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6 lessons learned from 3 months in China   [Copy link] 中文

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By NomadicMatt
China is a fascinating and rapidly changing country. Old customs and habits hang on as modern skyscrapers go up every second, the country becomes more of a global powerhouse, and people from around the world move there.

Last year, my friend, Scott Young, best known as a learning hacker who learned MIT’s entire computer science program in one year, said to me “I’m going to travel the world for a year and learn languages.” I was thrilled with the idea! Today, he shares what he learned while living in China for three months and how the media portrays countries is often very wrong.

Recently my friend, Vat, and I finished a three-month stay in China. The plan was, with minimal preparation, to arrive in China and speak as little English as possible, in order to learn Mandarin Chinese.

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The trip transformed my perception of China, and the unfair image it sometimes has in the West. In this article, I want to share the biggest lessons I learned about China, life and travel from that experience.

Once you’re interested in the local culture, people open up more


Originally Vat and I hadn’t planned on going to China at all. We were warned that China might not be the best place to go to meet friends because people were unfriendly to Westerners. Instead, we were told to go to Taiwan.

Some visa complications made it impossible to stay the full three months in Taiwan, so we switched to a three-month stay in China last minute.

However, from the first day I arrived in Kunming, I had my perceptions flipped. Far from being insular and hostile to foreigners, people came up to talk to me the first time I went out on the street. It happened to be all in Chinese, so I didn’t understand much, but it did cause me to rethink my assumptions.

As my Chinese improved, this continued throughout my stay. From my landlord introducing me to people who could help us learn Chinese, to getting to know the couple who ran a noodle restaurant nearby.

If you’re interested in other people, their culture and their language, they’ll be friendly to you. China isn’t an exception.

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Don’t judge a country by its media coverage

Hating China is a popular pastime of Western media. Some of the accusations are at least partially true: parts of China are quite polluted, political freedom isn’t the same as in the West, the Internet is firewalled and some parts of China are quite poor.

I saw a very different kind of China. Kunming, where I lived for most of my stay, wasn’t polluted. I’ve had frank conversations with Chinese people about communism, Tibet and democracy. Some sites are blocked, but China has its own versions of YouTube, Netflix, eBay and Google.

China is still developing, but the economic growth means most people have seen their living standards improve rapidly in the last twenty years. People I spoke with were generally optimistic about the future.

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Everything is food here

The relationship with food in China is fascinating, and I was amazed at the diversity of ingredients and flavors.

Western countries tend to simplify Chinese food down to chow mien, fried rice and General Tso’s chicken. That’s a bit like saying Western cuisine is just burgers and sandwiches.

Chinese food in China, on the other hand, is some of the most varied food on the planet. Not only does regional diversity mean food can change completely from province to province, but nearly every imaginable ingredient finds its way into some kind of Chinese dish. Chicken, pork, beef and vegetarian dishes are all options, of course, but where else can you eat fried insects, try stewed frog or shop at a Walmart selling live turtles?

Food is also an avenue for connection. In the West, each individual has his or her own plate, separate from others. In China, each person has a bowl of rice and eats directly from shared plates in the center. While this style of eating makes it hard to dine individually in some restaurants, it creates a communal feeling, making food more than just nutrition.

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Chinese is both incredibly interesting and extremely difficult

I won’t lie to you, learning Mandarin Chinese was a struggle. Thousands of characters, with many almost exactly alike. For example, try and spot the difference between these two characters:

Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the intonation doesn’t just change emphasis but also what words mean. My friend went to a restaurant and attempted to order “shu? ji?o” (boiled dumplings) but instead ordered “shuì jiào” (go to sleep).
Finally, few English words borrowed into the language survive unscathed, often sounding completely different from their original. McDonald’s, which is available throughout China, adopts the Chinese name “Mài d?ng láo”.

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You can count to ten with one hand
The language differences extend even to simple gestures. The Chinese, for example, have a system of gestures for counting all the way up to ten with just one hand.

If you’ve only been counting to five with one hand, you’ve been missing out. The Chinese have a system for counting 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 all with just one hand. Months after leaving China, I caught myself using this method to count things while I held a book with the other hand.

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China has the best places you’ve never heard of

Ask people which places they know of in China and most people will raise their hand for Shanghai and Beijing. The more geographically inclined might get Sichuan, Guangdong or Xi’an. But what about the tropical island of Hainan? The impressive winter festivities in Harbin? The bamboo forests in Chengdu?

It’s arguable that China has the same linguistic and cultural diversity as the entirety of Europe, except far fewer tourists. While, until the last few decades, China’s closed borders made travel in the country a daunting experience, China is full of great places you’ve probably never thought to explore.

I had never heard of Kunming, a “small” city of around seven million in the southwestern province of Yunnan, before researching places to live. It ended up being one of my favorite places I’ve ever lived in, with weather a perpetual spring, mountain temples, and lunch for under a dollar.

My advice: don’t settle just on Beijing or Shanghai as places to visit. Doing a little research online can turn up dozens of places that will offer the Chinese experience for less money and fewer tourists.

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