Living in an expat community, you have two options. You can isolate yourself with the foreigners, only speaking English or your mother tongue, and essentially live life as if you are in your home country. Or you can spend time with the locals, learn the language, adapt to a new way of life, and appreciate the culture that you now live in. Personally, I think the second option is the better choice. If you have the opportunity to live in a different country, you should take the time to fully experience and embrace it! When I decided to move to China, I also made a decision to learn to language, history, and culture. I didn’t want my life to feel like I was still in America.
Sias International University offers free Chinese classes to all the foreign teachers. Foreign teachers are then able to attend the twice a week classes, practice using the Chinese in everyday life, and make more authentic relationships with their students. I loved being a part of the class. My lao shi (teacher) was very patient with me as I struggled through learning the different tones. It was exciting because as soon as I learned one topic, I could immediately use it as I went about the city. That helped me become more independent and confident with my abilities to explore on my own without a translator.
In China, it can be difficult to integrate into the community because it’s a very homogenous country. But when the local people see that you are making an effort to learn their language and customs, you are more accepted. I had no idea when I first started learning Chinese how many friendships I would gain because of it. Chinese love it when you practice your Chinese with them! They are very encouraging and willing to help you get better.
I think some westerners tend to expect a different country to cater to their own traditions and language. That shouldn’t be the case. If you visit another country, it is you who should be prepared to conquer the language barrier and learn what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Once the locals here in China see that you didn’t come into their country, expecting everyone to speak English (or your mother tongue), then they open up. I’ve discovered in my world travels that language is the number one way to build relationships!
There’s been countless times when I’ve received more food or free food from a street vendor, when I gained a new friend, when someone has offered to help me learn Chinese in exchange for me also helping with their English, and when I’ve been invited to local Chinese traditions just because I’m learning Chinese. I met one girl at a movie theater. I practiced some of my Chinese with her. She was very excited because she couldn’t speak a lot of English, but between my Chinese and her English, we were able to have a conversation. Later she gave me a succulent and is now one of my best friends in China!
Stories like these happen when you are willing to spend time learning about another culture. Practicing languages might not seem very important, but to the native speakers, it shows them that you care and want to have a relationship with them. It’s also a great way to connect more with your students. I constantly remind my students that while they’re learning English, I am learning Chinese as well, so I understand how they feel. Learning a language can be frustrating, but the rewards are well worth it. It opens doors to a whole new world to experience!
If you are a world traveler or a world traveler at heart, what are some ways that you can become part of a new community? Do you have any stories about how language helped you integrate in a different country? What language do you want to learn most and why? I’m excited to hear back from you!