When I first decided to move to China, I was determined to learn Chinese. I downloaded apps, I looked up strategies to learn Chinese. I knew I’d be proficient in Mandarin by the time I landed in BJ.
Six months later, when the cold winter winds greeted me I knew three words: nǐ hǎo 你好, xiè xie 谢谢, and líng 零.
Moving to China with almost zero Chinese proved itself less challenging than I imagined. I found plenty of people that spoke English or had menus I could point at, but I spent my first three months in China surrounded by sounds and dancing tongues I couldn’t understand; I went from a rampant and aggressive people watcher and noisy eavesdropper to a lonely soul wandering the streets, paying more attention to cars than to the bodies around me.
Living in Beijing without learning Chinese is possible; I’ve met too many expats who’ve been here for five or six years who only know the basics. But coming to China without attempting to learn the language turns you into a doddling toddler, leaving you socially and practically stunted.
Local people are incredible. Their stories are fascinating and intoxicating, and their lives, despite being in the same city, rarely mirror the coddled existence expats typically face. I spent six months struggling to make Chinese friends—not out of lack of mutual interest, but we found language to be a huge barrier in making connections. I was living the 这个 （zhè ge） life while they were capable of simple conversations in English. Through time and patience, I developed friendships with local people, but there seemed to be a silent understanding that my lack of Chinese meant a lack of potential.
On the practical side, I knew learning Chinese would help me thrive on a day-to-day basis. As a non-Chinese speaking expat, I often pay something I call the “foreigner tax.” The foreigner tax comes in a variety of ways: sometimes I pay more than I should for things, sometimes I don’t get what I asked for, sometimes I get what I wanted but not exactly how I wanted it. All of these were minor inconveniences, but they built up and made me feel like I was imposing on the city that truly felt like home.
It also created a sense of dependency on others I wasn’t comfortable with. If I wanted to buy minutes or data for my phone I had to have one of my previous cards on me so I had something to show the cashier. If I went to a restaurant without pictures or an English menu I’d have to leave. Two months in, I tricked one of my Chinese-speaking foreign friend into being at my house at the same time as the guy who came to set up my WiFi. It wasn’t done out of maliciousness, I just lacked the tools to help myself.
Eight months into my China adventure, I finally woke up and realized what I wanted my life to look like in China. I’m a guest here, but I feel at home. I’ve met people who inspire me, but I haven’t gotten to know them well because I’ve chosen passivity over progress.
When I took my first Chinese class, I was surprised by how much I’d picked up naturally. I’d spent eight months hearing people speak around me, and my ears became attuned to the sound of common Chinese phrases, even without me knowing it.
After nearly a year here, my only regret is that I didn’t start learning Chinese earlier. China welcomed me with open arms, but I kept myself at an unnecessary distance because I didn’t take the time to embrace my new home. Just because I could survive without Chinese doesn’t mean I ought to or, ultimately, wanted to.
About the Author
Holly Baer is a writer and English teacher from Jackson, MS, USA. She lives in Dongcheng District, Beijing. She spends her free time writing, lingering in coffee shops, and wandering hutongs.