Traveling through southeast Asia with English was no problem – it’s a part of the world that’s ready to welcome Western tourists. We’d heard that getting around China would be trickier though, and we were keen to try something new, so we decided to take a two-week crash course in survival Chinese before we did any more traveling. We’d later come to discover that we could get away with speaking English nearly everywhere we went – but I’m still so glad that we got the chance to get introduced to the basics of the language.
We decided to try out the Omeida Language Academy in the city of Yangshuo in Guangxi Province.
Quite a journey away from the northern peaks and deserts of Xinjiang, Guangxi shares its southern border with Vietnam and the South China Sea (the same sea that feeds the large bay that is home to the island where I’m sitting right now, actually 🙂 ). Geologically, Yangshuo also has a landscape in common with parts of northern Vietnam, with incredible karst landscapes that look as though they are ancient Chinese ink paintings of impossibly steep, knobbly, tree-covered hills and tranquil rivers sprung to life in vivid color. Lonely Planet also describes it as “family friendly” with “English speaking locals”, so we thought it might be a nice way to ease into China.
Karst landscape around Yangshuo
Both Omeida and Yangshuo gave us warm welcomes. I’ll write more about Yangshuo later but for now let me sing Omeida’s praises.
It’s primarily a school to teach Chinese students English but they have a small and wonderful staff that teaches foreigners Chinese. The school is just outside of the touristy part of town, which suited us just fine. Accommodation was simple – a basic but clean room in an apartment building just round the block from the school itself.
We arrived late from Xinjiang, but Anya, who was our contact at the school, and Lin, were awake and waiting to meet us despite the late hour when we arrived. They were so sweet and welcoming; everyone at Omeida was. We met our teacher, Becky, the next day, during a very brief placement text. (Can you read Pinyin (a version of written Chinese that used the Roman alphabet)? No? Do you know what this means? (a handful of words in Chinese) No? Can you read the Roman alphabet? Yes? Ok, well, we’ll start at the beginning then).
Becky eating pizza with chopsticks 🙂
She’s a fantastic teacher. Enthusiastic and demanding but easy going, with a propensity towards big, easy laughter. As challenging as Chinese is for a total beginner, it was miraculous how much we were able to learn in those two full but fast weeks at Omeida. Retention, without application, is another matter, but I’m still in awe of how much ground we were able to cover in the small amount of time, and I put it all down to her ability as a teacher.
I have to say, I was pretty intimidated about the prospect of learning a bit of Chinese. I thought I’d be frustrated and cursing the language and myself within days, but it wasn’t nearly as painful as I had expected. It felt funny to be a student again after so many years, but I got a kick out of it and I actually really like Chinese.
Ok so the pronunciation is killer. Those different tones are so subtle, and hearing the difference between words that are the same except for the tone is even harder than pronouncing them correctly. But I love the wonderfully direct and simple grammar, the way that words and sentences and meanings are built up and implied through the combination of single character words that have their own stable meaning, like solid, defined building blocks that can be arranged in an infinite number of ways to express all manner of things while retaining their own distinct form. Not at all like awful German grammar with its hundred rules and hundred exceptions, which alter words a thousand different ways, depending on gender, case, tense and which I seem utterly incapable of committing to memory!
Maybe some day I’ll have to spend more than just two weeks with the language – and see if I still like it then. I love the look of the characters as well, and the stories behind them. But there was no chance to learn any in such a short amount of time. It was enough to just get our heads around the Pinyin. Although I recognize the word “China” now (middle kingdom) and “shan”, which means mountain and rather looks like it: 山