Bĕijīng – a mixed bag

We have just spent a week in Bĕijīng.  It started badly with disempowering and scamming, then improved greatly, to be pleasantly surprising and wowing.


Our first activity in Bĕijīng was to apply for our Russian visas. In my experience, applying for a visa is one of the world’s more disempowering activities, and the Russian visa process took this to a whole new level. Disempowering factor 1 – we live in Chéngdū where there is no visa office, but we have to turn up in person, so we had to arrange our travel to include a week in Bĕijīng – fortunately not too difficult because we wanted to visit anyway. Disempowering factor 2 – we have to have booked flights and accommodation to get the visa, but if they don’t give us the visa, we can’t use any of it. Disempowering factor 3 – we filled in the online form, and turned up with all our documents as outlined on the website, but felt that the rules about what was and was not okay were being made up as we sat there. Our photos were not on shiny photographic paper so we had to have them redone. New Zealanders don’t need insurance so my person wanted me to change my online form to say that I did not have any. But, I do, I said. I don’t want to lie. I do not understand why we cannot leave it there. Eventually her manager noticed the stroppy woman querying her staff member, came over, and said that while it was not mandatory, I could leave it there. The manager also said, when I insisted that my person go and ask her, that I did not have to redo my online form because the system had added a space in the middle of the six digit postcode on the printed version of my application. Disempowering factor 4 – the prices for New Zealanders are higher than for Chinese people – ‘don’t take any notice of those prices, they are defined by country, yours are higher’. Disempowering factor 5 – ‘we only take cash, and because you didn’t know the price for you is greater, you don’t have enough cash on you. So, off we went to find the nearest ATM. Disempowering factor 6 – because of disempowering factor 1, we can only find out a day before we leave whether or not we have the visas.

Fortunately, we got them yay!


After the visa office, we headed off to the Forbidden City and Tiānānmén Square. When we got there, a charming man came up to us and let us know that the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays for repairs. He invited us to go and see an art exhibition’ for free’. We followed him and saw some Chinese art – which he invited us to purchase. Raymond was tempted, but I said no, we already have to much. He showed us ones he had drawn as a ‘student of art at the university’. He then picked up a brush and drew my Chinese name on a piece of paper, suggested I could have it hung on a silk background. I declined, but paid him for my hand written name – more than it was worth, but not so much that we really minded.

We then continued walking, thinking we would get a sense of the lie of the land for our visit the next day. A friendly voice called out hello and we started talking to a couple of teachers from Xiān – one teaching English and one teaching Chines literature – who were in Bĕijīng for training. A friend who was studying Chinese medicine was also with them. They suggested we have a cup of tea together, and we walked to a tea house. They ordered a few different sorts of tea and we had a lovely time conversing about China and New Zealand. They then suggested we have a glass of wine together for Christmas so we did that – with me starting to feel a little uncomfortable. They suggested a second, but by this time, I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable. I had mentioned to Raymond as we traveled on the subway about our friend Rachel’s Bĕijīng story that she had told us last year when we were in London. She and her friends had been scammed by a tea house thing. I started to think maybe we had fallen for it as well – but how could I think that – they were so nice and interesting, and interested, and they were teachers, and they weren’t from Beijjing, so how could they be ripping us off – or were they?

I was starting to do sums in my head of what might be reasonable, while Raymond was blissfully chatting away in we are all friends mode. We were in a separate room, just us, and we had never seen a menu. They suggested we pay half each, and asked for the bill. It was five, or maybe ten, times the going rate! I queried the amount. They brought out the menu with the exorbitant prices on. As they presented the bill , one of them, continuing the friends’ ambience that had sucked us in in the first place, even suggested we exchange emails.

I was gearing up to resist, but Raymond’s ‘we pay bills’ and ‘they are so friendly’ attitudes were in full swing, so he had paid by the time I decided it was exactly the scam Rachel had warned us of. They then had the gall to suggest we go to the Square together, I told them they had ripped us off and stomped off down the road – more annoyed at myself for being so gullible and slow thinking. It is hard to describe how we were so slow to react because of the clever way they treated us like friends, throwing in a bit of flattery. I also think we foreigners (well Raymond and me anyway) can be a little arrogant and assume people want to talk to us, especially because we have English. So, they played on that too.

By the time we were half way down the road, we had worked out what we should have done – but it was too late. It took all my self-control not to go over and over it in my mind for the rest of that day, and some of the next. Two things helped me – ‘it is only money’, and ‘between the four of them they were not making that much money each’. I moved to feeling compassion for how hard up they must be to have to earn their money that way. But, it hurt for a while – how could we fall for it when I had been warning Raymond as we traveled in on the subway, and feeling betrayed by ‘friends’.

It was so different to our experience with the art guy. He clearly wanted to take our money, but in exchange for something, and it was clear what was going on the whole time. He was charming, but not pretending to want to be our friend.

As soon as we got back to our hotel, Raymond checked with his Chinese colleague and friend from school whether or not we could cancel the payment. We couldn’t. But Damon made us laugh when he said ‘I have told you to be careful., and not trust any Chinese, not even me’. Actually, we are grateful for the many positive experiences we have had in Chéngdū, and our friends like Damon.

Here is Raymond still innocent, walking across the bridge, through the archway onto the walkway where we met our ‘friends’, and, the next day, outside the fateful tea house.

Pleasantly surprised

We were pleasantly surprised by Bĕijīng’s air quality. The government, in its new five year plan, is determined to deal with the pollution in Chinese cities, starting with the capital. An example of how quickly things can happen once a decision is made to change things, they recently turned off the coal fires warming Bĕijīng, and switched to natural gas. It certainly worked. Every day was beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies. Although, we heard that the natural gas supply did not quite meet the heating needs of the wider population, so some rural people in this region suffered in cold houses to achieve the environmental targets.  Another interesting example of socialism, north of a certain latitude (Chéngdū is south of this, Bĕijīng is north of this), the Chinese government provides heating free of charge for everybody during the winter months.

We also found the city very easy to get around on the subway. And, like Chéngdū, it has many interesting places and buildings. I think we are turning into big city folk – we like crowds who you can follow to tourist spots, and the convenience of restaurants, shops and transport being close to everywhere you go.


Finally, we were wowed by experiencing more of China’s amazing history.

The terrain where the Great Wall stands today was first used about 500BC, and further developed a few hundred years later . Its present form was developed about 700 years ago. Iis so impressive seeing it wind up and down over the hills, and to walk on it thinking how long it has been used to defend this empire. And what an engineering feat it was when it was built. Like other great structures from earlier times, I would not want to have been the manual labour, but it is still mind blowing in its achievement.

Then, the history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace fascinated us – especially because we both recently read of the Empress Dowager Cixi who influenced China in the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the twentieth. She and her sons lived in these two palaces so we walked around the Summer Palace lake picturing her having walked the same path. It was sad to read of how the Europeans destroyed some of the grandeur of both of these buildings in the mid 1800s. Empress Cixi really wanted to restore the grandeur of the Summer Palace – allegedly stealing money from the Chinese navy to do it.

It was moving to stand in Tiānānmén Square. It was quite empty and cold, but we reflected on that moment in history that we westerners remember. The National Museum on the edge of the Square was not so impressive. The building is amazing, but the building’s design seemed to make it hard to find exhibits, and those we did find were not as informative, or national, as others we have seen elsewhere.

We also went to an acrobatic show. It was traditional Chinese acrobatics, such as I remember from circuses coming to Auckland in the early 70s. But, it is always great to see what people can do with their bodies, the total trust these teams have to have of their fellow acrobats – such as when they had seven motorbikes riding around in a relatively small metal sphere, or nine women riding on one bicycle. I was reminded that China is where many of those traditional forms of entertainment began.

So, a mixed experience – a day of humility followed by three days of wonder.



Second winter in Chéngdū

This winter is very different to our first one a year ago. Back then, everything was still new and different and we were getting used to winter versus summer Chéngdū. This time around, things seem so much more normal.

We have our regular weekday routine:

  • Raymond wakes early, does a bit of work, showers and breakfasts, then brings me a cup of tea before going to catch the school bus at 7.20am
  • I revise Chinese characters, shower and breakfast, and have my online Chinese lesson at 8.30am, then head to work to start about 10am. I may catch a public bus or bike using one of our two bike sharing options.
  • The school bus brings Raymond home about 5pm. I have tended to catch the bus or bike home from work to meet him at this time. However, as work gets busier, I may not get home til after 6pm.
  • Then our standard evening routine is to cook dinner, watch TV, and head to bed.

Apart from the Chinese learning, this could have described our life in New Zealand. Of course, the work stuff is a little different in its details!

Our weekends are more different – increasingly familiar in their routine – market, friends, shopping – maybe a bit of exploring and still usually something to make us laugh at the unexpected and test our problem solving skills.

However, over the last month a few things, specific to winter here, struck me afresh:

  • Covers on the handles of our apartment doors – we assume these are there so that the metal handles will not be so cold to our touch when we open and shut the doors. It only gets down to about 4 degrees Celsius – not that cold. We even got a tiny one, with our apartment name embroidered on it, surreptitiously put on the handle of the door to our apartment
  • Beautiful reds and yellows of the trees’ leaves changing colours
  • Gardeners in our apartment covering plants with plastic bed covers to protect them from the cold
  • Our morning routine of looking at our air quality indicator (AQI) app to see if we need to wear masks – we don’t if it is green, yellow or orange, but if the AQI gets to red ‘affects everybody’, we put on our masks. We have both had colds, and noticed the air quality affecting us, so decided we should be more risk averse than last year. Chengdu only gets mask-bad air quality for a few months and doesn’t get to brown or purple, so it could be worse.


You know China is changing you when …

A little while ago, I read a blog ’50 ways a foreigner becomes more Chinese’. I identified with nearly half of them (I didn’t do so well on the Chinese spouse, son fluent in Chinese, or ones to do with China’s drinking culture). I also had some more of my own to add.

First, those I identified with from his blog are (using italics to show the bits from his blog):

  1. While mystified the first time I was served a glass of hot water, I now like it, especially in winter. I can go a step further and share my work tea habit. I put half a packet of green tea in my cup and add hot water from the shared water stand throughout the day until, at the end of the day, it is almost hot water.
  2. I know the Chinese zodiac sign I was born under – (rat).
  3. Seldom worry about personal safety, even walking in big cities at night.
  4. Have a Chinese keyboard on my phone – now I use this to input place names into the Chinese maps app, to practice ‘spelling’ words on my flashcards, and to write messages in Chinese to my language partner.
  5. Grocery shop using my bicycle – the bike sharing apps that have taken China by storm since we arrived are brilliant for travelling the distance to our nearest big supermarket.
  6. Have to remember to tip when I am traveling abroad – well as a kiwi, I was like that anyway, but I love that we don’t have to tip here either.
  7. Wonder why public spaces there look so empty – this really resonated. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I couldn’t believe how empty Queen St in the centre of Auckland looked
  8. Smile automatically when I see a small child, and may ask a baby’s age or name – I have just started saying hello to children, more for their parents who tend to be so delighted their child can practice English with a native speaker, and it is just nice to connect.
  9. Consider vendor’s prices only a reference point for haggling – at the shops around our food market. But, we are not very good at it, mainly because we feel so wealthy in comparison. We have learned that if we pay full price, they feel obliged to give us a gift or a bit of a discount anyway.
  10. Use the China Union Pay card: I never leave home without it – this is only different because this is the dominant ATM system here, which I had never heard of before. More than that, we have become a couple who hardly ever use a card or cash. Our most common form of payment now is Alipay using our phones and QR codes.
  11. Love tearjerker Chinese history dramas on TV – I started watching my first one to help my language learning. I watch it when Raymond is away and am about 15 episodes in. I don’t understand much of the Chinese, but can pick up enough to become engrossed in the story. I cried when the heroine threw herself into the grave of the hero who died rather suddenly (it is alright, they dragged her back out). I think he was poisoned on the orders of the guy who always looks smugly evil and keeps a falcon in a cage – no idea why he wanted him dead. I love the costumes and the dramatization of ancient China – think Downton Abbey set in China. I recently found out that the kick ass heroine is based on a real person – even better.
  12. Calculate, automatically, yuan equivalents of dollar prices in my head – we now switch between both worlds, earning in yuan and using yuan daily for over a year, but still using NZD as the definitive reference for cheap or expensive, it helps that multiplying and dividing by five is so easy.
  13. Am amazed at how much stuff costs in Western countries – well food anyway. I am sometimes surprised by how cheap other stuff is, and sometimes surprised by how expensive things can be, like that beautiful NZD2,000 dress I tried on when hunting for a dress for Aaron and Sally’s wedding. There is the full range of stuff here, but food is very cheap, except when going to a western restaurant, which we seldom do.
  14. Make fun of western ‘Chinese food’ back home – and wonder what Chinese people make of it – they probably feel how I felt when I couldn’t even eat the burger at Lìjiāng airport.
  15. Keep transit card on me at all times – I am going to miss the public transport so much when I return to New Zealand.
  16. Check air pollution conditions several times a day –as a Bĕijīnger this guy has to do this all year round (although this seems to have changed recently) – in Chéngdū we only do this for the three winter months.
  17. Check Wechat throughout the day, make phone calls on Wechat – my lifeblood here, crucial for work and social connections, used ahead of email by locals. Most days I discipline myself to look at Facebook in the morning in case someone has said something important.
  18. Love candied crabapples – tart on the inside and sweet on the outside
  19. Have no problem with squat toilets, which actually are more natural – in fact, now I choose to use the squat toilet at work because it is a form of regular exercise, and I think being able to squat to rest in your old age would be amazing.
  20. Surprised and dismayed by how little the world knows about China – and how ignorant and wrong I used to be. Somehow I absorbed an image in the 1970s of it as backward, boring and miserable, supported by images of everyone wearing drab blue matching outfits. How wrong can one be!
  21. Stare briefly at anyone who doesn’t appear to be Chinese on buses, subways or aeroplanes – because we are usually the only westerners somewhere, and we can’t see ourselves, so looking at a westerner seems increasingly weird.

My additions are

  1. China is my reference point when travelingduring my recent trips to Vietnam and New Zealand, I observed myself comparing what I was seeing to Chengdu and China. I was fascinated by Vietnam’s link to China through the centuries, including seeing Chinese characters in its temples. As for Europe, it is obvious that there have been changing borders and various invasions and resisting those invasions. But, I was so unaware of it, with my view of Vietnamese history being limited to the Eurocentric French colonising and American meddling, only a tenth of the just under 1,000 years that China ruled Vietnam.
  1. See New Zealand with new eyeseven on my last trip to New Zealand, I viewed Auckland, Rotorua and Palmerston North through Chinese eyes – not so much Wellington because it is so familiar after living there for 30 years that my ‘I feel so at home’ process kicked in. I was surprised how unsophisticated I felt these places were. I was especially struck by Queen St, the centre of our biggest city, having hardly any high buildings, virtually no shops and looking so deserted. So many people were wearing black, and track pants and running shoes were more common than smart casual in the middle of town. I think I was particularly sensitive to this because I am advising potential students and many want to go to Auckland because they like big cities. I will have to work on managing their expectations. If anything, Wellington was more bustling in its city centre. Of course, New Zealand is also stunningly beautiful everywhere, and has clear blue skies, real wind and rain.
  1. Feel defensive on China’s behalfwhen our dear friends from New Zealand visited, I observed another thing about myself. I want people to like our new home and be interested in it – even if they are not as fascinated as we are. But, they weren’t. They were just here to visit us and understand our lives here, which is of course nice in its own way. And, when we were on the bus coming down from Éméi Shān traveling beside the longest traffic jam I have ever seen winding its way up the two lane highway, Lawrie quite reasonably suggested a wider road would be desirable. I found myself feeling quite defensive on China’s behalf. China is actually big enough to look after itself, and like New Zealand is imperfect. But, in the way that I love New Zealand and want people to see how amazing it is, I have similarly become emotionally attached to China as my second home.
  1. Fascinated by ChinaI continue to be an avid student of all things China. Most of my spare time is spent learning the language. I keenly observe everything around me and try to talk to others to find out more and more. It can be exhausting, but is also rewarding.

Dipping my toe into politics

Last month was an interesting time to be a kiwi living in China.

Back in New Zealand, there was an election in which no party had a clear majority. New Zealand First (or was it Winston Peters?) held the balance of power, to decide whether New Zealand would have a centre left or centre right government for the next three years. He/they leaned left and now there are going to be all sorts of policy changes after nine years of centre right government. My heart and mind is more left than right and has a greenish hue, so I support many of the new directions planned by this three party coalition.

But I am left wondering if there isn’t a better way to choose leaders and run a country.

At much the same time, China held its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China – a five yearly event. More than 2,200 representatives met in Beijing to approve the Party plan for the next five years. These representatives were selected throughout the year before the Congress. Apparently, for this Congress, they worked to increase the number of ethnic minorities, women and peasants attending – laudable, but it suggests under representation of these groups previously.

I am not sure how much the delegates can influence the outcomes. I think their role is more to take it back home and extol its virtues. But, I am impressed by how each plan is developed. A drafting committee works with investigative research teams to develop a ‘report’. The draft report is then reviewed by party groups, government institutions, the Army, various large organisations, retired party elders, various forums, leading specialists and other political parties. (Yes, China actually has nine parties, not just one as I thought. The Communist Party is by far the largest, with 85 million members. The next biggest party has half a million and the smallest has only about 30,000.)

President Xi Jinping’s more than three hours long opening speech for the Congress was titled “Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. TV commentators on our Chinese English-language TV channel unpicked the speech and discussed terms such as ‘moderate prosperity’ and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. I don’t know exactly what is in it, but the descriptions on our English news channel, and related discussion with Western and Chinese commentators, suggested policies that support what matters to me, and seemed both forward thinking and common sense.

As we watched the news, we were struck by the ability of the Chinese government to plan long term and make things happen. In the last thirty years, they have lifted 800 million people out of poverty – yes, 800 million! Okay, things were pretty dire, and definitions of poverty vary. But it is still 70% of the world’s poverty reduction over that period of time. And they know there are 70 million still to be lifted out – part of the next plan.

Living here, one cannot help but be struck by how rapidly China is moving from being a developing to developed country – in some ways already more developed than New Zealand. China’s long term plans for poverty alleviation, education, health, environment, economic growth, infrastructure building etc are transforming China so quickly. They do not rely on market forces, or individuals making wise choices, and don’t need to convince everyone what a great idea it is, so they can make rapid progress on many fronts. For example, on environmental issues, they are mandating electric vehicles, rapidly moving to use solar and wind power, and reducing deserts at the rate at which they used to be increasing.  Similarly, the government can act quickly to hinder property speculation to ensure affordable housing, and prioritise investment in agricultural innovation to be able to feed its people – 21% of the world’s population, with only 9% of the world’s land. Even in the 15 months, we have lived here, we have seen mind-blowing infrastructure development in our ‘tier 2’ city.

In his speech, the President also positioned China, as a strong, rich nation (now with the world’s second largest economy, on track to become the number one economy) as a responsible global power committed to tackling shared dangers such as climate change.

It is easy, as a westerner to feel nervous of China seeking growing international influence. But our TV commentators – two Westerners and one Chinese – commented that we are nervous of China being like the US or the European countries when they were the most powerful countries in the world. In my lifetime, the US has dominated using a bully model, and insisted on countries being like them. As the ex-Australian ambassador interviewed said, that works well for countries like Australia that already think like the US, but it hasn’t worked so well for others. The Chinese guy interviewed quoted a Malaysian leader saying that Malaysia is not nervous of China. Six hundred years ago, when China was powerful, they forged a relationship with Malaysia ‘based on mutual respect and trust’, unlike Great Britain. They trust them to do the same this time.


Of course, I know we do not have the whole story. The news in China is controlled, and tends to catch people being good. So we see examples of policies working, innovation and success. It has made me realise how much New Zealand’s news is trivial or focuses on negative and sensational things – catching people being bad. Neither approach is ideal, whether needing to be ‘interesting’ to sell news and increase ratings, or limiting news to a sanitised selection of things that are going well.

Living here has really challenged my assumption that democracy is best. Democracy now seems so inefficient. Every time a new government comes to power it has to undo some of what the last regime put in place, and return to priorities from the last time it was in power. And, so much time and energy is devoted to convincing the country that one’s ideas are best. I wouldn’t mind if I felt we were all voting based on a solid evidence base, a deep understanding of each party’s policies and selfless consideration for what is best for New Zealand. But, none of us do. Living outside New Zealand for the recent election, I wanted to understand what each party’s policy was. I found a good site that pulled together what each party said about its own policies. But, I confess I found it too much to digest. And I have a relatively high capacity for reading lots of text, and had more time than usual to research because I was not busy looking after children, or parents, or working full time. Instead, most of what people think politically, comes from preconceived ideas and sound bites shared through various media.

During New Zealand’s hiatus waiting to see who would lead the country for the next three years, one commentator suggested that National, the centre right party, and Labour, the centre left party, could consider forming a coalition. I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing? Imagine if they could work together to research what works well and then negotiate solutions that New Zealand could follow for decades and implement really well.

But, they can’t because they have a brand to maintain – what I now think of as the biggest weakness of democracy.

Brand development and maintenance, and the associated marketing, determines the outcomes of elections. Parties cannot afford to agree with other parties even if it makes sense. Next election they will lose support. The Maori Party in New Zealand seems to have been a victim of brand erosion. They opted to work with the centre right party to achieve something, and, in the recent election, lost the support of their traditional voters who saw them as giving up on their ‘brand’.

I have never really understood how the Westminster system, in which an opposition party’s main job seems to be to find fault with everything the other party does, can be a good thing. If we worked like that in families, organisations or business, nothing would ever be agreed or get done. Negotiating until we find win-win solutions makes it possible to work with others. I think select committees are supposed to help achieve this, but I don’t know enough of what really goes on in them to know if this ends up happening. If it does, it is certainly not obvious to the average person voting by brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the openness and transparency of New Zealand, and the freedom to say what you think. Those adjectives do not describe China, even with anti-corruption initiatives underway. And China is particularly vulnerable to ‘problems with leaders’.

It seems to me that everyone wants similar things, whether in New Zealand or China, left or right leaning. We want respect and valuing of all human beings, the ability to work and provide for ourselves and those we love, a safety net for whoever who is in need, a healthy economy, an environment that we would want our grandchildren to live in, education that empowers people and prepares us all for the future, a health system that means we are all looked after, affordable housing etc. Our differences are more about how we believe it is possible to achieve them.

In a brand free world, it seems more possible to take the time to work out solutions together that could last. I wonder if, as the pace of change accelerates, it is more or less important to think long term. In one sense, it seems less important because things will change in ways we can’t predict anyway. But in another sense, I suspect we lack the luxury of having time to take cheap shots at others to score political points, and the inefficiency of changing back and forth may matter more.

Now that I am challenging my assumptions, I dream that New Zealand could apply global (or is it western?) social science research about what works well in businesses, organisations and families and replace its 1800s designed Westminster system with a 21st century political environment focused on win-win, evidence-based solutions.

‘Chinese characteristics’ – mutual respect, being fair and balanced, and win-win co-operation – combined with the innovation, pragmatism, openness and transparency on which we New Zealanders pride ourselves, might help us get there – but, alas, probably not in my lifetime.





Warm tips for travelling in Chinese holidays

Among Raymond’s colleagues, the standard recommendation when talking about traveling during Chinese national holidays is to travel out of China because of the crowds. With the growing middle class in China, popular tourist spots definitely get crowded when a billion people are all on holiday at the same time. But, as for teachers worldwide, our holidays tend to fall when others are on holiday. And we want to explore as many as possible of the beautiful places in our adopted home.

So, we are learning to enjoy holidaying in the beautiful places that we most want to visit, while sharing them with thousands of others – not how kiwis are used to enjoying beauty.

So, what have we learned, and how did we apply this on our recent trip to 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) aka Avatar Mountains?


Expect crowds

A year ago, on our first trip to a national park, 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), I was momentarily overwhelmed by the number of people. I was fine fighting my way through the crowds at the turnstiles and to get on the bus to go up, but once we got there I couldn’t cope. This was not rational – if lots of people are getting on buses, they will all be there when we get off. But, I had to throw off decades of experience of national parks being places of tranquillity as well as of beauty.

So the first thing I did differently was to expect crowds.

Stay as near as possible to the scenic spot

One thing we did well this trip was to stay at a small guesthouse just inside the west entrance to the park. From here it was a five-minute walk to the bottom of the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, where a couple of walks began and we could catch the free bus to the east. This meant that each morning, we could start early before the crowds began to arrive in cars or on the buses. It was also nice at the end of the day to catch the cable car down and not have to navigate more crowds to get ‘home’.

We also enjoyed the relative tranquillity of staying in a small settlement of only a few houses. The disadvantage was that we only had that guesthouse as an option for meals, but it simplified things and the meals were pleasant and reasonable. You can see in the photo below the simple environment in which our host family catered for the 20ish guests.

Interestingly,  being limited to only true Chinese food for four days meant that our first visit to McDonalds after 15 months in China was at the top of a mountain in a stunning national park. We had walked for hours, it was drizzling and cool, and, as we walked past, we both thought that we would love a burger and chips aka comfort food.

Book tickets ahead of time

National holidays are not the time to be flexible and decide as you go what you will do and where you will stay. We booked our accommodation and transport well ahead of time, although this was not straight forward.

We wanted to catch the sleeper train there and back, but missed out on tickets both ways. A month before travel we could buy the tickets with our preferred app Ctrip, but sleeper train tickets were already sold out, as I found out too late when I was poised ready to buy tickets the second they became available. So we flew there (just over an hour), and caught two 6-7 hour day trains back with an overnight stay in 宜昌(Yíchāng). Catching the train was certainly an experience, and good for blogging – time and content. But we need to find out how to book sleeper trains before they become available! Or we might fly – not even double the price, and a tenth of the time.

We first used Ctrip to book our accommodation too, but then a friend found lower prices on another western accommodation booking site, so we cancelled and used that site for both our accommodation options. However, when I rang our place in the park to ask them to organise a taxi from the airport to their hostel, the woman commented that our prices were cheaper than their national holiday rate. I agreed to her higher price because it matched our earlier deal, seemed fair, and I didn’t want them to be upset before we arrived. Later that day, our second accommodation option cancelled because of ‘special circumstances’. I wonder if this could be loosely translated as ‘we could sell your room for a higher rate’. I suspect Ctrip with its China focus has a mechanism for increasing the prices during national holidays, so will use it for future bookings.

We could buy tickets to enter the park easily enough. Following the recommendation of our place in the park hostess, we booked tickets for a show on our third evening, which was just as well because the large theatre was packed. And, an earlier showing was leaving as we arrived – some things bring home how many people are in this country.

She also suggested booking tickets for 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain for our fifth day. This is a popular tourist spot near our second accommodation in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town. We were not ready to make that decision on day one, never quite got around to deciding while we were with her, and then missed out on being able to go up in the 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain cable car. We opted not to spend most of the day winding up into the mist and back down again on a bus, deciding instead to visit the canyon and glass bridge a couple of hours away. But those tickets were also sold out. So we caught the bus to the museum in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town, but couldn’t find it, even after asking some locals. As a last resort, we just relaxed, which means Raymond went for a run and read, and I had a snooze and revised Chinese.

Dithering and national holidays do not go together.

Accept the process

The good news is that the infrastructure here is designed for thousands. As in 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), we were so impressed by the wide paths that wind through the beauty and cope with the crowds, and the many free buses ferrying people between attractions. We are experts at waiting our turn to take photos that make it look like we are the only ones there.

We stick to the paths, follow the signs (or ask for advice), and wait patiently in line to get on and off the buses. Sometimes we asked the friendly guides controlling people getting onto the buses which one goes where we want to go by pointing at the map, or where the walking path we want to go on starts.  Sometimes we worked it out ourselves and got it right and other times we went solo and got it wrong. Twice other passengers helped us out. Three times I asked the bus drivers for help. Two were very helpful, said to sit immediately behind them, and then told us where to get off. The third told us to get off immediately.  I think he knew he wasn’t going where we wanted to go. However, when I tried to clarify to be sure, he did that thing one does with people you believe don’t properly understand you and increased his volume – a lot – loudly shouting 下车(xiàchē), ‘get off the bus!’ – so we did.

Interestingly, it is more similar to being in a New Zealand national park than you might expect. There, one also needs to stick to the paths, follow the signs, and sometimes ask for advice. The difference is that there are no buses, guides, crowds – or shops, including MacDonalds and KFC, and monkeys, and the paths are not made of stones. I imagine it must freak Chinese tourists out.

Enjoy the path less traveled

One of the highlights of our trip was the morning that we chose not to take the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, but walk up instead. Only one other group of four was on the path for the first two hours of this walk. It was beautiful, especially because it was below the ever-present mist so we could see the stunning scenery.

Down below, there were no famous tourist spots with eloquent names such as ‘Ape afraid to climb cliff’, ‘Cat fishing’, ‘One step to the heaven’, ‘Waterfall from the sky’, ‘Regretting meeting late’, ‘Golden tortoise in the mist’, ‘Pigsy looking in the mirror’, or, my favourite, ‘Splitting mountain to save mother’.

It was easier to make this decision when the weather was so misty that the views from the top were not so stunning. But it is part of our evolving strategy to avoid the Chinese crowds who seem to prefer the famous over the serene. We can enjoy the latter while fitting in some of the former as well.

Connect with people

Rather than seeing crowds of people as a nuisance, I am learning to see them as an opportunity to connect and better understand China.

At our accommodation, we chatted with half a dozen Irish students, and four Italian students. Having just read that China is now the country with the third highest number of international students, it was interesting to put faces to the statistic.

Despite our small guesthouse being full of westerners, we were usually the only foreigners in a place. So, we stood out, children tended to stare, and parents often encouraged their children to say hello/practice those English lessons they are paying a fortune for. On this trip we developed the habit of being the first to say ‘hello’ to any interested children, which led to several fun conversations with families. One family adopted us walking along Golden Whip Stream. I had a fascinating conversation with the mum about her family’s perception of China. She had good English and works for a company doing business with European countries.

She said they are very happy. The first reason she gave was that she believes China does not have the unrest that other countries have, poignant given that we were walking together just after the Las Vegas shooting. The second reason was that their government is good at getting things done. The latter comment resonates with me. The pace of change here, just since we arrived, is mind-blowing. Democracy certainly has inherent inefficiency. In New Zealand, elected representatives spend about one sixth of their time in government convincing voters that their policy is best in the hope that they will be re-elected. And it is difficult to implement long term change projects because governments are only sure of being in power for the next three years. Also, evidence-based policy is not necessarily the one that appeals to voters, and democracy can be overly influenced by selfish voting. And then, as we are seeing in New Zealand, a party with seven percent support can have a disproportionate level of influence. I have heard that the Chinese system allows grassroots influence through local party groups feeding into higher level groupings all the way to the top. I am sure this system is not perfect, but living here challenges my assumptions that democracy is best. As well as the greater efficiency my ‘mum’ mentioned, China seems to have a baseline view of each human life mattering, a view that seems to be increasingly at risk in western capitalist democracies. I still believe democracy has some advantages, but more clearly see its disadvantages too.

My new friend also said how her father only survived because his mother sent him and his older sister to live with her parents, but his six or seven (nobody knows now) other siblings died of starvation. Her dad tells them off if they complain and reminds them how bad it used to be.

Lining up to catch the cable car down to our accommodation, I used my relatively recently acquired skill of positioning my body so that people cannot push ahead of me in the queue. It took all my skill to keep one woman, who we nicknamed ‘pushy’, behind me. So, Raymond and I were both amused when we ended up sitting in the same small cable car with her and the other four of her family. I said ‘hello’ to her child and we started talking in Chinese, and found out they are from Chengdu. Suddenly, she was not ‘inconsiderate, pushy old woman’. She was ‘fellow grandmother and shared city dweller’. The power of connection.

People watching is fun too

We never get sick of people watching and it is more interesting with crowds. It is entertaining enough in one’s own country, but even more so in another culture. Some of the highlights from our 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) trip are

  • The shoes women wear. I know the paths are paved and there are buses everywhere, but some women were on the 1-3 hour paths wearing higher heels than I wore to Aaron’s and Sally’s wedding. We saw one woman obviously in discomfort with relatively normal shoes, and another with very high heels choosing to pay the men hovering with sedan chairs to take her down. The sedan chair didn’t look such a safe option to us – the chairs were old and rusty, and we saw a cast off with one of its bamboo poles broken – presumably while someone was being carried down a near vertical slope in it. If I was the sedan chair carriers, I would look at footwear to see who to target. I did feel that a number of people looked askance at my tramping shoes, seeming to think ‘I can’t believe she is happy to be seen in public wearing those’.
  • Propensity for guided tours. We are fascinated by the fact that Chinese, who speak the language and can read all the signs, like to travel with a tour guide. There were flag waving guides everywhere. By contrast, Raymond and I, and other foreigners, who are in a perpetual fog, travel alone – relying on advice in Chinglish and piecing together the puzzle from snippets that various westerners have written online. I talked to my English speaking new friend about this. She said ‘It is also our first time here. We do not know where to stay or what to see, so it is easier to have a guide organise it all for us’. We walked with their group for a while and she told me what the guide was saying. The main value add seemed to be having stories of what the shapes of the various rock formations could be anthropomorphised to be. We are happy with our system.
  • Three acceptable activities on a train trip – watching videos, eating and sleeping. Raymond and I stood out with our blogging and book reading – yes a physical book.
  • Standing seats. On our first train trip – slow train, hard seats, 45 kuai (NZD9) for five hours – our seats were in a row of three facing three others. We had numbers 26 and 27. While we were putting our suitcases up on the luggage rack, a young woman sat in number 27. I said ‘that is my seat’. She pointed to number 25 which was free and better because it was by the window and had a little table, so I sat there thinking we were swapping. Then she moved to sit by her friend and a young guy sat in 27. We will never know if he was the real 25 or had bought a ‘standing seat’ which is where you can stand or, if you are lucky, grab an empty seat. The two guys first sitting opposite us also seemed to be standing seat people, because one got evicted by a couple who got on later, and the other moved to 25 when it became free.
  • First class travellers. On our second train trip – fast train, 350 kuai (NZD70) for seven hours – we splashed out on first class tickets, so the only standing passengers I saw were at the end of the nearest second class carriage by our toilets. Our seats were in a row of two with a power point, foot rests, reclinable seats, hook for hanging coats, convenient deep pockets in the seat in front of us and little tables hidden in our armrest – luxury! The first class carriage seemed a popular choice for mothers or grandmothers sharing one seat with a child. They filled the gap created with no standing passengers, taking their little darlings for a stretch.


Live with imperfection

It was disappointing, because of the weather, to not see the park in all its glory. It was disappointing, because of the crowds, to not travel on the longest cable car in the world or see the stunning canyon. I would have preferred not to have the guy opposite me smacking his lips quite so loudly while he was chewing on whatever he was eating. Some of the toilets could be cleaner. But if that is all we have to complain about, things are not so bad. We are having such an adventure, and feel so privileged to be seeing and experiencing all that this amazing journey offers.



Things I learned in Vietnam

In July, we spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam with four of our special kiwi friends. It was an amazing, wonderful, fun, informative time. Traveling is always eye-opening, but I think Raymond’s and my learning antennae are sharper because of our permanent state of being different. Also, we six friends all enjoy reflecting on similarities and differences, and we had a lot of time to do this together. So, I came away with a number of lessons learned.


We went on a number of tours with local guides who all talked about how much is enough to live on – loosely translated as ‘you can feed and house your family and look after your parents’. I think New Zealanders tend to be more content than other western cultures, because most of us grow up with enough, we tend to prioritise lifestyle and family over things within our environment of having enough, and many amazing experiences are affordable for the majority. However, our group discussed how enoughness is not a conversation one has in New Zealand, even though we tend to have much more than the Vietnamese we saw around us. We thought it is probably a consequence of a history of not having enough, followed by relatively recent equal distribution of things under the communist government. Given recent moves by the communist government to have a system where individual effort brings rewards and there is equality but not sameness, it will be interesting to see if enoughness continues within this more free market environment.

Some things are worth fighting for

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh made me reflect on how I might have responded to the same situation. For 20 years, the locals resisted the US forces and their fellow countrymen fighting with them. Over this time, men and women lived in a claustrophobic network of underground tunnels. I could hardly handle being in there for 10 minutes.  They would have been in perpetual heightened awareness from continually being at risk of their lives. And they had to keep evolving new ways of resisting, attacking and surviving to keep their country. And it must have been discouraging seeing so much of the countryside you know and love destroyed by Agent Orange etc. For 20 years! I am not sure I would have been able to do it. But, it worked, it was worth it, and now both sides are rebuilding their country together.

Some things are worth forgiving

Given the relatively recent history of north fighting south, you might expect hints of lingering resentment.  But it was not apparent – when in the north or the south. Our guides were younger and would not have fought themselves, but relatives would still be alive who fought on either side. Maybe guides tend to toe the party line, or people who are resentful don’t become guides. It seemed that ethnicity was a stronger factor in peoples’ identities than which side you were on in the American War. Our guides tended to be Kinh, Vietnam’s dominant ethnicity, and genuine in seeming proud of Vietnam as one great country. We also visited Sapa in the far north where various other ethnicities live together. Our Hmong guide focused on explaining local culture, and didn’t communicate any resentment.

Winners eventually become losers

I have a smattering of European history and tend to be quite ignorant of Asian history, having been primarily exposed to European history through school and readily available books. But traveling helps embed things for me. For example, when we were in a museum in Vienna last Christmas, I truly understood for the first time why killing an Austrian ruler started World War 1. Being surrounded by evidence of the power of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, I finally got it.

Our guide to the My Son Sanctuary , out from Hoi An, showed us an infographic map of the area when this amazing building was built. The map changed to show how the situation changed when they were conquered (I did search for it to share here, but to no avail.).  I had one of those epiphany moments where I thought – of course, the borders kept changing here just like in Europe. Duh!

And I hadn’t realised that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for just over 1,000 years – from 111BC to 938AD. That explains the Chinese characters on the older buildings. Chinese characters were used until the 19th Century when the French changed everyone over to a phonetic system using the Roman alphabet – the change being accelerated by education becoming more prevalent. And I recognised several words, for example, when my dressmaker told her colleague to ask Ros to come and give me advice on the dress I was getting made, I understood her say ‘friend’ because it is the same as Chinese. Given my small Chinese vocabulary, I was surprised to know any, but it turns out over a third of modern Vietnamese has naturalised word borrowings from Chinese.

This Champa kingdom of My Son, which I had never heard of, ruled for about 1200 years, before being forced off their land and into the hill country by north Vietnamese who came down and invaded.  The collection of buildings at My Son was built over a 1,000 year period – 4th to 14th centuries AD, rediscovered in an almost pristine state in the early 1900’s, and then almost destroyed by a week of US bombing in the War.

And then the French control of Vietnam, the bit I already knew about, was such a blip in Vietnam’s history – 1885 to mid 1900s – not even 100 years in a country with 5,000 years of chronicled history.

This lesson seems particularly poignant now, as we seem to have a changing of the guard globally with the balance of power shifting from the West where I grew up, to the East where I am living now.

Age alone is not an excuse

One of the highlights of the trip for me was canyoning in Da Lat. When I read about it, I thought at least five of us would want to do it, so was surprised when only Christine and I did. I was standing with Raymond when I told the guy behind the counter that only two of our group would do the trip. He looked at Raymond and asked if it was him. I said ‘No, me and that woman’, pointing to Christine. He didn’t bat an eyelid (and I know because I was looking closely at them).

The day after the canyoning trip, we had the same person as our guide for the weasel coffee, cricket and silkworm eating, cycling trip. I asked him if he had been concerned when he understood who was going to do the canyoning trip. He confessed ‘yes’. But he hastened to add that when his colleague returned, his colleague had told him that we had been fine and had been better at walking through the bush than the younger people in our group. He then asked me how old I was and, when I told him, said that my age made me the oldest woman to do the trip with his company. I felt pleased, but also glad I had not told myself that I might be too old for it, because I toyed with thinking that.

I am similarly pleased that I did not listen to the voice in my head that says I might be too old to live in China, or to learn Chinese. Research is coming out saying that voices like that might contribute to people getting dementia because we stop learning and laying down new neural pathways to give our brains a better chance of finding an alternative route to damaged pathways. And I think learning and doing new stuff is much more fun.

My good friend Trish sent me an article about a female astronaut our age who holds a number of records and just broke another one earlier this month. And Julian, our friend here who is a fount of all knowledge, said that the guy who is presently winning veteran marathons didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 60s.

There will be things I can’t do as I get older. For example, I decided not to enter a fun run next month because my achilles tendons started to hurt when I was training. But I want to be a person who does not listen to any voice in my head where the only reason not to do something is ‘my age’.

Special friends are … well … special

In one way it was a bit risky deciding to travel for three weeks with our four friends.  We have counted Christine and Lawrie as special friends for nearly 30 years. We raised our children together, including our families holidaying together over Labour Weekend for many of those years. We have known Ros and Colin for half that time but also count them as two of our most special friends.

We only introduced the four of them to one another a couple of years ago and the longest we had holidayed together was for one weekend. But, yes we could trust our instincts. It was so lovely to see them again after being away from New Zealand for a year, and we had one of the best holidays of our lives.

We only had one tense moment – when I had not checked my emails, and our flight to Da Lat turned out to be changed to an hour earlier (who does that?), so we only just made it onto the plane, and Lawrie lost his Swiss army knife because we couldn’t take it on to the plane as carry on. I apologised, and he forgave me. It was not helped by the fact that I had also not booked extra luggage for that flight so had to go off to pay extra when we had so little time, and when we got to our hotel it turned out that I had misunderstood another email and not paid a 50% deposit to hold the rooms. So we had nowhere to stay – and it was raining. We soon found somewhere up the road but three ‘fails’ in the space of a few hours was definitely the lowest point of the trip for me – but my special friends forgave me, made me a cup of tea, joked, left Raymond and me alone to solve it, and mentioned it over the rest of the trip just enough times to still be funny.

I remember my mum, after she was retired, talking about her travels with her special friends – in New Zealand and overseas. We are not quite retired, but we do have more discretionary time and independent children. While we still love holidaying with our children, it is a different experience traveling with others our age and stage. Having  had such a marvelous time, I am thrilled to know that we also have four special people with whom we can build memories – for up to at least four weeks at a time anyway.

So, an eclectic bunch of new insights – some personal and could be learned anywhere, others Vietnam specific, I continue to learn and grow. What a privilege!

Learning Chinese – 12 months

I am now six months further into my Chinese language learning journey than when I wrote Learning Chinese – six months. When I reread my six months post, I thought ‘oh, how discouraging, not much has changed’ because I would use similar words to describe my situation

  • most of my Chinese lessons speaking Chinese with grammar or culture in English
  • people tend to understand me, but I don’t understand them very well
  • I still tend to remember the pinyin but struggle with which is the correct tone
  • I can read some characters but not most of them
  • I can write characters that I know and copy those I don’t know neatly (more neatly than locals, in the same way that my written English is almost illegible to other people).

But I have improved in small ways

  • The sentences that I use and understand in my lessons are longer, more complicated and more frequently accurate
  • People understand me better than six months ago. When I give our address to taxi drivers, I don’t need to ask if they understand because I know they will. If I know all the words and have my sentence structure right, locals just reply.
  • I understand more than six months ago, even if it is still not very much. Sometimes, I can pick out tonal differences and I can understand numbers at the market or shopping. When people speak to me, my mind sometimes works out what they were saying a few seconds (or minutes) later. I know some words immediately but my poor brain keeps whirring – assessing the context, filling in gaps, determining the missing words and which sounds and ones they might be (sometimes needing to look them up in my dictionary) and then working out the whole sentence. This does not make for flowing conversation, but I can now stretch to mini conversations with those willing to practice.
  • Compared to six months ago, I know the pinyin and tones for more words and can read and write more characters.

So my overwhelming sense is ‘slow and steady’. I need to persevere and trust the process. When traveling, dining and shopping, my language learning is encouraging. In these situations, I am tending to speak in Chinese even if locals speak to me in English. Their English tends to be a similar level to my Chinese. Both sides have stock sentences we can say effectively, and we are both excellent at understanding our own language. I feel most discouraged at work when I am part of natural conversations and understand virtually nothing.

One encouraging thing is that I now have a base to which it is easier to add new bits. The sounds are all familiar so that I can recognise the difference between ‘zh’ and ‘j’ or ‘z’ and ‘c’. This means I can look it up, and can have a go at guessing what tone was being used, so I can learn for next time. I can remember place names easily because I have the bank of sounds to call upon. When I read, I can sometimes work out from the two characters that I know what the word might be. I break characters down into primitives in my mind so can write them quickly to work out what they are.

We are now confident that I can work it out if we travel to remote places. Last year, in the national October holiday, when we went to 九寨溝 (Jiŭzhàigōu) National Park, I researched places to stay with English speaking staff. This year, as we plan our trip to another national park –  張家界 (Zhāngjiājié or Avatar Mountains) – it is all about location and value for money.

How am I learning Chinese?

Much of the ‘how’ is the same as six months ago. I still have online classes with Tutorming most week days before I go to work, use Pleco dictionary to look up things wherever I am to communicate and keep stuffing new things into my brain, and am using the Heisig ‘develop stories using primitives’ method to learn the 3,000 most frequently used Chinese characters (nearly a third of the way).

However, as I have continued to research and talk to others about what they find helpful, I have found three new activities and resources helpful.

Firstly, I have worked on improving my pronunciation by reviewing several resources intended to help English speakers pronounce pinyin. My Chinese teachers are the best at saying things properly, but they do not always know how to help me say things better. They say it again to help me and I think it sounds the same as what I am saying. An English speaker recommending a similar English word, or saying ‘put your tongue here, not there’ is a good supplement. Some people say you need to get your pronunciation right early on so you don’t develop bad habits. I agree that would be great, and I did try. But given that I am where I am, I find when I go back to these resources one bit of theory sticks and I can work on that, whereas working on all the sounds at once was too overwhelming. Also, I can know where to focus my improvement because my teachers point out something or a local struggled to understand me say a specific word. I can go to my Pleco dictionary too and listen to it over and over again to try and understand where I went wrong.

Secondly, a friend introduced me to the Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series. I gave up on Chinese language children’s books quite soon after my last blog post. They are intended for people who speak Chinese but can’t read. The Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series are for people like me, who can read but not speak Chinese. The first books assume you know 300 Chinese characters – most of which I do now. If they use words outside those 300, they write it as a footnote with the pinyin and English translation. The stories manage to be interesting for adults – so far, a murder mystery, kidnapped children, challenges of being conjoined twins, and the romantic dilemma of a software engineer developing the first Chinese software in 1988.

Reading these books has helped me reflect on how much I learned English through reading. I tended to think I learned it all from my parents, but I realise devouring all those books (we did only have one TV channel that started in the afternoon) helped so much. I am reinforcing existing knowledge, picking up new language structures, and gaining new vocabulary. For example, ‘policeman’ has cropped up a bit, given kidnapping and murder themes, and was useful when our regular driver asked me what jobs our sons do. I could say ‘My younger son wants to be a policeman’ just like that.

The best thing about the series is that each one comes with a CD with a slow and normal speed soundtrack. I have copied them onto my phone, and now I listen to the slow audios of these books whenever I walk somewhere on my own, such as to and from the bus. Listening continues to be the weakest part of my language learning and this has helped so much. One day I hope to graduate to normal speed.

Thirdly, I have discovered Anki – a flashcard software system that uses ‘spaced repetition’. I really wish I had discovered this much earlier on, but at least I have found it now. This is thanks to an opera singing polyglot – Gabe from Fluent Forever. He has developed a system that really rang true for me when I tripped over it a couple of months ago. I was realising that I was struggling to revise all my vocabulary, and for the characters I was good at revising, my revision did not take into account that I knew some really well and others not so well. I was going through them just the same whatever category they were in. Enter Anki!

Anki is free (for Android and Windows) or cheap (for Apple) software that you can use to make flashcards for anything. Once created, it gives me the cards to review at shorter or longer intervals depending on my assessment of remembering it as ‘again’ (I can’t remember this), ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’. I can create cards on my computer, revise them on my phone, and everything I have done syncs up to the cloud and back down to each device (I know baffling you with technical jargon).

And people have created all sorts of cards already. I downloaded over 3,000 pre-made cards for my Heisig method of learning characters. Fluent Forever offers a free template relevant for languages such as Chinese with characters, and a set of pre-made cards to help me with Mandarin pronunciation for only $12.

This pronunciation guide shows me that I can differentiate between most Mandarin consonant and vowel sounds, but am terrible at recognising tone differences. However, the guide gives me the chance to keep revising these differences until I can spot them. It is quite magical to not hear a difference, then be able to, and then wonder how I ever missed it and not be able to imagine thinking they sound the same.

The second thing I like about Gabe’s method is the idea of using pictures for flashcards so you miss out the translation step in your brain. Again, because I have been at this a year, I can see how much better it is when I operate like that, and that it is desirable to remove the English step if possible. So, I am in the process of developing vocabulary cards for about 1,000 words. Gabe recommends 650, and my friend’s professor has a list of the 1,000 most commonly used words. I naively assumed the 650 would be a subset of the 1,000 – not so. So, I have developed my own list, based on both of theirs and things I have wished I could say while I am here. I am now creating my own cards using the free template from Fluent Forever. Gabe also recommends including personal meaning, so they are quite fun to develop, and revise with pictures of special places and people dotted through. Example card for ‘dark’ being created below.

ank eg

I can revise most of my flashcards on my daily bus trip to and from work, and, if need be, finish up any last bits at home. (Example screenshots from my mobile phone below.)

The third thing Gabe suggests, which I will do once I have my 1,000ish initial vocabulary cards made and being revised, is grammar/sentences flashcards, again using images rather than English. I will be able to get sentences and key grammar points from revising my lessons (I confess I am falling behind on revision of my lessons, with all this cards focus). I have already captured some of these in my book of notes. Now I want to be able to remember them. Making grammar cards is one of those things that as soon as I read it, I thought ‘that is obvious, why didn’t I think of that?’

The final thing that I am experimenting with (again from the famous Gabe’s book) is mnemonics to help me remember tones. Specifically, I have assigned a tone to each of my four children and am now linking the relevant child into my stories for characters when I struggle to remember the tone. So for  委 (wĕi, committee) I had a story of women (lower primitive in the character 女) bringing their paper bag tree (upper primitive 禾) fruit tarts to a committee meeting. Now I have added the image of Andrew (my up and down/third tone child) sitting with the women on the committee who were comparing their paper bag tree fruit tarts – dishing up his tart, which is of course agreed to be the nicest by far. This sounds very cumbersome when I describe it but is surprisingly effective when I picture it.

You may be wondering how I got to paper bag tree for a primitive – not Heisig’s idea. He uses wild rice for 禾, but I got that confused with another primitive 米 ‘rice’ that he also suggests, so I changed to ‘paper bag tree’. We went camping at the same time as I was getting confused between wild rice and rice, and from the bus I noticed trees with paper bags. I think they were covering fruit. It seemed a good alternative, and has worked well. It illustrates how I take others’ systems and make them my own, and how a stupid idea is often more memorable than a sensible one.

Another new thing is trying to talk with locals. When I am in Chéngdū, I have weekly lunch with Veena, a Chinese colleague who wants to improve her English. This has been a bit helpful for Chinese learning and lovely for getting to know someone at work. However, I think we have been too back and forth between Chinese and English. A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese woman who has lived in Sydney for five years. She said that she and her language partner found it helpful to speak in one language for half an hour, and then switch to speaking the other. This forced them both to push through communicating whole ideas in their difficult language each session. I will suggest that to Veena going forward. I also feel ready to retry connecting via an online site called Language Exchange, with locals who want to improve their English. I tried late last year, but when we met it was hard work when we used Chinese and that language partner did not seem keen to continue. Several have approached me online so we will see how that goes.

So, the last six months have been a lot of learning, and learning about learning, particularly taking from others’ experiences and finding what works for me. I continue to make progress and am reasonably encouraged. I still feel discouraged when I think how far I have to go to achieve my goal of conversational fluency. It helps to remind myself how little I used to know, and that I will definitely know more if I persevere than if I give up.

And think of all those neuronal pathways I am building to offer alternative routes as my brain starts losing some of its existing ones.