars, and with People’s Republic’s reclusion through most of the Cold War, I believe we simply haven’t been exposed to or educated about China as much as we think.

I only began really learning about China at the start of 2011. But since taking James Reilly’s class “Politics of China” that year I’ve been captivated by the Chinese alternate universe. These days, I follow a number of blogs and podcasts about China and have been involved with the Australia China Youth Association this year. I’m really looking forward to finally going there and being able explore it for myself. And the great thing is, China is such a huge place – if this first trip goes well, there’ll still be so many other things to see next time!

As for my Mandarin skills, I did a year of it at university in 2011. If it weren’t for my exchange to Germany I surely would have continued with it after that. As it is, I’ve essentially had a 2 year break with a couple little patches of self-study and an AIESEC short-course. It’s a challenging language in terms of vocabulary and characters but it’s certainly not impossible to learn. The grammar is in many ways more simple than Indo-European languages and after two weeks of practicing just tones and sounds back when I started, they’re no longer a thing for me. I’m certain I will improve a lot when I’m over there.

I’ve had a great time learning Spanish, and it’s really difficult to shift my focus away from it, but I finally feel ready to. I draw a lot of confidence from my existing experiences learning languages. For example, I know what it’s like to feel frustrated when things aren’t moving as fast as expected, or the rush of confidence you get when you negotiate new situations in your new language. In particular, I feel I have developed a much better understanding of how I learn languages in the past year or so. I’m very much looking forward to applying all of my skills and expertise with language learning to Mandarin.

Just a heads-up: While I can’t make promises about the regularity of my posts, I do hope to continue writing during my trip. I still have a lot more to say about my experiences learning Spanish, and I’d also like to share more of my thoughts about discovering China (either here or in a hypothetical other blog).

Related: Steve Kaufmann on learning Chinese | Moses McCormack on learning Chinese

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