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!


Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lìjiāng

Last weekend was Labour weekend in China, so Raymond and I headed south to explore Yúnnán for the three days. We had read of stunning scenery at a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hŭ Tiaò Xiá). To get there we flew 1.5 hours to Lìjiāng (lovely river), famous for its ‘old town’.

To travel in China, we are learning it is easier if we research on the web ahead of time. I think this is useful anywhere, but especially relevant with limited language and so many choices. We are so appreciative of others’ help that I have decided to give a bit more advice when I blog about our trips, to give back to the travel community, and set a few things straight. All those 20 something bloggers who said that the Tiger Leaping Gorge route was pretty easy except for the one hour steep section going up the 28 zigzags were wrong! But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

To go to the airport, we use a ‘black taxi’. I have mentioned Joe before. He is a highly professional, reliable, pleasant driver who many of the teachers from Raymond’s school use. So, when I went down on Friday at 1 pm to meet him, I was surprised to find that he was not there. I wechatted him and said I was waiting. He replied ‘please wait’.  I asked in Chinese ‘how many minutes?’ He said ‘What time is the plane?’ I asked in English ‘how many minutes?’ He replied ‘I am on my way and soon’, followed by another message asking if we wanted to start from our apartment or from Raymond’s school. I said ‘I will take a taxi’, and that is where Joe found me, walking the street looking for a taxi. It turned out that Raymond’s request to pick me up and then go to his school to pick him up, when translated from English to Chinese, asked Joe to pick Raymond up from school and then come and get me. Talk about lost in translation. Joe had been waiting at school, driven the 20 minutes from school to get me, and then we drove back to the school. On the way, as we talked about what had happened, I think he understood that another time (but hopefully we will communicate better next time) he should check before coming to get me, because Raymond could have got in first at school. Luckily, I had just revised how to say ‘first … then…’. And Raymond and I realised that, to minimise confusion, we need to give even simpler instructions – a lesson we thought we had already learned.

We caught our plane, uneventfully, arrived at Lìjiāng airport and decided to get a taxi into town. Our driver was upfront about the extra 10 kuài for tolls – total just over 110 kuài. She dropped us off outside Lìjiāng old town, both miming and talking to communicate that she could not drive us any further, and that we needed to cross the road, walk down a bit and take the first right. So off we went and discovered that this old town part of Lìjiāng is stunning. We loved it immediately. It must be what Chinese towns used to look like, now with a mixture of modern and traditional wares and food places, and lots of travel agencies.

We followed our driver’s instructions, walked along the cobblestones enjoying the ambience, reading the English and Chinese looking for our hotel – Lìjiāng Boutique Rénwén Inn. Because we are such experienced travelers, I had cleverly taken a screenshot of our hotel details. After walking the right hand loop, and not finding our hotel, we searched on Dù, our local maps app, and redid the loop. Ok, let’s try Google maps with VPN. Our various routes had taken us back and forth past a friendly gentleman encouraging people into his restaurant. So our next plan of attack was to ask him if he knew our hotel. He did, so he mimed and talked directions, which then made it a bit awkward when we needed to walk unsuccessfully past him a couple more times – just wave and smile. Plan C, or maybe D, was to pop into one of the many travel agencies. Number 1 was unhelpful, but number 2 was very clever. She rang the phone number and arranged for someone from our hotel to come and get us – highly recommended approach.

We followed our enthusiastic young host in the opposite direction to all our earlier routes, to the left of the main drag and Dù and Google’s suggestions. The name on the door did not match our hotel name. When I expressed concern, ‘chain hotel’ was the answer. It was a lovely little place, and unbelievably good value for about NZD20 per night. We are still not sure what really happened, but were happy.  Our young host and I communicated effectively in a mixture of Chinese and English, and his mum understood me, but I could not understand her.

I had read that tickets for the bus to the gorge tend to sell out so we asked our young host for advice on where to go to buy bus tickets. Armed with our paper map on which he had circled the bus stop and bus ticket sales outlet, we went back up to the main road, where our taxi had dropped us off, to catch a number 2 bus. We waited a while but no buses drove past, so we decided to get a taxi. Using our map, I arranged for the driver to take us, wait and return. Then Raymond hopped in grinning because our bus had gone past while I had my head in the window talking to the driver.

We drove through Lìjiāng getting a sense of the layout of the place, seeing the rest of the old town, cascading down the hill and lit up beautifully in the evening, and wound down the hill through the modern part to the ticket shop. Our driver dropped us off, we walked in the direction he had seemed to point, could not find anything resembling a bus ticket sales place, circled back, rejoined our driver who took us to a travel agent, who pointed over the road. There, we still struggled, and approached some street food vendors, one of whom hopped up, took us a minute further around, and pointed to the ticket shop – with its closed garage door. Oh well, let’s get up early tomorrow.

We went back to the friendly gentleman’s restaurant and had the local delicacy they recommended – which turned out to be chicken and mushroom soup, but not as we know it – brothy rather than creamy. She had encouraged us to share the smaller serving, which was just as well. The enormous bowl bubbled away on the gas burner on our table and we ate as much as we could, finally leaving half of it behind as we headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning, we left our hotel at 7am, caught the famous number 2 bus to the shop, where in the light of day we could read the sign telling us the bus ticket place opening hours – 8am to 9pm. We only missed it by a few minutes last night, and an hour to go. Breakfast from our friendly street food vendors and let’s explore the park. A bit after 8am the sole woman employee opened the shop, stopped her sweeping when we arrived, walked behind the counter, started up her computer, was helpful but slow and 20 minutes later concluded ‘no tickets, but you can try the bus station’. What, you mean we could have gone there the whole time, including this morning and last night?!  We walked the ten minutes, found out that the earliest available seats were at 11am, and shared a car to the gorge with a Chinese couple who had got married the day before.

The driver showed us all where to buy tickets for the gorge, dropped us off at the beginning of the high level track, and then took our companions to the start of the one day lower level track.

The first part of the middle gorge walk is a concrete road with large trucks going up and down, and you look across the river to the massive infrastructure project on the other side, which we assume is part of China’s vision for high speed rail over the whole country. Not quite what I imagined when others described stunning scenery, but I am learning to go with the flow (eventually). It started off at a steady gradient, but manageable. Then the concrete stopped and it got really steep with steps winding up the hill – the famous 28 bends – I was glad when they were over. Dotted along the route were men with horses whose English extended to ‘horse’. Bú yào mă (don’t want a horse) I replied, tempted as I was – reasoning that the fact that I wanted one so much was evidence that I should not use one.

Then we couldn’t see the earthworks any more, the path became more undulating, we stopped for drinks and a nibble under the shade of a tree, chatted as we went to a couple of Swedish couples over from Shànghăi, and arrived at the first village.

As we walked past Naxi Guest House, we wondered if our hotel was nearby, four hours earlier than I understood from my web research – how encouraging. Then we came to a sign saying that it was another three hours to Tea Horse Guest House and two more to Halfway, where we were staying – how discouraging, an hour longer than I understood from my web research. But we had plenty of energy, were over the worst bit, and carried on.

Then we came to the real 28 bends – very steep, slabs of slate to walk on, path zig zagging vertically back and forth. Ten minutes walking, two minutes stopping – ‘ we have plenty of time’, ‘it is not a race’. Eventually, I set aside my feminist philosophy and gave Raymond my pack.I found it very hard work.

And then the worst was over. We stopped in the next village for a cup of tea and coffee and got talking to a couple of Chinese from Kūnmíng who had good English (although our conversation began with how good my Chinese had been when I ordered our drinks – instant friend!) They were there with their regular walking group, and talked about how the track used to be dominated by westerners, but was growing in popularity with Chinese tourists. Certainly, on our trip, three-quarters of those we saw looked Chinese.

Refuelled, we continued, but I never fully recovered – not helped by Raymond, Sofia from Kūnmíng, and I taking a half hour detour up a hill instead of along the flatter path, to which we then had to return (hour total). We finally arrived 7.5 hours after we had started, exhausted. We wonder whether the highish altitude affected us more than we realised at the time.

I had read good things about the Ben Li Wan Family Hotel and we were not disappointed – it was clean, our en suite shower was hot and sooooo what we needed, the food was delicious, the staff were helpful, including getting us as many pots of tea as we asked for, and the mountain view out of our room was stunning – in fact so stunning that before I went to sleep, I felt it was all worth it. And this place will forever be special to us – what a place to get the wonderful news that Andrew and Cindy were now engaged.

The next morning, we woke, had relaxed cups of tea and breakfast before setting off about 10am, feeling a bit pressured that as we were only halfway, we might not make it back in time, and thinking that if need be we would have to overnight at another guesthouse and go back to Lìjiāng on Monday.

But by 11.30am we had arrived at Tina’s Guesthouse. It turns out the other ‘half’ is this short jaunt, plus a three hour walk down to Tiger Leaping Stone and back, or other options to waterfalls etc. We decided not to bother – we felt we had seen so much lovely scenery on the way, and our feet were sore. Another tea and coffee and then we found a beautiful spot a few minutes away, and sat by the waterfall there and waited for the 3.30pm bus back to Lìjiāng , where we had already booked a second night at our friendly hotel.

My advice to other over 50s – with reasonable fitness levels but not quite what you used to be – is, yes, do the walk, but stop for your first night at Tea Horse Guest House five hours in, having done the 28 bends but not yet absolutely shattered (and avoid the detour). Then, day 2, leave from there about 10am confident that you will get to Tina’s in time for the 3.30pm bus. And, book bus tickets at Tea Horse. We did get bus tickets at Tina’s but, for reasons we never quite understood, it was not initially straight forward. We never made the trip down to the Tiger Leaping Stone so cannot comment on whether or not that would be worth it, but I would suggest staying a second night/third day to do that.

Back in Lìjiāng , we settled in and then went walking for somewhere to find dinner, eventually settling on a small local ‘restaurant’ with a very friendly hostess. There were only four tables, you could see her husband cooking behind the shelves. Our two key criteria were met – she called out and invited us in, which signals a willingness to work at communicating with foreigners, and there were pictures of food on the walls. We had a wonderful time – nice food, and chatting with our hostess and another older woman dining with her family, who seemed particularly fascinated by us and wanted to chat as much as my limited Chinese would allow. She knew New Zealand – that it is small and has milk.

The next day, we left our larger pack at our hotel and explored Lìjiāng old town. First, somewhere to eat breakfast – using our friendliness criteria again. Pictures were not necessary because we could see it all being cooked out the front. Then, we just wandered. We were entranced by the man making the shawls on his loom so I bought one, later realising that he can’t have made all the identical shawls being sold in every shawl shop in Lìjiāng. We found a place selling coffee to keep Raymond happy, and relaxed there people watching, including seeing how a couple cooked and packaged biscuits. These purple biscuits seemed to be famous in Lìjiāng because they also were being sold everywhere. Having watched the woman rolling out the biscuits pick her nose, we knew one place we didn’t want to buy them from. We enjoyed the ‘free’ (if you don’t count the fee to get into the old town) dancing show, then found the Experiencing Hall of Naxi Hieroglyphics Painting.

The Dongba hieroglyphics are the oldest living form of hieroglyphics, because they are still used today. Historical records show the script was used in 7th century, but it may be up to 7,000 years old. A single pictograph can be used to recite different phrases or an entire sentence. The script is logical – when a symbol is drawn upside down it indicates negation, straight lines drawn between people indicates ‘fight’, entwined lines represent ‘discuss’, and a dead animal is drawn as usual but without pupils in their eyes. We were quite fascinated. Eventually, we succumbed to temptation, and the focused attention of the salesman, to buy a hieroglyphics embroidery to remind us of our wonderful holiday.

Back to the hotel, pick up our pack and out to the airport. We had never managed to find out where the airport bus left from so decided to wave down a taxi. The first one to stop was a minivan already heading out there. The woman asked for 120 kuài . I thought ‘I know we can get it for 110 in a metered taxi’, so said, ‘No thanks, too expensive, I know we can get it cheaper’, thinking she would drop to 110. Next, she offered 70! My best bargaining yet. As we got out and I paid her, Raymond said ‘I think she likes you’ – I guess my amazing bargaining earned her respect.

Certainly, I was very encouraged on this trip that I seem to have graduated from Chinglish to the next stage – Chineglish? I can say whole sentences, effectively communicate on a range of useful travel topics, and everyone seems to understand me. Unfortunately,  they then talk back to me in Chinese and I still have to work out how to understand them.

So, another wonderful holiday, in a place we had never heard of before coming here, would strongly recommend, and which increases our fascination with our adopted country.

Some of the tea in China

I am an avid tea drinker. I have more cups of tea a day than I have cups of coffee a year. And, I am fascinated by the history and culture of China, which has to include understanding tea – 茶 (chá). So, when the Chéngdū Foreign Affairs Office, Chéngdū Education Bureau and PŭJiāng County Government invited teachers from Raymond’s school to a tea picking event, I (and therefore we) jumped at the chance.

There are Chinese records of tea consumption dating back to the 10th century, and the world’s earliest physical record indicates that Hàn Dynasty emperors were drinking tea for medicinal purposes in 2nd century BC. A popular Chinese tale takes it further, saying that in 2737 BC the legendary Emperor of China was drinking a bowl of just boiled water (interestingly, having decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking it) and leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water. He took a sip, liked the flavour and tea was born. The first record of cultivation of tea, also from the 10th century, shows tea being cultivated on Méng Mountain (蒙山) near our beloved Chéngdū .

Tea spread to the rest of Asia from 6th century BC, was introduced from China to Portuguese priests and merchants in the 16th century and made it to Britain (and my ancestors) during the 17th century. Then the British, as they tended to do, actively changed the order of things, by introducing tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with China’s monopoly on tea.

Last Saturday, at 7.50am, with some of  Raymond’s colleagues and their family members, we hopped on a bus the school provided, and traveled 1.5 hours from Chéngdū to PŭJiāng. I had that kiwi assumption thing going on – visiting tea plantations would mean a  rural environment. So when the bus stopped in an urban environment, I was quite surprised. We were ushered to a registration table with people everywhere, then into a nearby room with long log tables and two women performing a synchronised tea ceremony. We were given cups of tea in not-so-traditional paper cups, and some interesting looking biscuits that tasted very nice. A Chinese gentleman siting nearby told us, in broken English, that we were drinking the sparrow tongue tea famous in this region. It didn’t look like it was made from real sparrow tongues.

Next we were led out to a large number of seats and taken to those with the school’s name on. We were quite bemused by all of this because we had only skimmed the invitation email and had missed the fact that we were being invited to the opening ceremony for the annual Pu Jiang Tea Picking Festival. Luckily, we are getting used to going with the flow. We had translation headsets so could understand what was happening. We watched the Festival officially opened, the best tea pickers given their awards, a couple of contracts signed, and a number of dances.

Then we followed the crowd to the restaurant where we had an amazing lunch. We must have only eaten half of what was crammed onto our table. There were the usual local dishes, with our usual coping strategies. Avoid the dishes with the reddest sauce, pick out the chillies where necessary, only take the vegetables when unsure of the animal part in the meat dishes, and enjoy the dumplings and plain vegetables. The four foreigners at our table enjoyed the meatballs, which we have not seen here before. They tasted like I might have made (a few herbs, no spice, gravy rather than oily sauce) and the locals did not touch them. Maybe the chef made them specially.

After lunch, we followed the crowd again, donned our hats and tied on our tea picking baskets. Then we went behind the manicured gardens around the restaurant and there was a tea plantation – hiding behind all the buildings. We picked our way past the basketball court, through the mud and to the bushes. We were with Raymond’s colleague who speaks Chinese and his Chinese wife, so we found out exactly which bits to pick – take the sparrow tongue shaped bud in the centre and leave the outer leaves. When we reconvened others had not been so well trained. Most had picked the leaves and the centre, and one guy had only taken the leaves, leaving the central bud so the plant could survive. We laugh a lot here.

We handed in our leaves and traveled in the bus to a local school where they teach tea craft. We learned a bit of theory from sculptures depicting the eight steps of tea making. I remember three things. Traditionally, only young virgins were allowed to pick tea thanks to their purity. The leaves were rolled in bags using feet and hands – now they use machines. And, the text by the sculptures linked tea making and approaches to education – but I don’t remember the details – sorry.

Then we went into the school’s small factory, and saw the machines they use. We had a go at drying leaves in large electric heating bowls – wearing gloves to protect our hands. Fascinating, but luckily, we did not have to wait until our tea was dry enough to use. It got very repetitive after a short time. It must have been even more so for those doing it by hand over fires years ago.Then we were taken to try our hands at calligraphy and watch school children perform a short tàijí session.

Our last stop was a classroom set up to train students in tea ceremony. We were taken through a ceremony in all its detail. I don’t think we managed such graceful flourishes as our teacher, although I tried – and got rewarded by the official photographer grabbing his camera to capture the moment. I hope they got a good laugh from it later. And I am sure we spilled more tea into the tray below the beautiful wooden stand. However, we did glimpse the tradition and sense of occasion that a tea ceremony brings. We must appear boorish with our quick jiggle of a tea bag in our massive cups, and even more so if they saw my system in our kitchen for reusing tea bags. Even I think this looks unseemly – but it is practical in a world of limited tea bag access.


As we left, we were given a beautiful box with four types of tea in it.I tend to be set in my ways with tea. In our apartment, I usually use Liptons or Twinings English Breakfast, Early Grey or ‘gumboot’ teabags, just like back in New Zealand. We did buy some barley tea after enjoying it during our trip north east, and we occasionally drink that – but need to be in the mood. When I first started at work, my business partner gave me some Chinese black tea (hóng chá, literally red tea – it is as red as it is black if you think about it). I have branched out enough to drink this like a Chinese person – putting my leaves in a cup each morning and topping it up with water all through the day. One day I tried another colleague’s chrysanthemum tea – literally dried chrysanthemums in hot water. Mine was too weak for me to taste anything, but now I know what those things are that I see floating in others’ plastic bottles.

I have almost finished my box of black tea at work, so will take our new ones in and see if I can become more adventurous as well as more informed.

Working in China #1 (Terry)

One of the reasons we chose China ahead of Turkey and Malawi, where Raymond also got job offers, was that we believed there would be better work opportunities for me.

I had worked in vocational education for nearly 20 years, including international business development, and consulting – off shore and virtually in New Zealand. International education is New Zealand’s fourth largest export earner, and Chinese students choosing to study in New Zealand is the largest contributor to that. I thought I might be able to work in China, work virtually for a New Zealand company, or consult in the broader Asian region. I had had conversations back in New Zealand that made me feel optimistic about this.

Yes and no.

Once we got a bit settled I started networking and concluded that

  • I could work in China but a local job would be relatively poorly paid and mean I could not travel with Raymond in his many holidays, or have much time for learning Chinese
  • the New Zealand Consulate values my skills and experience but there were no NZ government opportunities in the short term
  • consulting might be an option, but again nothing immediately.

However, one opportunity popped up. I sought job hunting advice from a kiwi who has lived here for 25 years. He and his Chinese wife bring a wealth of experience, having run a business here for many years, and having helped many kiwi and other western companies enter the Chinese market.

After I shared my CV, and we met a couple of times, they invited me to go into business with them. It turns out that just before I arrived they had been approached by a group of New Zealand education providers to represent them in south west China. They were already seriously interested in this opportunity, and then I arrived with complementary skills to complete the leadership team. It appealed to me because I

  • would be working semi-locally with the chance to grow cross-culturally while not being fully immersed
  • could learn from two experienced mentors
  • could work flexibly i.e. still study Chinese, travel with Raymond, and consider small consulting opportunities if they arose.

The only downside was working for nothing initially (length of time still to be confirmed).

Brightsparks was born!

How have I found it? Long term readers of my blog will be able to predict the answer – a roller coaster.


  • having people to interact with during the day (I got lonely being a lady of leisure, even though I was initiating social connections as much as I could)
  • the stimulation of working and using my brain to work out stuff as one does in any job
  • the chance to problem solve and innovate,  and create something of quality from scratch
  • meeting interesting people and feeling more interesting myself
  • growing understanding of international education and the global world in which graduates will be working
  • growing understanding of doing business here, particularly as I work with my business partners
  • working on our website with my daughter, and seeing that she is not just amazing personally, but professionally as well
  • working with my volunteering colleague, without whom I might have gone crazy during the set-up phase of the work – she is bilingual, competent, unphased by China, and fun company
  • being flexible and autonomous in my work.

Lows –

  • challenges of starting from scratch, and always having to push myself, never being pulled
  • not having the language
  • working across cultural differences.

Every day it would be easier if I could speak Chinese. Work communication can be challenging enough in your own language. My first big success was asking in Chinese ‘Please give me the logo. Do you have my ’email’?’. Wahoo! I have tended to work through my bilingual colleague to get IT issues sorted, although recently she has been away and IT guy and I have had to cope on our own. Me starting with ‘please help me’ in Chinese, and seeing if he can work it out from there before bringing in the reinforcements, has worked surprisingly well.

Working cross-culturally is harder than in your own culture, which, again, can be challenging enough at work. I can’t trust what comes naturally, I don’t even know the rules well enough to consciously decide to work within them, and sometimes I have to accept things that from my perspective are not good.

A good example of all this was developing the Brightsparks brochure. The local graphic designer was working on it, guided by the branding on our new website, which my daughter Bek had developed. I worked closely with her by distance and loved the final result, although we have things we want to add to make it even better in phase two.

By contrast, to my eye, the first version of the brochure looked terrible – bright yellow with red writing, purple circle graphics to communicate about our process, crowded rather than simply elegant, and nothing that matched the website branding built on lovely New Zealand natural colours. I tried to think of something positive to say.

Quick checking with other young staff in the office confirmed the graphic designer’s view that young Chinese think bright yellow is much cooler than elegant blue. He stuck to his guns about some other elements too.

Over the next week, through my bilingual colleagues we discussed options, but relying on Chinese whispers I was never sure what was getting through about vision, messaging or branding – all things that it is easier to have iterative conversations about over a period of time. I am having to work out what I think on my own more than I used to. My natural style is bouncing ideas around.

We finally arrived at a halfway house that we are all happy with. The graphic designer added the two tone blue and kite imagery from the website, and some pictures of New Zealand apart from the Auckland sky tower. The trendy cartoon purple circles and red writing remain, ‘sandy’ yellow replaces sunset orange in the logo and will be added where possible to the website, and the front of the brochure is less cluttered.

And I am still not 100% sure what it says.

It was an interesting experience. What do I insist on, and what do I let go? As a non-Chinese older person developing a brochure for a young Chinese audience, I have to listen to others. But I decided good practice anywhere in the world means consistent branding.  And all the time, I need to depend on conversations happening in another language around me.

No wonder things take longer.

The good news is that late last week, the same graphic designer shared his first version of the front and back covers and first four pages of our present project – our partners booklet. I was prepared to have a similar experience as with the brochure. But we are all learning. I looked at it and was able to say what I had just learned in my Chinese lesson that morning – 完美 (wánmĕi – perfect)! He and my bilingual helper both smiled.

My only suggestion – let’s add a little bit of bright yellow!


The great wedding outfit hunt

Next time I move to China shortly after my son gets engaged and it is the northern hemisphere summer, I will immediately look for a dress to wear to the wedding. Unfortunately, last July, I was a bit busy coping with all that China threw at me. 

After years of buying at end of season sales, I was planning to look before the summer stock disappeared. However, this is yet another thing one has to learn in a new country – when do they change stock? It still seemed very warm to me when I noticed that summer dresses were gone and clothing shops were full of winter coats of every possible colour. 

We did have a bit of a look once I spotted the difference, but didn’t know where to shop and couldn’t work out discounts (or ask for clarification). No percent signs. Signs with numbers between 1 and 8, followed by a Chinese character popped up everywhere. It was only after my Chinese lesson on shopping for clothes that I understood ‘3折’ means pay 30% or in my kiwi way of thinking, take 70% off. 1.5 and 2 are quite common, so you can understand that initially we assumed it meant a 15 or 20%, rather than 85 or 80%, discount. Now that we know, it can be great. 

Too late for end of season bargain hunting. Oh well, plenty of time, I will just have to pay full price next spring.
So, we ignored the issue, and, mid-Jan, when we returned from our Christmas holiday, we decided we would go looking for a dress for me and a suit for Raymond. 

Our first port of call was the shops within walking distance of our apartment. One dress shop in particular has beautiful clothes. I tried on several sleeveless winter weight dresses that could work in Marlborough on a bad day, but, as, the shop assistant pointed out, my hips are too 宽 (wide). I later mentioned to my Chinese teacher that in New Zealand it would be considered rude to tell a customer her hips are wide. Apparently it is in China too!

We found a nice suit for Raymond for about NZD400, but, because we knew we could easily pop back later, we decided to check out the big shopping centre near us first.

So the next weekend (our only one before our Laos holiday) we set off. We had both downloaded Mobike, one of the bike sharing apps taking China by storm. Cycling is perfect for us to go to the Global Centre, the world’s largest shopping centre by square meters of shopping. From our apartment, it is a bit too far to walk, if we take the scooter we have the hassle of parking it, the metro stops right there but is a reasonable trek from our place, and none of our four buses go right there. Plus biking would be a new adventure and some exercise.

The system is that you open the Mobike app, which use GPS to show all the bikes near you. You walk to the nearest bike, scan the barcode, the lock on the back wheel magically unlocks, you hop on, ride it wherever you want to go, hop off, put it up on its stand on the footpath, lock it and walk off. It means you don’t have to return to where you left it later, or even bike back. And with the population here, there are bikes everywhere.

But, as you can probably guess, our first trip was ‘interesting’. 

We walked out our front gate, found a couple of bikes, and scanned the codes. Mine worked instantly. Raymond’s didn’t. He had been having trouble with data on his phone, so we locked mine and walked to our nearby China Mobile shop. There we found two particularly unhelpful staff, and, fortunately, one particularly helpful bilingual customer. He listened, translated, gave up on the two unhelpful staff, and found a more technical staff member to solve the mystery. Not sure what he did, but it works now. 

Back outside, two more bikes right there, scans worked brilliantly, and off we went.

One of the nice things about biking to the Global Centre from our place, is that we live on one side of the green belt of Chengdu and the Centre is on the other, so we can cycle through a nice park. First, we headed towards the river, over the pedestrian crossing, and up onto the footpath by the park. Well, one of us did. That image in my mind of lifting my front wheel up and over the kerb turned out to be purely fictional. My bike stopped, I didn’t. I flew over the handlebars and landed, winded, on the footpath. Initially, only my dignity was hurt. I picked myself up, and off we went, the rest of the ride proving uneventful, and costing us about 20c each.

Later that evening my ribs started hurting, and it took about six weeks to come right. On reflection, I am not sure I could ever do that trick with a bike

The Centre is pretty amazing – bling on steroids, and an overwhelming number of shops, especially clothing shops. However, once I was systematic in working through them, I found ‘the millions’ dropped to five shops offering more elegant dresses, with some initial spring stock. In Vero Moda I tried on a few. Fortunately a Chinese colleague of Raymond’s happened to walk in part way through this process and helped explain the occasion, but still no success. Oh well, maybe in Laos over New Year. 

Or not. I tried, but those wide hips really are my downfall across Asia.

We then had one more weekend in Chengdu before flying to New Zealand. We headed into Taikooli, a large shopping complex near the city centre. First shop, I spotted a beautiful dress, tried it on, perfect! How much? 10,380. What is that in real money? NZD2,000! Mental note to self ‘avoid all shops where someone opens the door for you, and several staff are hovering to anticipate your every need’.

Back to looking. Too short, too expensive, too unlikely to fit those hips, too glittery, too wintery. Three hours later, we gave up and went to the lantern show.

Then we caught the metro to Tianfu Square, got off to transfer to our bus home, and walked past some shops. I popped in and saw a possible dress – it flares out over hips. I tried it on, Raymond loved it (objective as he is), I liked it enough, and we bought it. From Vero Moda! And yes, I had noticed it three weeks earlier, but I thought it was too plain.

Bonus at home – the pink was a perfect match to snazzy shoes I already owned, it went ok with my existing jacket for unpredictable NZ weather, and a friend had a matching hand bag.

While looking for me, we had also checked out suits for Raymond, and concluded one of our local shops had the best option – looked good, reasonable price. So, the following Monday, less than a week before we were to fly out, straight after work, we headed back to purchase his suit.

We walked the five minutes from our apartment block to the shops. ‘Was it this shop?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Or this one?’ ‘It is not how I remember it.’ ‘Me neither.’ ‘It must be here somewhere.’ ‘This is crazy.”Let’s try this one instead.’ ‘Ok.’

We never did find the original shop. 

However, in a new shop (we are both 99% sure it is not the same one), I had my most encouraging ‘conversation’ in Chinese yet. The woman understood me asking if it came with trousers, checking the price, and seeking her view on length. 

Raymond tried on a 2,000元 suit, then I noticed a pink thread going through the fabric. He popped on his glasses, decided he didn’t want to match my dress, and tried on another one. Perfect.

We assumed the price would be similar. When we came to pay, she typed 656 into the calculator. I said to Raymond ‘The trousers must be extra after all.’ Then she entered 3,280.

I said ‘Oh no, this is more expensive. The total will be about 4,000 (NZD800). But we have left it so late (four days til we fly out, still need to hem the trousers, and shops disappear), let’s just buy it.’ She could tell we were confused. So she entered 3,280 x 0.2 = 656.

Then we understood. With an 80% discount the suit would now cost us just over NZD120. A bargain, and a good illustration of how we live in an ongoing state of not quite knowing what is going on.

Of course, it didn’t really matter what we looked like. All eyes were on our beautiful daughter-in-law, handsome son and gorgeous granddaughter.

Our first Spring Festival

Spring Festival or Chinese New Year is the nearest thing China has to Christmas. It is the longest national holiday, everyone goes home to spend time together as a family, and there is special food and gift giving. However, it is very different too.

Spring Festival traditions stem from the belief that Nián, a scary monster or dragon, (and the Chinese word for year) appeared at the end of each year and could be scared away by bright lights, such as red and gold and the lights of fireworks, and by loud noises, such as firecrackers.

We chose to travel to Laos, for the ten day holiday, as we had heard that over a billion people travelling to be with family puts quite a strain on internal travel systems, and can be overwhelming for people from less densely populated countries.

As a neighbouring country, with shared ethnicity at the border, Laos has some cultural overlap with China. We saw groups of young men dressed up as Nián and wandering the streets or riding on the back of trucks. One evening a group came into our restaurant, several young men holding the dragon costume winding between the tables, and a greater number tagging along behind hoping to benefit from patrons who gave them money. We heard that restaurant owners like them to come in as they bring luck for the next year.

In Chéngdū, special Spring Festival red and gold decorations and landscaping sprang up everywhere. For example, our apartment gardeners, who have still not removed the reindeer and Santa Claus with his parasol, hung up red lanterns with gold tassels, and draped the bottom of the large trees in gold. In the central garden bed, they planted red tulips, timing their full bloom for New Years day (28 January), circled by light yellow plants. In the walkway to the convenience store, they placed pots with yellow orchids surrounded by pots with deep pink cyclamen. And around the fountains, they also continued the red and yellow flowers in pots theme. My Chinese language company offered a free deal for a red and gold door decoration, which I said yes to, but it never turned up. (Or if it did, I couldn’t read the text saying it was here.)

Firecrackers are an important part of Spring Festival. There did not seem to be just one time that they are lit, but different times through the season. Some were let off before we left Chéngdū. In Laos, firecrackers were being let off on New Years Eve and into the wee hours of New Years Day. Then, we were treated to a nice fireworks display out our window soon after we returned nearly a week later. And my Chinese teacher explained that the first Monday when people return to work they light firecrackers for a lucky start to the work year. During my lesson that day, I could hear them going off in the background in Guăngzhōu and she could hear them going off in the background in Chéngdū, over 1,000 km apart.

And Spring Festival is the time to sell anything and everything. The Exhibition Centre near us had a Spring Festival sale, where crowds of people thronged to pick up bargains to give to family, friends, work colleagues, and anyone else you feel obliged to give to. We did not go, but saw the crowds lugging, or, in some cases, wheeling, their many purchases. Our supermarket, that we view as very busy on an ordinary day, was chaotic. More people navigating extra stock piled up in any spare space between aisles. (We picked up some bargains in the post Spring Festival sales, which don’t seem holiday specific to us.)

Like most workplaces, Raymond’s school had an annual dinner before the holiday. We both wore red, because we understood that was appropriate and we try to fit in. I sat next to the school’s Chinese teacher, who commented on the effort we had put in, even though most locals did not bother. All red outfits belonged to ex-pats.

Two traditional things happened – a performance and a lottery. The lottery process was giving  a ‘red packet’ with money in (NZD20) to those whose names were drawn out of a hat – Raymond included in the lucky ones. I told my Chinese teacher, who is becoming a regular source of information on Chinese culture now that we have moved beyond ‘hello, my name is …’, that we had been to his school dinner. The first question she asked was if they had had a lottery. And when I helped my Chinese colleague translate her speech for my business partners’ other company’s dinner into English, it included introducing the lottery. So, it is obviously standard. As well as this, the teachers gave their bus driver a red packet, and we gave one to our regular driver when he drove us to the airport for our holiday.

And parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles give children red packets. But only children. My work colleague in her mid twenties is too old for red packets or presents from her parents, even though she went back to her village to celebrate with them.  Whereas, Hazel, our brand new granddaughter, got red packets from her Chinese grandmother and great-aunt before she turned a month old. She was not due until after Chinese New Year, but arrived three weeks early – obviously very smart.

The teachers union gave Raymond a parcel. Some things were easy to spot like wine , nuts, rice and red date honey. Other things, less so. We filled in an evening, photographing characters and translating them to work out what they were. Now we have to work out how to cook with them. We gave the jars of dried fungi – (super sized) log, and ordinary – to Raymond’s colleague.

The fifteenth day of the first lunar month of the new year, is Lantern Festival day. Our local Egypt-themed Lantern Festival, set up in the grounds of one of Chéngdū‘s museums, ran for a few weeks leading up to the 12 Feb. We were back in time to be able to visit during last weekend. The Festival was stunning, during the day and then as night fell lighting up the dark.

We snacked on savoury and sweet dumplings, listening to a recorded voice trying to sell what we were eating – to our ears it sounded like ‘Go Billy Bowser’. So, then I wanted to understand what she was saying. I recognised enough of the characters over the stall to know translating those would give the answer, much to the amusement of the woman wiping down the tables. She stood for quite a while behind me, studying my laborious attempts to work it out on my phone. Once Raymond had pointed her out, I invited her to write the final character which had been proving a challenge for me. ‘Heavenly saliva dog ignore dumplings’. Later, my Chinese teacher pointed out the inadequacy of direct translations, which was quite reassuring given that we ate before translating.

As we walked back to the metro, through the crowds and beautiful lights, we commented on how these  fragile silk-encased frames would never work in a windy environment. We were both quite amused picturing them slowly disintegrating in the Wellington winds before the three weeks was up, parts floating in the Wellington harbour and the rest strewn all over the city .

So, we feel that we caught intermittent glimpses of what Spring Festival or Chinese New Year means to everyone in our adopted home, but that we did not experience it fully. However, I am not sure how realistic full experience will ever be, given its deep significance and associated tradition for locals.

Anyway, it is over now – let’s see what this year of the rooster brings!


Learning Chinese – six months

As many of you know, soon after we knew we were coming here, I set myself the challenge of learning Chinese – for a number of reasons.

  • I have always wanted to be able to speak another language and decided that learning while immersed for at least two years was my best shot.
  • In a country where most people do not speak English, it would be really useful to have as much Chinese as possible, and it seems respectful to at least try.
  • Mandarin is the first language for 14% of the world’s population. English is a paltry 5.5% (at number three, slightly behind Spanish at 5.8%). We English speakers only get away with being monolingual because it is the second (or more) language for so many people.
  • With New Zealand’s changing demographics, it will be useful beyond our time here. For example, our first grandchild’s other grandmother has better Mandarin than English, and our next-door neighbours in Porirua have great Mandarin and limited English.
  • Finally, I was inspired a while ago by a book about a man who learned to read at 92 years old, and didn’t want my age (a wee way off 92) to be the reason I did not give it a go.

I don’t know how fluent I will become, but every time I feel discouraged, I remind myself that I will be more fluent if I do whatever I am feeling unmotivated to do than if I don’t.

So, how is it going? I plan to blog on this topic every six months, and hope I will look back on earlier ones encouraged by my progress – let’s see.

How am I learning Chinese?

Back in New Zealand, Feb 2016, I considered my options for how to learn. I soon eliminated face-to-face classes. I did not want to travel into town each week, and I knew from Spanish classes a while ago that group language learning frustrates me because I pick up grammar patterns quickly, and it is not possible to get much speaking practice with the expert. I had read a bit online and concluded that I would never be able to teach myself the tones – as my first lesson (and my 50th) has since proved – so wanted one-to-one interaction to get my tonal pronunciation right, and to be able to steer the focus to speaking and listening rather than reading and writing. Having worked in e-learning for over a decade, I decided this would suit me well – flexible timing with my changing schedule, no need to travel for classes, easy to change countries part way through, and progress at my own pace.

I selected three companies and took their free introductory class. I chose Tutorming for five reasons. They had engaging materials as the basis for their lessons, rather than requiring me to buy a separate text book, and I could have those materials to refer to afterwards with the consultant’s personalised notes written all over them. They record the video of each session and make that available within 24 hours so I can listen to it and play spot the difference between my and my consultant’s pronunciation. Their business model was purchase 100 lessons up front and have six months to use them, rather than pay per month. Given the irregularity of my ability to study, this suited me well. They also said they would be happy to extend the six-month timeframe, which they have since proven to be. And, they threw in 10 free lessons which we agreed Raymond could use.

And, I have been very happy with my choice. Occasionally the technology has not worked, particularly when we first moved to China. Their IT team spent time with me to identify the problem, tried to understand why my computer sometimes flicked to a server out of China which meant I needed VPN which made it too slow, and sent me the apk file for their mobile phone app which I now switch to when my computer is feeling global.

In feedback after each lesson, I score the consultant, technology, and materials out of ten, and can write a compliment or suggestion. Early on, I felt that the materials were boring, even though most consultants made it interesting with their conversation, so I gave the materials a low score. After several refunded lessons, someone from the Customer Protection Service Team rang and talked to me for nearly an hour to understand why I was not happy, and we agreed a compromise going forward. I do not control which consultant I have for each lesson, but because I give feedback after each lesson, and can email the Team, end up only having those I like. I have found the variety helpful as consultants vary in their common phrases, and explain things differently. The system means new ones know my level and the materials I have covered, supplemented by notes about me in the system. One made a comment that led me to ask what my notes say, and she said they say I am ‘motivated’, which, in the context, I felt might be a euphemism for ‘stroppy and demanding’. Several have commented on my humour, and there is usually plenty to laugh about!

My friend who teaches ESOL recommended some resources on language learning and I found this document helpful. The author talks about research showing that one is most successful if you take ownership of your own learning, and have a good balance between speaking, listening, reading and writing.


As I hint at above, one-to-one lessons with a teacher has been essential for me to learn to speak a tonal language. Tonal means that the meaning changes if you change the tone. Mandarin has a paltry four tones, apparently Cantonese has nine! Let me illustrate this point with the sound ‘shi’, which seems particularly popular, in beginning vocabulary anyway.

First tone (flat and high, I got better at this once I imagined myself singing on stage, being quite theatrical) shī means teacher (师) and lion (狮). Second tone shí (rising, as English speakers do when they say what?) can mean time (时), stone(石) and ten (十).  I do not know any third tone shĭ words, but they do exist. I make up for it with fourth tone (dropping, as English speakers do when saying ‘no’ disapprovingly) shì. So far this can mean – the verb to be (是), thing or matter(事), market or city(市), try (试), or generation (世). The latter is important because it is in our address Century City Road, century being (世紀).

A native speaker can hear the difference in tone and struggles to look past the wrong meaning if I say it incorrectly, not because they are being difficult, but because to them it is as different as saying ‘teacher’ and ‘stone’. I have some sympathy for this, because once in India I had an experience that showed me how hard it is to look past a word that means something else in your own language. My driver said that he was looking for a shop to buy jeeps. I was totally confused, because there were no car shops around and he would not have been able to afford one anyway. Eventually, we worked out he meant chips. Mispronouncing it slightly differently would have created a word that meant nothing and I probably would have understood him, but my brain could not get past ‘jeeps’.

Tones introduce three challenges. The first is saying them differently and correctly. I am much better at this, but still working on it.

Second is remembering the correct tone. I have learned about myself that I have a strong visual and pattern memory, so I tend to remember the pinyin spelling but I am not so well programmed to remember the sound. Some I know because I use them often. Others I add a tone image, such as picturing myself lifting a stone, or remember it within a phrase, such as idiomatic ‘I try’ is shì yī shì (试一试) where my brain finds it easier to remember it is down flat down, than try is shì (don’t ask me why my brain is like this). Kind of helpful, but it makes it very slow to work things out when I try to speak.

Third is getting out of breath going up and down, or down and up, particularly between second and fourth tones. So, even when I have mastered the first two challenges, my rhythm can be awkward at best and unintelligible at worst. And when I try to speed up, my tones can go out the window.

Initially, I found this quite overwhelming, but I have got to the point that when I speak I feel like the different tones are different words. My consultants score me after each lesson. I consistently get 5 for participation, comprehension and creativity. For pronunciation and on fluency, most score me between 4 and 5 out of five. However, one of my favourites only gives me 3 for pronunciation and 2 for fluency. I think she is setting the standard closer to where I want to be, so find it a mixture of discouraging and motivating, and recently was thrilled to go from 2 to 3 for fluency.

These scores match my experience out in the real world. Younger people tend to be able to understand me but I can see they need to concentrate, and sometimes repeat what I have said to themselves which is their involuntary way of making sense of it, and a sign that my pronunciation was not quite right. Older locals seem to struggle more, which I think is because of differences between the Sichuan dialect and the Mandarin I am learning, but I am too ignorant to be sure. All ages seem to understand and enjoy ‘wŏ tīng bù dŏng’ = ‘I hear but don’t understand’.

Another challenge in speaking is different Chinese sentence structure. I am getting the hang of more simple ones, such as: subject, then time, then place, then verb, then object. Example is 我们今天在超市买蔬了literally ‘we today in the supermarket buy vegetables (completed action). This is understandable in English i.e. ‘Today we bought vegetables at the supermarket’. But I have had to learn not to translate word by word. I did this initially, so I got towards the end and remembered I should have started with the subject and added place sooner. However, other structures are more different. 请问需要帮忙吗 is literally ‘please ask need help (question word)’. Translation ‘Excuse me, can I help you?’

Question words are necessary because the tone we use to indicate questioning is already used up changing the meaning of words. Verbs are simple in that the bit like ‘is’ doesn’t change as in English (am, is ,are, was, were, will etc) but the add ons like 了(le) above (completed action) do not have exact equivalents to English tense forms. It is similar, but different, to past tense. I am still mastering these. And it gets more complex the further I go, with one structure (so far) seeming to have no English equivalent. I have a lot more sympathy for why native Chinese speakers might get the order of their English sentences a bit wrong.

Pleco, the dictionary app on my phone is my lifeline. I continually look up words to remind myself what tone it is, which thing from my memory is correct, and what the Chinese word for something is. It has the pinyin, and an audio of the sound. My pronunciation is now good enough that I can read a new word and say it intelligibly to a local. For example, recently, I could successfully ask ‘Where is the peanut butter?’ at the supermarket, when I didn’t know peanut butter beforehand.

Early on, I learned that I am better to make a sentence than to just say a word. This is because even locals find the context helpful to know which of the myriad of meanings for the same sound is being said. Of course, with my poor pronunciation, as many clues as possible is good. I find that if I have the right sentence structure and tones, I tend to be understood. Without both of those, it is fraught. I was quite discouraged recently that someone did not understand me saying ‘I have been living (zhū) in Chengdu four months’. But when I checked in Pleco, realised I had said ‘I pig (zhù) in Chengdu four months’ instead. A minor difference to me, but massive to the listeners. If I can recognise where I went wrong, I feel better.


For all that I get high scores on comprehension, listening is the worst part of my Chinese. My lessons are now mainly in Chinese, unless we need to clarify a grammatical point, which sounds impressive, and is an indication that I am making progress. But, this is artificially positive because I get clues from the context, and my consultants use my limited vocabulary and speak slowly, which gives me a fighting chance.

Out in the real world – shops, restaurants, at work, even on the bus where I have heard the same automated message many times – I cannot understand much at all. I can pick out the street names in the bus message, and identified the ‘English sentence’ for each stop. This is ‘Now Chinese station name’ which is hard for any English speaker to pick in the stream of Chinese words.

I struggle to hear tonal differences which makes it harder for me to know which of the myriad of meanings it could be, or know the tones for new words when I hear them. But I am getting better, and often find during the replay of my lesson that I can understand the Chinese being spoken and listen amusingly to my earlier self who was not so clever.

When I am on my own, I listen to a bit of Chinese children’s television, but get less time on my own now that I am working.

Last weekend, I understood a guy saying to the woman weighing our fruit who was trying to say something to us ‘tā tīng bù dŏng’ i.e. ‘she is hearing but not understanding’. I laughed and said in Chinese ‘I usually hear but don’t understand’ – smiles all around.


Initially, I only wanted to be able to speak and listen in Chinese. So I started writing only pinyin (the Roman alphabet form of Mandarin I use in my blog here – showing pronunciation including which of the four tones to use, rather than using Chinese characters as Chinese do). However, in one of my first lessons, while still in New Zealand, I recognised the character 叫as meaning ‘call’ in English, but could not remember the Chinese sound. This made me think that in China, it would be handy to know what things mean in English even if I couldn’t say it in Chinese. So, I started writing characters, as well as the pinyin, in my vocab and revision books.

Some simple characters, such as 人(person), 口 (gate), 三 (three), 中 (middle) were easy for me to remember. As I learned more, it was easy to get confused when the bit I was using to remember a character turned up elsewhere. For example, I recognised 是 (to be, as in ‘I am Terry’, well done if you remembered shì from above) by its lower half, but once I came across 走 (to walk), I got confused.

Fortunately, soon after we got here, a colleague of Raymond’s shared a document with me that I have been using to learn Chinese characters alongside my Tutorming classes. The authors, for whom English is their first language, have identified the 3,000 most frequently used characters (out of about 80,000). They introduce one at a time, also gradually introducing primitives, which are the building blocks of Chinese characters, and using a story to help remember the character’s primitives and the meaning in English. For example, 好 (good) is made up of the primitive for woman 女 and for child 子. The story is that it is good when a woman looks after her child well. This is the hăo of nĭ hăo, literally ‘you good’. I often tweak their story for what is meaningful to me, for example 光 (ray) is made up of two primitives – 小 (small) and 儿 (human legs). My story is that Raymond ‘ray’ has short legs. Now I point ‘him’ out to him when I see it.

Initially, they gave a full story which taught me how to develop stories. Now, 500 characters in, they give names for the new primitives being introduced, and I have to develop my own stories. I revise characters on the bus to and from work each day. I have a target of learning 500 every six months, which would mean I know all 3,000 after three years. I reliably know about 400 of the 500 I have been revising, and have decided to press on and develop stories for the next 500, rather than wait til I know them all perfectly. My other activities help me still learn, and I can continue to revise the old ones.

So, now I see primitives in characters rather than an array of lines, and it becomes possible to remember complex ones, using them as building blocks with stories, similar (but different!) to using letters to spell words. For example, 潮 (tide) would be hard to remember by all its strokes. But I remember the tides of history as water (the primitive on the left that looks like drops) and 朝(dynasty). And to remember 朝, I have a story about pulling the mist (primitive on the left made up of ten/needles on top of early/sunflower) over people’s eyes for months (primitive on the right 月). It is easier than it sounds because pictures with stories are surprisingly easy to remember, and the characters are everywhere so I am continually revising in my head.

With stories I can recognise subtle differences that would be difficult, and impossible en masse, to notice, let alone remember by memorising how they look, such as 石 (stone) and 右 (right), 只 (only) and兄 (elder brother).

Thinking about the multiple meanings for shì above, you can imagine that it is also helpful to be able to read characters to help make sense of meaning when the same sound (even with the right tone) is being used. My teachers tend to say sentences then write them if I don’t understand and being able to read helps. Plus, I have just got to the point where I am starting to be able to read to help me learn or revise sentence structure. I am like a child learning to read. I use clues from what else is written, the context, and pictures in my materials to work out what it might be. I have also borrowed some children’s picture books from Raymond’s school.

I still alternate between thinking learning to read the characters was a good idea, and wondering if it is over-complicating things, because it takes time. But, at present, it is the most encouraging part of my learning and we hope I can get to the point where we can order food from a Chinese menu.


I do not really aspire to be able to write Chinese. However, being able to write is proving useful for several reasons. Firstly, in my revision book, writing the characters helps me recognise primitives and characters for reading. I am becoming much quicker, and neater. Secondly, I type in Wechat to communicate with our driver and to practice creating sentences with local friends. The act of selecting the right character is helpful in working out what I need to say, as in speaking, and recognising characters, as in reading. Also, because I can write, when seeing a character I don’t know or am not sure about, I can write it in Pleco (great touch screen writing part of the app) and it brings up options for what it might be so I can recognise it, select it and find out how to say it and what it means.

And how is it going?

So far I have had just over 120 lessons and revised 100 of them. Most week days, I have a lesson at 8.30am and then get to work about 10am (I am working for myself for love setting up a new business with another kiwi and his wife, so can be flexible – I will blog about work eventually). I decided to maintain momentum, even though I was falling behind on revision. Travelling on trains and planes over Christmas helped me catch up a bit on my revision.

The whole thing is a daily roller coaster, of encouraging and discouraging experiences. I can be on a massive high because somebody understood me, I recognised a new phrase in something I was hearing, or I know a character in context. Revision is encouraging, because I am making solid progress. But I can feel quite discouraged when I am not understood, can’t think of how to say something even though I have the vocabulary, can’t think quickly enough on my feet, listen to my colleagues speaking at normal speed and can’t understand anything they say, or go to a restaurant and my 500 characters don’t take me very far.

The most important thing is that I continue to be motivated. I remind myself that even when I had the magic ability of a child, it took longer than six months to learn English, and that everything I learn is more than I used to know.

I recently read about the value of learning a language in your old age to keep making new neuronal connections/stave off Alzheimers. I then thought of how I do not need to stop when we return to New Zealand. Now I picture myself in my retirement reading Chinese books (just like I did as a child in English) and talking to Chinese immigrants to help them settle in New Zealand, and to help me learn. We will see.

So, it turns out I have started on a lifelong journey. It is a significant part of my experience here, and is useful, challenging and fascinating. Catch you back here in six months for an update on how it is going.

PS What a mammoth post – congratulations if you made it this far!