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Discovering Chinese I. a physicist living in Beijing-Jonathan Shock

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Jonathan is an Intermediate level Chinese learner and started his Unconventional Chinese lessons in April, 2020. In the 'Discovering Chinese' blog series, he will share his language learning journey and life experiences in Beijing and beyond.

It was 2005, I was a year from finishing my PhD, and I had applied to many universities around the world for a research position….and in amongst the pile of ’No thank you’s ', was a letter from Beijing that said Yes. I had the option to try and fund myself for a fourth year of my PhD, but I figured that this sounded like an adventure that I shouldn’t miss out on.

During my PhD I had had two Chinese housemates, and had really enjoyed getting to know them, eating with them, and finding out a little bit about Chinese culture. Unfortunately, I hadn’t learnt more than a couple of words of Chinese at the time.

So, at the age of 25, with my physics studies done, and a ticket booked to Beijing, I figured I should learn a little Mandarin. I bought a phrase book and a CD and started going through it. It was hard. Like, really hard. I still remember fumbling over and over again trying to ask where the bank is. And tones…forget it! I could barely notice them, let alone reproduce them. And with maybe a couple of dozen Chinese words memorised, I took off to Beijing for a two year position as a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

I still remember the smell on landing, a smell of concrete, dust and smog, of cooking and coal stacks. It is a memory which sticks with me 15 years later, and every time I go back to Beijing and get out of the airport, it brings back a rush of emotions of the most amazing two years of my life.

(Fresh faced and 26 with my new colleagues)

The first weeks were a whirlwind. I rushed from one appointment to another organising all of the bureaucratic things which one has to do on arriving in a new country. ID cards, banks, health tests, police documents. At the same time I was discovering what it was to live in Beijing. I was discovering the dizzying array of incredible food, the temples dotted around the city, the elderly practicing martial arts with swords in the park at 6am, the smell of boazi on my short walk to work, which quickly became my breakfast. It was the most incredible mix of old and new, with punk bars and hip-hop clubs open all hours, while bricks were still moved about sometimes on horses.

(A mix of Old and New)

(The 非主流feizhuliu scene was big around this time)

I knew very quickly that learning Chinese was going to make a huge difference to my quality of life, so I found a teacher and started lessons once a week. It was hard, we started with characters straight away, but I’m now so glad that I did. I practiced my characters in my lined note paper and began to see the patterns, I learnt to use a dictionary, which at first seemed impossible, but quickly became second nature, and most importantly I found the perfect people to practice with. 

In Beijing, at the time, there were only three or four underground lines, and so taxis were a cheap and convenient way to get everywhere. There were thousands of them, so I knew that I would never likely meet the same taxi driver twice. And so I talked. I would sit in the front of the taxi, and just use whatever new Chinese words I had been learning. They seemed amused, sometimes confused, but always open to talking. This seemed the perfect way to get talking, and I believe that this is absolutely key with any language you learn.

I met dozens of foreigners in my time in Beijing, and many of them spent months, or even years working through books, learning vocabulary, grammar, characters, and yet never said a word. They would always say that they were not good enough to talk yet. Rubbish!! As soon as you know one word you are good enough to talk. Speaking a new language is like exercise. You can’t read about it to get good. You have to do it, in realistic situations, and preferably with native speakers. Your body needs to get the experience of creating the sounds. Your lips, tongue, jaw, throat and even your lungs have to become familiar with the feeling of saying the words. Do it in the knowledge that you will be misunderstood, and occasionally laughed at. Enjoy the fact that you have made someone laugh. You’re giving it a go, and that means a lot.

(Behind here, the little store that I would get my jiaozi and baozi from)

The next stage of my learning actually came on a month long trip to Japan for a research collaboration. I no longer had access to my teacher, and so I got hold of a set of mp3s. There were 90 of them, and I started listening to one in the evening, and then I’d repeat it the next morning, followed by a new one that evening. The key was to repeat, out loud, everything I heard. I would walk around the streets of Tokyo sometimes with my headphones in saying random phrases of Chinese. I definitely looked very strange, but I was learning.

By the time I got back to Beijing, my speaking had come on considerably. I shocked my Chinese teacher on our first lesson, using phrases with a fluent rhythm that I’d never had before. It was soon after this that I had my true breakthrough moment. I was sitting outside a shopping complex, spotted a guy with a professional looking camera and went to say hi, as I was also interested in photography. He didn’t speak any English, and so for the next 15 minutes we had a broken, but interesting chat in Chinese. It wasn’t anything complicated, and I probably only understood about 30% of what he said. But it was a revelation.

In my seven years of high school I had studied French and Russian, and never once had I been asked to think about why learning languages was important. Yet here I was, talking with a stranger, communicating, in a new language, giving me an opportunity which would have been impossible otherwise. I felt a wave of emotion overwhelm me. I realised in that moment that I had suddenly switched on a communication channel with over a billion people, who I would not have been able to communicate with before.

That moment was truly a powerful one for me and it spurred me on to communicate with as many people as I could. My Chinese was still very elementary, but it was enough to have basic conversations with whomever I wanted. My parents came out to visit me and we went on a 10 day trip, through Xi’an, along the Yangtze River and to Hangzhou, and I acted as interpreter. I now had a basic, but functional use of the language. 

(My mother’s painting always attracted a lot of attention in China.)

There were many people who learned much faster than I did, who took regular lessons, who studied much harder than me. I was not the best student, but I was enjoying the journey, and I think that that is vital for a language learner. You can be driven by discipline, or you can be driven by motivation, and for me it was the latter. That’s not always for the best, but it suited me well at the time.

In the next post…from Beijing to Spain, and the Chinese continues...

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