how my evening stroll through my new neighbourhood in the City of Eternal Spring Kunming in Yunnan, China, alerted my neighbours
The man is carrying his one-year-old when he stretches out one hand towards me, assuring me, yelling „hold on, hold on!“ with a worried expression on his face before he flees the store for my rescue…
What happened before..
Two nights and days on the train brought me to beautiful Kunming and I can’t help falling in love with this city! It’s quiet (for a Chinese city anyways) and small but still big enough to feel like a city – there is a metro, climbing gyms, loads of small Chinese restaurants but if I want to I can resort to Western food as well or Thai or… and there are climbing gyms. Oh – and talking about climbing, it’s close to the mountains as well. As in climbing-areas in day-trip reach! One spot you can even reach by said metro. And on my first weekend I found two groups that were heading out so I got to go Saturday and Sunday.
It was just beautiful – it is a short drive and a really short and easy hike to „The Swallow“ where you get routes from really challenging, where I sit in awe and watch the other climb it, to really easy, where I can get a go. It’s set totally in the woods, surrounded by pine-trees and rock. No building to see, zero trash lying around. The only evidence of human impact where the bolts in the wall which we need to climb. Up on the wall I see into the distance. Terraced rice fields remind me of being in China and my heart fills with joy – for having successfully climbed this wall as well as for being here, in beautiful Yunnan for six weeks with loads of free, unplanned time that I can use for climbing, hiking, yoga and – finally – up-ing my Chinese level to a level where I can have a conversation.
I’ve tried to learn Chinese for a while. I had Chinese friends teaching me expressions, words and sentences. I’ve used apps, podcasts, YouTube Videos and just recently started learning with an Audio-course while cycling. The Audio-course was starting to get me somewhere but I just started it and was on my 15th 30-minute-lesson when I got to Kunming. I really enjoy the fact, that I can do it, while I am doing something else where I don’t need to be focused. Like doing the dishes or cycling. Every lesson they teach just a few new words or expressions so there is loads of spaced repetition and I have to talk out loud. Sometimes I would already know everything that’s new in a lesson, sometimes none. These are the ones where I realize I am getting tired in the middle of it.
The biggest advantage of this course is that it is building up, the stuff I learned in the lessons before, is getting picked up in the following ones using some spaced-repetition pattern. This way I don’t lose it but it sticks in my head. The other big advantage of it is, that it gets me talking. I repeat or answer what the course is asking, try grammatical structures and practice pronunciation.
Since it started with useful sentences, I can now say – pretty close to perfect – that my Chinese speaking skills are very badly and that I don’t have a clue, what the other person just said.
But who really get’s me to speaking is my Chinese teacher. We have daily lessons, Monday to Friday. Two hours, one-on-one. We don’t do the tone-practicing-thing – thank God! – but words, grammar and pronunciation.
In case you are wondering what the tone-practicing-thing is? Chinese has tones as in it’s not only important that you pronounce it the right way, but you have to use your voice in a certain way, go up or down, stay or go up and down. And when I first learned Chinese, I would spend ages saying the syllable „ma“ in different ways. It’s fun at the start and gets frustrating quickly. Like, you get to a point where, if you choose to learn Spanish, you would be able to have a small conversation. But you didn’t pick Spanish, or any other sensible language, so your teacher is still trying to get you to do the tones right without teaching you new words.
So, we are working on the language. Of course we are working on the tones, but we do it „on the job“, with the different words. Same with all these sounds that German or English don’t have but are really important in Chinese. I actually started drawing little pictures to remind myself where my tounge has to be to do „zh“ as supposed to how I pull my mouth for „j“. My minor difficulties in distinguishing the English „ch“ and „sh“ are much more of an issue now. But – despite all this – I AM MAKING PROGRESS! (Capitals intended. I didn’t think it would be possible).
I learned about 200 new words so far – well almost, the last 40 don’t stick yet – and am able to make up small stories, tell about my day or ask questions. Sometimes I even understand the answers! But my listening skills are way beyond my understanding skills. If you are wondering how that is possible – so much stuff sounds the same to me. Plus, sometimes words DO sound the same. Like the word for „house“ or „home“ sounds like the word that means „plus“. Of course, different characters, but same syllable, same tone. It’s „jia“ with the first tone if you are interested.
So it’s only context that allows me to know, if someone says „coffee, house, milk“ or „coffee with milk“.
Don’t think it’s easy. That is only ONE example! Of like many I came across with the meager amount of words I learned so far.
I can now manage situations where I walk up to a Tai-Chi-group and find out, if I can join, express to the worried people in that group, that I am aware that it is Tai Chi that they are doing and yes, I do want to study Tai Chi. They are meeting again tomorrow, at 7.30 and I am very welcomed to join. I am so exited!
Oh – how come I can just walk up to a Tai Chi group? As in, why is it there and where am I? It’s such an awesome Chinese thing that all over the country, pretty much every place would have groups of people doing sports together in the evenings and mornings.
It might be everything, from dancing – from very casual to rather serious and it looks like they are preparing for a performance – aerobic, Buddhist praying, marching around a temple with patriotic music from speakers following a Chinese flag or – like in this case – Tai Chi. You just walk around until you find one you like.
My dear friend Huan gave me the courage to walk up to a group for the first time when I was visiting her in her hometown a couple of month ago. And here I was now, walking down the street with my room-mate Vera. We just came back from a lovely dinner at one of the Western food places in our neighbourhood when she pointed the group out to me. So I decided not to think about it – in that case, I might have felt to shy to walk up to them – but to go for it, smile, walk towards the group, indicating I want to take part. So now, tomorrow, half past seven – I will practise Tai Chi. With a Chinese Tai Chi teacher. In a small, Chinese city, in the middle of the side-walk.
So it really pays to be brave! And to learn Chinese – as I managed to do all this, mainly talking, no smartphones and very little pointing involved. Way to exited to go sleep now, so I tell you the story of the man who came to my rescue when I didn’t even was in trouble.
Having just learned the way for pharmacy I felt brave enough to walk into one to have a look around. They are bigger than the ones in Germany so there are some products to be looked at. With most things I can figure out what they are for – not because of my Chinese reading skills, but they have some English-information on there as well. So I stroll around when a helpful employee comes my way. I explain, that I just want to have a look – and that my Chinese is very poor but I am feeling perfectly fine. Confused, she turns around and chats with her colleague while I continue browsing the store. They give it another attempt, other customers come in. And that is when my situation becomes obvious to the man with the baby:
I am a foreigner. I can’t speak Chinese. I need help.
So he stretches out one hand towards me, assuring me, yelling „hold on, hold on!“ before he flees the store to fetch his wife – an English teacher. We are actually neighbours and she is happy to explain me the way to the next stationery store where I get some pens and notebooks to motivate me for my studies. And maybe… maybe next time I can convince people who I really don’t need help. At least, at this particular moment.
How can I not fall in love with a place, where people are so helpful that they even try to help where there is no help needed? (Just in case – my teacher taught me how say that I don’t need help in a more eloquent way)