In the summer of 2018, I moved to Shanghai and actually, I only planned to stay maybe two years in China, so I didn’t consider it necessary to learn Chinese. In Shanghai it’s OK to get by without speaking Mandarin. You either point at pictures, or show the translated sentence on your phone. For some situations like registering a bank account, either the bank account has someone who can speak English, or you can bring a colleague to help you.
Either way, to solve two years of that marginal hassle, I wasn’t about to spend around 10,000 USD and +500 hours on learning Mandarin. And yet I did.
My manager at the advertising agency (native Chinese) pushed me to take Mandarin lessons. She had worked in Hong Kong before, when her boss pushed her to learn Cantonese, and either she felt it was so useful to her, or she felt this is was revenge passed on — she said I must learn Mandarin. The gap between Mandarin and Cantonese isn’t as big as English and Mandarin, but alas.
There was only one real school in the Yangpu district in Shanghai where I worked, which was GoEast. But I hadn’t realized how big the district was: still 40 minutes on an electric scooter! Already on the way I imagined I wouldn’t be taking lessons here, simply too far — but I had an appointment with Emily and was already halfway, so I kept on riding anyway. When I arrived, it was dark and Emily was standing on the terrace, waiting for me. That surprised me. And also the interior of GoEast’s campus was like a living room. A school can make such an impression?
I duly signed up for the HSK1 course with a group class, with a German girl and a South-African guy, and we’d do 36 class hours in 9 weeks. The South-African already spoke a bit of Chinese but by the end of the course, we were all level, sort of. Despite being pushed a bit by my manager, I did take learning Chinese seriously, I even left a business trip in Hong Kong earlier to make it back on time for the class on Thursday.
Mandarin didn’t turn out to be the struggle I imagined it’d be. Actually the classes from Ellie and Stella were fun and I didn’t mind riding the long way to school on my scooter. (Also the agency I worked at allowed me to leave a bit earlier on Tuesday & Thursday.) I did my homework (a little bit of work) and progressed during the classes, and could order maybe some rice and say my name and nationality. I felt great. I was never good with languages in high school, so to be learning Mandarin and progressing as well as learning it was a surprise. But then again, I was a totally different person in 2018 compared to 2005, and also I was learning a foreign language while living abroad, which is very different than learning in a classroom and having no way to speak French or German with natives.
But come the end of the HSK1 course it was almost the Chinese New Year, and my brother and his girlfriend were about to come to China and I figured I’d continue learning but afterwards. Three weeks became three months, and all this time I didn’t learn any Chinese. Maybe it was because I had time, maybe because I wanted to impress my brother more next time he would come to China, or maybe it was because I did really want to learn Chinese. But in April of 2019, I resumed Mandarin classes at GoEast, this time with private class from Myra 老师. And from there, I never looked back.
HSK2 went quickly, but Myra left GoEast after I finished HSK2, so I did GoEast’s Hanzi course in group class setting with Morris 老师. GoEast has a method of first teaching you HSK1 & 2 without characters, just focussing on speaking and reading Pinyin, before introducing characters.
The Hanzi course was my favorite course, ever. Suddenly the sounds of the language started to make sense, and it was easier to distinguish “10” and “to be” and “teacher” and “time”, which are both pronounced as “shi”, but now I could read them as 十, 是, 师, and 时. I walked around in Shanghai and saw so many characters I could recognize, on menus and store facades. Suddenly I could connect to it. The first time I read a Hanzi character (我) without first having the Pinyin in my mind, but immediately the meaning (me) was magical.
The threshold of conversations in Chinese
After that came HSK3, again with Morris but this time private class. And this is a really important level, because after it you can really make conversations, kinda about every topic even though you need to flex your way around conversations. For instance, I could say “country” and “boss”, but not “president (of a country)”, so I’d say “boss of the country” and Chinese friends would understand me. HSK3 was a fantastic threshold, and I started actively making some Chinese friends, including Eva.
HSK4 added more detail to those conversations, and really moved my Chinese from an elementary to intermediate level. My speaking improved with Chinese friends, but my GoEast teacher (still Morris) helped me improve my grammar, reading skills, new words and characters. HSK4 took the pace out of my learning; they’re two long books. But at the end of the course I was immensely proud. I know how I saw, before covid, many students in the GoEast campus carrying these red books, and I could hear their conversations in Chinese, and I was sure I could never reach that level. And yet with slow process and almost 300 hours of class, I did.
HSK4 would naturally lead into HSK5, but I decided against this. Already with HSK4, I found the books becoming boring and full of pedantic life advice. I remember a text in HSK4 about a taxi driver who is in a traffic jam every day, but he loves it because he can calm down. And other texts are all about how you should 学习努力 (study hard) so you can 成功 (succeed). Not just that, HSK5 and HSK6 go firmly into Chinese written language, which is vastly different than Chinese spoken language.
Out of HSK and into Spoken Chinese
I choose Spoken Chinese, also to try it out and invigorate my studies, because my motivation was lacking after HSK4. I started with Morris and the first few classes, I was just smiling by the classes by how useful they were, learning so many useful words and re-using words but with new meanings or usages.
Quickly, Morris left GoEast to move back to his hometown Chengdu. It was not my choice, and as much as I adored Morris as a teacher, it was good to change teachers too. It brought some fresh energy to my studies. Victoria was my new teacher, and we soon got into a good rhythm. She prepares for each class really well, and she knows exactly which words I know and don’t. We went through Intermediate Book 1 and 2, but in the summer of 2021 it was interrupted with me joining the summer course of GoEast.
This was group class again, on the other campus in downtown Shanghai. I had to take the metro three times a week, which tired me more than the class itself. The course was interesting, mostly using ‘real life’ materials from Bilibili vloggers, so the words were very close to real life, as well as the speed and slight accents in their Mandarin. This course was taught by Shishi 老师, who did great. But somehow I did not connect to the course well. Maybe it was that the students in the group class weren’t the same level, or maybe I just got too used to private class that the pace of group class was too slow. Or it was the learning materials? I don’t know. But came the end of 54 hours, I was glad to go back to private class with Victoria.
And that is where I am now, writing this in January 2022. I’m halfway through Advanced Speaking Course Book 2 (发展汉语，高级汉语). I actually did some classes with teachers also from another school (IMCPI) but mainly to compare GoEast teachers.
Mandarin classes have become something I don’t necessarily enjoy super much, it’s more like (how I guess) other people go to the gym twice a week. Or how you brush your teeth. You just do it. But I’m comfortable to talk with Chinese people and then, living and travelling in China is fantastic.
Learning Chinese in a timeline
- HSK1: 36 hours, group class (November 2018)
- three months gap
- HSK2: 32 hours, private class (April 2019)
- Hanzi course; 36 hours, group class (November 2019)
- HSK3: 50 hours, private class (December 2019)
- HSK4上: 72 hours, private class (March 2020)
- HSK4下: 72 hours, private class (July 2020)
- Spoken Chinese Intermediate book 1: 50 hours, private class (October 2020)
- Spoken Chinese Intermediate book 2: 50 hours, private class
- Spoken Course, China Today: 54 hours (Summer 2021)
- Spoken Chinese Advanced book 1: 50 hours, private class
- Spoken Chinese Advanced book 2: ongoing (30 at time of writing), private class
Total hours: 532
I’m writing down these experiences because the further I get from them, the more I’ll forget how magical it felt to read Hanzi for the first time, how exciting that
Learning Mandarin has been one of the most meaningful things in my life — not just learning itself but also living in China and making friends because of it. And I don’t want to lose those memories.