Speaking Chinese with Feeling: Patience Required

It was September 2007, at the age of 50, when I first began to study Chinese. Because of my age I felt strongly that joining young enthusiastic university students in a group class just wasn’t going to cut it for me, so I signed up for 1-on-1 classes, and there the journey began.


This post however is not about the long journey, on which path I am still on, it is rather about one small aspect of that journey – learning how to speak Mandarin with feeling…. like a Chinese, without sacrificing quality of tones or pronunciation.


Now I know everyone is different, but I think there is a common rule for all of us when we begin learning Mandarin. That is, to nail down all of the sounds and simultaneously train the ear to hear and the voice to speak the tones correctly, including the rule exceptions. We’ve all seen the initials-finals charts, and observed how the tones are explained in a graph format to help us understand how much movement each requires, and the relative tone ranges. You’ve also likely tried to mimic a teacher in class, whether in a group or 1-on-1.


But I believe there is another rule to be added and that is to begin by speaking the language almost as if it was a musical score, or even more simply stated, by coloring inside the lines. What I mean is to think of the language as being very fixed, all of the tones individually and always beginning and ending at the same place, extremely mechanical if you will.


We’ve all listened to native speakers, and we know they don’t speak mechanically. But then again they began listening to Chinese right out of the womb.


Speaking from the experience of beginning late, what I learned is that after having built a foundation of learning and practicing Chinese tones in a mechanical way, it became much easier to slowly transition into a much more natural expressive Chinese.


As with English, Chinese is not mechanical. Ideas, humor, sadness, all types and levels of emotion can be expressed without abolishing the tones (with the possible exception of extreme anger). As with English each phrase flows with a tone all it’s own, going up or down in order to express one’s feelings.


The point is this. Begin with a strict adherence to the tones, without the natural flow of native language, and you will eventually be capable of expressing yourself with accurate tones, the same feelings that come so naturally in your native tongue and touch the heart of your Chinese friends.

Going to the Movies? How to use Your Smart Phone to Buy Discount Movie Tickets

My wife and I have lived in Beijing for several years. Over the years we’ve had many friends venture to the movies theaters to watch the latest hits while we stayed home and enjoyed the savings of 10RMB DVDs. Now certainly there is a worthwhile savings for those who are patient enough to wait for a quality copy to come out to the dwindling number of DVD stores, but we all know that going to the theater is just not the same experience. There’s just something about the big screen, especially in 3D that blows away the home viewing experience.


A few months ago a local friend gave us some free movie tickets. Another friend then told me about an app that would allow a view of all the current movies and where they were playing. I then chose a 3D movie I knew my life would love to see for her birthday, but you guessed it, the free tickets were for 2D movies. I was now finally motivated, I had to have those tickets, but the price! So I asked another friend and they told me about the app. I actually bought the tickets while standing in line at the theater and saved substantially at the counter.


So, if you have an interest in either watching Chinese or Western movies (in their original language) in Beijing, with the original voice soundtrack, and don’t mind or actually would enjoy practicing your Chinese reading by following the Chinese subtitles, then this app is a must. The app is free and is called Mtime, or in pinyin – shiguangwang (时光网). Below is the step-by-step process for downloading and using Mtime.


Note that these directions are specific to making your purchase using a Chinese bankcard.


1)   Download the app and open it.


2)   The Home page is at center bottom and the current movie list is displayed with a customer rating from 1-10 (this post will not go into what the other bottom tabs are for).



3)   Scroll through and pick the movie you’re interested in.


4)   Push the orange purchase ticket (购票) tab.


5)   Here you will have a choice of dates at the top and below a scroll down for movie theaters showing your movie pick. I prefer to narrow the options by tapping the middle green circle tab (地区) so I can choose theaters in my district. If you’re in Chaoyang District you might want to choose the second tab for your nearby (附近) theaters.


6)   Scroll down and select the tab for your choice of theaters.



7)   You will see optional show times and prices for your movie tickets. Touch the tab for your preferred show time.


8)   Reserve your seat(s) by touching the seats you prefer. You can touch and order as many seats as you want from those that have not been reserved. The seats you reserve will appear orange while the rest are blue. The bottom will display the row (排) and seat numbers (座). When you’re finished you can press the orange next (下一步) button.



9)   Enter the cell phone number and password you would like to use (there should be at least one numerical digit).


10)  Now push the light blue register tab (免费注册) (In the future, once you’ve registered, you can tap the log in (登录) tab, that is, assuming it remembers your phone number).



11) Enter your phone number and your preferred password, then push the tab to obtain your verification number (获取验证吗) and you will receive a text with your verification code.


12) Enter the code and push the (提交) tab.



13) You get a pop up window that asks you to confirm that you want to go forward. Touch the definitely (确定) tab if you definitely want the tickets.


14) Now you have two choices, either registering your email address or cell phone. If you want to order tickets only with your phone, then touch the submit (提交) tab (this post only follows the track of using your cell phone).



15) You will get a screen that confirms you order and the amount. If it all looks right tap next (下一步).


16) Now you have a choice of payment options. The simplest is to use the Union Pay online option (使用银联在线付款) which is the second orange tab.



17) Now enter your bankcard number and touch “next”. You will get a second window. Enter your pin# and your registered phone number and then touch the orange SMS tab. You should receive a text with the required SMS number. Enter the number and touch “Start Pay”.


18) When processing is complete, Mtime should hold a record of your ticket purchase. You should also receive a text with the purchase details. You can show either of these at the ticket window to receive your tickets.



Of course I accept no responsibility for the accuracy of this post, or any losses you may incur as a result of following the above instructions.


There you have it. Enjoy your movie!

Finding a Wife Chinese Style: The Importance of Guanxi

Recently my wife and I received a pretty cool invitation from the landlord we rent our office space from. He and his wife (we shall refer to as Mr. & Mrs. Wang) had previously had us over to their home for lunch and a discussion about how we could help their son, who had just returned from university in Canada. This last invitation however was for us to visit them in Wuxi, just north of Shanghai. While there were many culturally Chinese aspects of our 4-day stay with them, this post will focus on only one.


During the course of our stay I had the pleasure of chauffeuring Mr. & Mrs. Wang around Wuxi in their BMW (别魔我) as some Chinese fondly call them), going out to great meals, walking through their family groves and picking peaches (Wuxi is famous for having the most delicious peaches in China), touring around lake Taihu, and meeting many of their qinqi pengyou (亲戚朋友,or family and friends).


Taihu Lake, (太湖)

Taihu Lake, (太湖)


Wuxi peaches

Wuxi peaches

But what made this visit particularly interesting was a visit they had arranged with another couple they had never met in person before. We had just finished lunch at their favorite local restaurant when the new couple arrived (we shall refer to them as Mr. & Mrs. Liu). They followed us to the Wang’s home where we spent the afternoon chatting with them and the Wang’s other friends. Everyone was having a great time, except when we arrived Mr. Wang excused himself to go take a nap. Mrs. Wang was with her mother in the hospital, so it was the Wang’s friends, the Liu’s, and my wife and I who spent the afternoon together discussing various topics. A few hours later, while everyone was saying his or her goodbyes, Mr. Wang came out and thanked everyone for coming.


So what was going on? Mr. Wang had given us a bit of a heads up, but it wasn’t until the next evening, sitting out by lake Taihu and enjoying the warm summer breeze that we inquired. What we learned was that meeting this couple was one small part of a careful plan for the Wang’s son to eventually marry the Liu’s daughter. The Chinese four-character phrase he used was mendang-hudui (门当户对), meaning  to be equal in social and economic status. So the Wang’s and the Liu’s were at the beginning of a longer-term plan that began on the basis on the hope that their two families were a great match.


Wuxi at sunset

Wuxi at sunset

The Liu’s daughter had just graduated from university in the US and would begin her Master’s program in the fall. The idea was for the Wang parents and Liu parents to get to know each other first, build up their guanxi, and then introduce the their children in two years, after her graduation. If they got along well, they would eventually marry and give them the one grandchild they all eagerly awaited.


Even more, they had already planned on where they would live (Canada) and what professions they would hold.

Learning Chinese in Beijing? – Top tips on renting a flat –Part 2

(This is the second post on renting a flat. You can find the first post here.) So, you have successfully negotiated a contract, got the keys, moved your stuff in, and registered with the police. Now what?

Renting a flat – Paying for Utilities 

Gas and electric both require to be purchased in advance. Each has a separate card that you will need to make sure is provided for you by your landlord or rental agency. It’s a good idea to check on both the gas and electric meter as to how much credit there is on the cards (Sometimes this will be done by the agent when you move in, as they may want to charge you for this, especially if there is a large credit). If the credit is low, then you will probably want to go and buy more credits sooner rather than later (or risk your shower going cold, or your dinner being half cooked!)


Beijing gas meter

Beijing gas meter, generally found in the kitchen


Your gas meter is likely to be inside your own apartment and so should be easy to find. The available credit will be clearly displayed. Gas can be purchased from the Bank of Beijing (if you have a Chinese bankcard from any bank then you can use their 24 hour self service machines. If you do not have a Chinese bankcard, you will need to queue up and pay over the counter). Gas can also be purchased from designated selling offices (ask your agent or a friend for the location of the one in your area). You need to insert your card into the gas meter for it to register your account, then within 24 hours you can go buy the gas. The easiest way is just to insert the card into the machine immediately before you head out and then reinsert the card into the meter as soon as you return to add your gas credits. Most meters also have batteries that occasionally need to be replaced. Generally speaking, if your gas isn’t flowing when the meter still shows you have credits, then the culprit is likely dead batteries.


Beijing Electricity meter

Your electic meter is usually in the corridor outside your flat. Insert your card to find out much credit you have left.


Electric meters can be a little trickier – they are almost always outside the apartment, and often are grouped together, so the key thing is to work out which one is yours. The suggestion from the official website  is: Way to check the meter of your house: turn off the switch of the meter, if the power in your house goes off means that the meter is connected with your house. I just successfully tried this with ours, and found the switches are in a little box under the meters. However, if you have to try quite a few before you work out which is yours, this may give you some unhappy neighbours, so another suggestion is to turn on your air-conditioning and see which meter starts using more electric. (There is a little red light on the right of the credit display, which flashes ever faster as your electricity consumption goes up. Incidentally, the display will only show numbers constantly once your credit is less than 200, to find out how much credit you have if there are no numbers, just put the card into the machine with the chip facing outwards) Electric can be purchased from many of the banks, including: Bank of China, Bank of Beijing, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). It can also be purchased from any sale outlet of Beijing Electric Power Corporation. Again, you need to insert your card into the machine before you go. Note – you can only top up the electric when it is below 200kWH. The Beijing governments official English website has info on buying electric and is actually pretty useful.


Beijing gas and electricity cards

You need to make sure your landlord gives you the relevent cards for putting credit on your electricity and gas meters

Tap Water

Water is the simplest – as it is not pre-pay but is billed by actual usage. Once every two months or so, someone will come round to read the water meter and tell you how much to pay. I have always just paid them directly as this saves a trip to the bank. Previously I know people were sometimes nervous to do this in case the worker just pocketed the money, but they have recently introduced a new system, which means you get an electronic receipt from the person when you pay them (which you can then keep to prove to your landlord that you have paid, just in case they try to charge you!) If you see anything we have missed, please use the comments below to share your experience of renting a flat in Beijing. Our final post should be out in a couple of days, which will include advice on what you need to be aware of at the start so that your eventual leaving process is less stressful.

Without cultural understanding, your Chinese could be useless.

Many students of Chinese recognise that learning Chinese is hard, but they are willing to put in the effort to conquer the mountain that is becoming proficient in Chinese. However, if your aim for learning Chinese is to become accepted as part of the community, your study needs to go beyond just learning how to communicate, instead extending into understanding Chinese culture, why people say what they say, do what they do, and think what they think.

Danger of ignoring culture

If you only focus on the practical side of communication, and don’t take the time to learn the culture, then the communication you do have may end up being laden with frustration, and misunderstandings. You only have to spend a little time reading the blogs of expats to get a feel for how common these misunderstandings are.

Here at our Chinese language school in Wudaokou, it is one of our goals to support all our students as they not only learn the language, and become proficient in it, but also gradually develop a fuller understanding and love of Chinese culture.

Cultural understanding includes the basics of knowing when the festivals are, and what they celebrate, but it goes far beyond that and at its greatest extent includes how 5000 years of history influences their understanding of themselves, and in turn their opinions and behaviour.

So how to learn culture?

So how to learn culture? The best way is to live here, learn the language, make friends, and interact with your Chinese friends as much as you can. Over time you will build up your understanding. But we can also be deliberate about acquiring an understanding of the culture. We can learn culture through seeking to make observations about the society around, and backing this up by discussing our observations about the differences and similarities with Chinese people.

For those who are not fortunate to live in China then reading books and watching films is obviously a good first step.

Our blog: making studying Chinese just that bit easier

Taking all this into account, our aim for this blog is to make your life as a student of Chinese just that bit easier. We continuously check the latest blogs, read the latest books, test out the newest apps and attend the conferences on language learning so that you don’t have to. Anything that we find that will help you in your understanding of Chinese language, Chinese cultural we will share. On top of this we will seek to provide anything else that helps our language students as they live in China and study the language, whether that is advice on balancing your time for most effective study, or sharing about the practicalities of renting a flat in China.

Thanks for reading, look out for new articles on a weekly basis, and let us know what you think.

Study Chinese at our school in Wudaokou www.1on1mandarin.com




Learning from Chinese history

In the west have the phrase: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. A near Chinese equivalent is 温故而知新 (wēn gù ér zhī xīn) which approximately means that by Reviewing the old we can understand the new.

As mentioned in a previous post, then becoming an effective communicator in Chinese requires developing an understanding of Chinese culture. Our present day communication is always understood within the framework of our past experience. Developing a clear understanding of Chinese history, particularly the history that every Chinese is taught at school is a key step in developing the understanding of what makes up the Chinese sense of self, their values and priorities.

Since attending Chinese school from age 5 is not an option for us, then Laszlo Montgomery’s Chinese history podcasts are a good resource for getting us up to speed. He has already recorded over 100+ podcasts on the history of china, so this is not the resource to go if you are wanting a real quick overview. But for those students who have already done a bit of reading on china, these podcasts add the detail that you might have glossed over, and are able to include the really interesting snippets of history.


Intro to Chinese Music (from Timeout Beijing)

Photo Credit: Timeout Beijing

Check out Timeout Beijing’s informative post on some of the musical genres of China. This is a pretty comprehensive post describing each style and its roots, and has  youku videos of a song from each genre. The genres include 摇滚 yáo gŭn (rock and roll), 校园民谣 xiào yuán mín yáo (campus folk music), 老上海 lăo shàng hăi (old Shanghai music) and 民族歌 mín zú gē (minority folk music) from 蒙古 méng gŭ (Mongolia), 傣族 dăi zú (the Dai minority), and other ethnic minorities.

“Music is a big part of life in China. Curious about the various types of music you hear on TV, in stores, and at concerts? Learn more about Chinese culture through music through Timeout Beijing’s A bluffer’s guide to China’s musical styles. 

China’s musical genres have never solely been based on style. They usually describe geographical differences but can also extend to lifestyles, access to technology and the needs of state propaganda.

Chinese musicians have often been accused of a lack of originality or even outright plagiarism. Many of the early Cantopop and Mandopop songs simply ripped off melodies from Western and Japanese pop/rock songs and filled them with Cantonese or Mandarin lyrics. Gao Xiaosong, a leading figure of the 1990s campus folk movement, argues that Han Chinese (comprising 98 per cent of China’s population) are better with words than melodies because, unlike poetry and literature, music has never played a part in documenting the nation’s history.

Whether his theory holds water is debatable, but the fact that music in China serves as a lifestyle component rather than a driving social context seems to be a consensus. The following are musical genres that are characteristic of China and popular in Beijing.”


 A bluffer’s guide to China’s musical style (Timeout Beijing)

Learning by language bloopers

  Today I was learning some useful cultural differences between China and the west.

  We were discussing that in China it is not the done thing to lick your fingers (and I understand that you don’t usually eat with your fingers either – so beware if you are planning a buffet for your Chinese friends!). In the West while it is maybe not very polite to lick your fingers, at least where I come from people don’t really have a problem with it. In order to explore cultural differences a bit further, and to get some more spoken Chinese practice, we then talked about other things that you are allowed or not allowed to lick. I suggested that:


In England you are allowed to lick post offices!

邮 yóu – is the word for post, and 局 jú is the word for office

I eventually got it right



Where again 邮 yóu means post, and 票 piào literally means ticket, so together, 邮票 means a stamp.

  Hopefully I haven’t left my teacher with visions of Westerners licking buildings! But this lesson will stick in my head partly because of the language mistake I made along the way…

Chinese New Year 2011 – Year of the Rabbit

the year of the rabbitIn 2011, the traditional Chinese New Year starts on Feb 3rd and it will be the year of the Rabbit (兔年 tù nián). And the evening of Feb 2nd is the most important night, Chinese New Year’s Eve – (除夕 chúxī), and then next day Feb 3rd is the first day of Spring Festival. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, as tradition, Chinese families come together for a celebration dinner – (年夜饭 niányèfàn), some traditional dishes include dumplings – (水饺/饺子 shuǐjiǎo/jiǎozi ), fish(鱼 yú) and Nian Gao (年糕 niángāo). What’s else is obvious, you can see and hear everywhere, yes, it’s firewords/fire crackers -(烟花/鞭炮 yānhuā/biānpào), so loud and noisy, you may not like it, but it’s so much fun to watch, if you ever get a chance to play firecrackers, you would love it.

How people would greet each other during Spring Festival? Some the most common greetings probably are:

兔年快乐 – tù nián kuài lè

新春快乐 – xīn chūn kuài lè

过年好/新年好 – guò nián hǎo

恭喜发财 – gōng xǐ  fā cái

Lastly, we’d like to share a funny video made by some foreigners in Beijing, To say “Happy New Year” by singing several popular Chinese songs, creative and fun, pay attention to last part. LOL.


New Year in Haerbin-Ice and Snow Festival

New Years in Haerbin

-This is a guest post written by Joel and his wife Chris who are currently studying Chinese in Beijing at 1on1 Mandarin. In this post, they shared their experience and some pictures from Ice and Snow Festival in Haerbin.

To celebrate New Years in China, that is Jan. 1st New Years, my wife and I decided to go to Haerbin and see the famous Ice Festival. Truth be known, it was early December when suddenly one evening while on-line she told me what it cost to stay there at a hotel she found in her whole-hearted effort to get both of us out of Beijing for New Years.

She succeeded.

So we took the fast train to Haerbin and while waiting in the train station, this young Thai couple approached us and speaking fair English, they told us they were on vacation and didn’t speak any Chinese. Our encounter with them is a story in itself as I served as there translator to help deal with a group of young men who were staying together in several sleeper units and who had strategically placed there 88 year old grandfather in the Tai couple’s cabin.

Let’s just say it worked out.

We arrived to the expected freezing weather and a light snow, checked into our hotel by 8:30AM and went out exploring for breakfast. After breakfast and a long nap, we went to the famous Zhong Yang Da Jie, shopping street. It was beautiful for the ice sculptures and Russian architecture. It was a fun relaxing afternoon with two stops for coffee and hot chocolate, and the discovery that all Russian stores in Haerbin basically sell the same six things. When you’ve seen one…

We found our hotel staff really helpful. The first morning we asked about how to get to the Bing Deng (ice festival) by bus. They explained well and after a great Russian dinner at the shopping street we found our way to the bus stop, boarded and were on our way.

The Bing Deng (Ice-Lantern show) was expensive but worth the 300RMB admission. The horse carriages inside however, are not worth the 100RMB for the approximate 10 minutes it takes for them to circle around. The ticket seller explained the driver only gets paid by the customers, so every time you stop and get off, these guys beg for money, when you pick up another one to travel a little further you face another driver begging for a tip. O well.

Afterward, we, along with about 20 other Chinese tourists, discovered that the return bus that was suppose to run until late was already finished at 7:30. We all walked together for about 1km to the main bus stop. We had no clue what bus to take back, so I asked the driver where it would drop us. A wonderful Chinese woman and her daughter told us to get on the bus, so we did, and in the end, they had the bus stop at their apartment, hailed a taxi, took us back to our hotel, and then for a walk to St. Sophia’s Church and then back to our room where we exchanged personal info.

Obviously, this was totally unexpected.

This turned out to be a great new relationship. The next day we met the daughter, a wonderful seventeen-year old aspiring nurse with a loving and gracious spirit. We spent the day together at the Haerbin aquarium and met her Mom again for a classic dongbei meal with tons of meat and potatoes. The next day, our last, we spent shopping, visiting the cathedral, buying traditional dongbei snacks to take back to our friends in Beijing, and enjoying the crisp cold air of Haerbin. We met our new friends at the hotel and they took us out to dinner at the exact same restaurant.

Then sadly we had to part and make ready to catch the train back.

It was truly a special experience. Neither one of us would trade it.

My dear wife was right in her ambitions. I love her for that.

Here are some pictures taken from Ice and Snow Festival.