If you end up in the countryside of China or find yourself in a rural area, knowing a little bit of Chinese will get you a long way (and if you know the local dialect, then very good on you). Not only in the provincial areas is Chinese useful, but also the cities, where although there may be a huge foreign contingent of English speakers, native or not, Chinese will become a boon within your lifestyle. If you are not already convinced and signed up for a Chinese class in Shanghai, here are some reasons as to why learning Chinese in China could be your saving grace.
1. Ordering Food
It’s true that some places have pictures and menus in English, but this is not the majority of places. Often times, the best places to eat are the ones that you cannot possibly judge by the store front; you may just happen across the best xiaolongbao (steamed pork soup dumplings) in the city, but completely pass it by since it looks like a little hole-in-the-wall where you cannot read the menu or ask for anything resembling what you would want. Just being able to read the difference between all the different kinds of meat characters or some of the vegetables will let you have more freedom of choice.
If you are vegetarian, then you can learn how to say that you need something without meat (they may look at you like you are crazy and ask you if pork is okay, but eventually they will understand that you really mean no meat). Knowing how to order your food will also give you some variety in your food choices, instead of ordering what a friend told you how to say the other day and now all you eat is niurou lamian (pulled beef noodles). Chinese food – or just “food” in China – has so much variety that you could probably go to a different provincial themed food restaurant for a whole month, so do yourself a favor and learn the basics of what is on the table.
2. Taxi Drivers
What about Taxi drivers? Some of them may expect you to know Shanghainese for some reason – I’m already trying with the common language shifu, cut me some slack – but none of them will speak English, unless in Taiwan and Hong Kong where some do. Otherwise, you may be stuck with a cab driver that actually has no idea where he is going and you will have to direct him/her. This is where “turn left” “turn right” and “go straight” come in handy. I usually have trouble with drivers trying to find my streets in Shanghai, so I have come to perfect these common directions. However, if you are really stuck, there is always the call-a-friend-who-speaks-Chinese lifeline and your problems are solved – except for the not knowing Chinese problem on your part that still stands.
What it comes down to is feeling a sense of independence and being in control of your fate or in this case of your final destination. Some cab drivers may also be curious about where you are from, or interested in how much you make (I generally don’t answer that one, even though it is a very common question here). So in that case, just being able to have some small talk with your friendly (but sometimes not) shifu will add a smile to your day.
3. Traveling in and Around China
The first time I traveled in China by myself was after three months of intensive Chinese lessons in Shanghai (three hours a day, five days a week) and to tell you the truth, I was not as nervous as one may think I should have been. While traveling in China, especially in smaller cities or in the countryside, English is almost nowhere to be found (sometimes Russian way up north, but that doesn’t help me either). But being able to know how to say and understand directions, times, as well as how to ask what bus routes or trains you should take to your destination, leaves you with just the right amount of confidence - and a sense of accomplishment. The people you encounter will just be happy that you are trying to speak their native tongue, and compliment you on your efforts. Throw in a bit of modesty after they compliment you, and they will surely think you a reputable waiguoren (foreigner) after only a few exchanged sentences.
4. Making Connections
As you may have experienced, trying to make a connection with someone where neither of you have a language in common can prove quite difficult. Conversations are limited to hand gestures and maybe a few words that you know in each others language. Just knowing a little bit of Chinese can help you get by and have fulfilling, although limited, conversations with someone who speaks no English. The fit old men you see stretching at the track everyday as you run your laps may strike up a conversation with you and somehow (with your limited Chinese) you find out that the small old buff man was a gymnastics coach in the former Yugoslavia for many years before it collapsed. If you stay in China long enough, then you can actually have conversations with people that are as meaningful as those you would speak in your own native tongue. Who knows, an initial conversation like that could turn into a few dinners at their home, to a life long friend. Learning the language helps you understand the people, and the more you understand the people, the easier it is to adjust.
5. Future Professional Careers
On the same note with cultural connections, knowing Chinese for your future careers will only help you. While you are in China, if you can take an HSK (hanyu shuiping kaoshi, or the Chinese proficiency test) while in China, then you have a test showing your proficiency level that is tangible for future employers reading your resume. Not only that, but saying that learning Chinese is hard is an understatement, so the fact that an employer sees that you have even attempted to achieve some level of proficiency in what is arguably the most difficult language to learn, then they will know you are a hard-worker. Additionally, if you plan to be a part of international business that does work in China, then you can be the go-to for deals with Chinese clients or partners. Again, knowing Chinese will not hurt you, it will only provide growth.
Some people become discouraged by statistics that say it takes about twelve years to become fluent in Chinese whereas with Spanish it only takes three. Now, you may not have twelve years of your time to learn a language, especially if you are working or starting an internship in Shanghai; however, having some Chinese under your belt will never be a drawback. If you want to become a beginner in the language or even beginner intermediate, it is possible to do so in under a year with bi-weekly lessons or intensive Chinese classes in Shanghai every day. Whatever time you have, if you have some free time in your schedule, getting a freelance tutor or signing up for classes are both good options. If you are in the countryside you will just learn by speaking and listening, as most people learn their first languages. Even if you plan to stay in China for only six months, you still have ample time to give yourself a foundation in the language – just enough to springboard yourself into the whirlwind of a world that is China.