Theft with Integrity


I love the Chinese movie 老炮儿 ‘Lao Pao-er’ (In English it’s called “Mr Six”). It is named after the sort of person who spends regular time in prison. Set in quintessential Beijing, anyone who has spent time in this enigmatic city will enjoy its familiar scenes. More than scenery, however, I love the way it has much to say about traditional Beijing culture. 

In the opening scene the main character, Mr Six (played by the famous Chinese director, Feng Xiaogang), witnesses a petty thief at work. He approaches the thief and demands that he take the cash but post the victim’s Identity Card back to him (to save him the trouble of applying for a new one). I find this is representative of Beijing’s high moral standards. In all my time here, I have often marvelled at the morality of the true Beijinger. They are truly unique people of honour.

Teacher Wang, senior teacher at 1on1 Mandarin, is a Beijinger – born and bred. She is always ready for a conversation about Beijing culture. So today I asked her about the movie ‘Lao Pao-er’. And she confirmed that, yes, Beijingers are proud of their moral standards, even down to the petty thieves.

Teacher Wang says that when she was a new graduate, in the early 1990’s, she herself had her purse stolen. This purse was no ordinary purse. In fact it was a genuine Louis Vuitton purse. At the time she had only 100 yuan inside. While that sounds like just a small amount, in fact it was 1-2 months’ salary at the time.

Sure enough, true to Beijing principles, a few days later Teacher Wang’s purse, together with her Identity Card and all of her important documents, BUT minus the 100 yuan, arrived at her home in the post. I asked her if someone had found the purse. “No, it was definitely the thief”.

Alas… if only the world’s thieves could learn from the morality of the Beijing petty thief!!

Renting a Car in China

By Jonny Willson

Part two of a two part series (Retaining a drivers license and renting a car).

Having successfully retained our driving license we could now hit the road – except for the fact that we don’t have a car. It isn’t just that we don’t want to buy a car (though we don’t), it is also that it is tricky to buy a car here in Beijing. There are only so many license plates, and to get a license plate you need to enter a lottery to try get the right to buy one. Joel – the manager of 1on1 Mandarin has been waiting for a plate for 5 years already. In the mean time he has bought a motorcycle – see our previous post. Since we don’t own a car, renting one is a good solution.

From a google search we discovered that Avis ( partners with Didi – the Uber equivalent in China, and Hertz partners with Shenzhou zuche (神州租车 ),(incidentally, shenzhou is another name for China, literally meaning God’s country). And we had seen cars on the street with 58租车written on the side, so there seemed to be plenty of choices, and some really attractive rates. However, when it came down to it, some companies would only rent a car if you had a local shenfenzheng身份证 i.e. Chinese ID, which as foreigners we don’t have. Other companies could deliver the car to you, but not outside the 5th ring road where we live. So that left us with Shenzhou. Their website and app were both easy to use and easy to book a car. It seemed like the minimum length of time you could hire a car for was 48 hours, but the prices were starting at around 150rmb a day, so not bad value. (Compared to the cost of hiring a car and driver which might be 400-600rmb per day depending on how far you want to go.)

So we picked a VW since we were familiar with that brand from the UK, picked the pick-up location which was 5 minutes away from our place, and booked in for three days hire starting in two days’ time. Payment was taken by WeChat, but the deposit couldn’t be done by WeChat – so made a note to take 3000 kuai in cash for deposit when I picked up the car. Easy… or so I thought.

First niggle came the following day, I received a phone call from Shenzhou (in Chinese) saying that I needed to send them a scan of my passport, my local accommodation registration, and my visa. Not a problem, I was at home, I had a scanner, and I could understand what they wanted. Would have been trickier if I hadn’t been at home, or if my Chinese wasn’t up to scratch.

Second niggle came when I went to pick up the car. The guys were very efficient – they brought up my booking on their tablet, got a guy to bring the car over, talked me through the policy, the waiver, the key bits of the terms and conditions (all in Chinese), and walked me round the car to note where there were already minor scrapes or dents. The final stage was to do the deposit. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take cash for the deposit, or use WeChat. “Did I have a credit card?” they asked. “Yes, but not on me”. Not a problem, I went home to get my Amex and Visa credit cards, and came back to pay the deposit. “Ahh…” they said. “A foreign credit card might not work”. Sure enough neither card worked. Did I have a GuoNei 国内 credit card. No. What about a friend or colleague who could come over and swipe their credit card for you? The only person I knew who was free during the day was our ayi, and she was unlikely to have such a credit card. Then they came up with an idea, what was my credit score on Alipay? I had no idea that I had such a score so they borrowed my phone, clicked through the right screen on the app, and saw that my score was above the cut off. Great. No. Apparently that function is only available for Chinese residents.

At this point, unsurprisingly, I was wondering whether we were going to be unable to hire a car, at least for those days, but I texted a couple of friends who lived nearby to see if they could help out. One friend didn’t reply because she thought my phone had been stolen and thought that someone was trying to scam her. However, our neighbour also replied saying that she would be happy to help. Brilliant, we could go along together after my 2 year old got up from his nap, and before she needed to go along to the kindergarten to pick up her son. We had a solution.

Snag 3 came when she asked about receiving the deposit back. Now they mention that the person swiping the credit card for the deposit also needs to be present when the car is returned to receive the initial part of the deposit back. (The deposit is 3000rmb, but even after returning the car they withhold 1000rmb for another 3 weeks until they know that you didn’t accrue any speeding fines etc whilst using the car). (Incidentally, it wasn’t an issue for the car I eventually rented, but Beijing has a system of restricting driving according to day of the week. For example, if you plate ends in a 1 or a 6, then you can’t drive on Mondays; 2 or a 7 and you can’t drive on Tuesdays. Interestingly they seemed to say that if you had hired a car that wasn’t supposed to be driven on one of the days you hired it, then you could go ahead and use it and they would cover any penalties that you incurred. These restricted driving days also rotate every quarter, so local drivers really have to pay attention to this.)

However, my neighbour was chuchai’ing (出差) (going on a business trip) the next day, and wouldn’t be back for a week. Maybe she could use her husband’s credit card. Nope, something wrong with that too. Maybe her husband can try again when he finishes work. Nope, he suddenly had to 加班(jiaban – work overtime), so couldn’t be home before the place shut at 7pm. So wearily I went back over to the car place to tell them to cancel the rental – fortunately at no cost – and returned on my bike with no car for our mini holiday, and very downcast and weary.

Meanwhile the lady who thought someone was scamming us alerted our pastor at church, who contacted my wife to warn us that my phone had been stolen (which it hadn’t) and someone was trying to scam others using it (which they weren’t since it was just us asking for help). With the situation quickly clarified, they said that they had a credit card, that there was a Shenzhou hire place just round the corner from their flat, and they would be happy to help.

With a bit of hope in my heart, I re-booked a car to be hired from this alternative location to be picked up the following morning on the first day of our mini holiday. If this didn’t work we would have to cancel our accommodation and rethink our holiday plans. Angela, our pastor’s wife, met me at the car hire place, and I went through the whole process again, T&C’s, damage waver, checking the car. Angela came to swipe her card and… she needed to present her shenfenzheng, which she didn’t have with her, having left it at home. So, we walked slowly back to her flat, slowly because she was with her 5 year old daughter, and collected the shenfenzheng, and walked back again. This time, finally on the 6th attempt at providing a deposit, we were successful. I was given the keys and I was able to drive away very relieved and mighty nervous because I was driving in China, on the ‘wrong side’ of the road (Brits drive on the right), and driving an automatic (which I am unfamiliar with).

After initial nerves we got used to driving in Beijing pretty quickly. We had to learn that baidu maps underestimates the time taken if you get snarled up in traffic. We had to adapt our driving to the local style of changing lane by pushing your nose in and trusting the people behind to not hit your side. And we were able to get out to the countryside, play in streams and enjoy the freedom of the occasionally open road. Interestingly, various bits of our theory learning (see previous post) now bore fruit as we saw signs that we wouldn’t have otherwise understood, and drove on roads where the speed limit wasn’t explicit.

So, the lesson of our tale is… 1) get a local credit card if you want to hire a car. This is a priority task for us now before we try hiring a car later this summer. 2) Have local friends who can help. 3) Get good Chinese so you can have local friends, and can speak on the phone (we’re biased but 1on1mandarin is a great option for improving your Chinese). 4) Have plenty of patience when trying to do stuff in China for the first time.

Good luck when you try it yourself. Enjoy the journey.

(Renting a Car in China/ Learn Chinese Blog/ 1on1Mandarin)

Chinese Drivers license and Renting a Car in China Part 1

Written by Jonny Willson

Last week we hired a car in China for the first time, and had a few days holiday in the Huairou area just north of Beijing. Hiring a car gave us the flexibility of being able to go beyond the public transport system and beyond where taxis are willing to go. We had done similar trips previously where we had arranged a driver to pick us up and take us where we wanted to go, but cost wise hiring a car for 3 days was about the same price as paying a driver for just one day. It may not seem to be a big achievement, but we have lived in Beijing since 2010, and it has taken until now to achieve this seemingly trivial success.

The key hurdle to driving in china is that an international driving license isn’t sufficient. You need to get a local driving license, and to do that you need to pass the theory test. Joel (the manager of 1on1 Mandarin) had lent us his book setting out the theory you need to know back in 2013, with our vague plan of preparing to sit the test, but in the busyness of life, we never made progress. Without the pressure of the test coming up, we didn’t make it a priority to study, but looking at the book – the rules and regulations seemed too confusing to make it easy to study. Further, whilst we knew where the place to register for the test was[1] – we weren’t exactly sure how to collate the documentation we would need to register.

To cut a long story short – passing the theory test and getting a Chinese driving license always remained on our ‘nice but not priority’ list. Until now that is.

Earlier this year, we heard from a friend that she had used a company to do the paperwork side of getting registered, and we had a few days leave coming up that we wanted to use to explore the Huairou countryside of just north of Beijing. Now we had the means, and the motivation to get on and pass the test.

The first hurdle is getting registered for the test. We did it through a company called Beijing JiaLian(北京驾联)[2] who didn’t provide perfect customer service, but did what they promised to do: which was to

1)     Get our overseas driving license translated

2)     Accompany us to a local hospital to get the required health check, (it is a simpler health check than the one you need to get a student or work visa, but done in a different location)

3)     Accompany us to the theory test center to register us for the test

4)     Accompany us to the theory test center again for the actual test

5)     Collect the driving license and post it to us when it is ready

For this service they charged us the princely sum of 980 yuan per person. For the language student who is time rich or cash poor, this might not be the best route. But for us, we didn’t want to do the legwork of researching what we were meant to do for each stage, whether that is finding out exactly what bit of your license needs translating, which hospital can do the required health check, or even what sequence you need to do things within the hospital. Often Chinese hospitals require you to register in one place, go to another to recommend treatment, a third to pay, and a forth to receive treatment. With sufficient Chinese and plenty of time, this is all possible, but we were very happy to pay for someone to do all the leg work for us.

Having paid our fee, we then arranged to meet their representative at Jinsong subway station, which is southeast Beijing on Line 10. The rep then walked us along to a hospital just round the corner along with some other clients who were needing the same health check.  The medical took less than a minute, and seemed nothing more than answering a few basic questions, and a very basic eye exam. Interestingly, for the paperwork for the medical test, you need to give your Chinese name. This name is then also the name that goes on your Chinese license.  Once everyone had finished doing the medical and associated paperwork, we were then taken by car to the driving test centre location, a 20-minute journey further out of town. The rep for China driver again did all the necessary arrangements – all we needed to do was to sign the form and select the date when we wanted to sit the test.

Having registered for the test – we now needed to do the hard work of learning the theory so that we could pass the test. The test is done in English, and it is multiple-choice, but you need to get 90 questions right out of 100, so relying on your overseas knowledge and making educated guesses for the rest is very unlikely to cut it.

The company that we used to do the paperwork for us also provided two resources to help us prepare for the test – the official theory test book, and then also a booklet containing 1000 multiple choice questions that are used in the exam – with the correct answers. Additionally we bought the app that let us do practice tests, again based on the actual questions.

My approach was to use the ‘set answers’ reading from beginning to end highlighting the questions that I didn’t understand or seemed contradictory to another answer. Then went through the book again cross-referencing with the official theory test book. What I discovered was that there was plenty of information that you just needed to learn. E.g. what are the speed limits for roads with and without centre lines, in town and out of town, on the expressway in the outer lane, in the middle lane, and the right hand lane, and under all sorts of inclement weather conditions. Similarly you need to learn how many points you get for all sorts of traffic violations, and also whether they are statutory, criminal, or traffic violations.

The blessing is that the test is in English, the challenge though is that possibly due to translation, many questions have two answers that both seem to be very similar and therefore both potentially right. Here the only solution seemed to be to rote learn those answers.

My wife’s approach was slightly different – she went for just using the app, repeatedly testing herself, and retesting herself on the answers she got wrong. This was initially very discouraging for her, as she was averaging 60% each test, and never seeming to make improvements, but once she had been through the entire cycle of 1000 questions, her scores picked up until she was confident that she pass the test.

The tests only happen in the afternoons on certain days, so we sat in the waiting room waiting for 2pm and to be taken upstairs into the exam room. I don’t think my hands have ever been so sweaty and found myself more nervous than expected. The test is done at a computer, and once you have typed in your registration number, and the lady has verified your passport and the registration name match, you can begin.

100 multiple choice questions took us around 15-20 minutes to do, though there were a few who had finished in 10 minutes. I think you are allowed up to an hour. After answering the questions you can go back and review your answers, and then press submit or confirm you’re satisfied with your answers. You immediately find out whether you have passed or failed. We both passed first time and a green box came up on the screen saying congratulations. If you fail the test first time then you are allowed to immediately re-take the test, but if you fail a second time, you need to register to take the test on another day.

Having successfully passed, you can take your registration slip to the front of the room where the ‘examiner’ checks your score and writes it on your slip. I got 93 out of a 100; my wife got 97! On returning downstairs the company representative did the admin side of handing in the slip, and filled out our address on a kuai di (快递)slip, so that once the license was ready, they could collect it and immediately post it to us. We received our licenses after just a couple of days. Success!

In our next post we will share the hurdles we faced in trying to rent a car.

[1]The name of the driving test place in Chinese is:北京市公安局公安交通管理局车辆管理所, The address is朝阳区南四环东路18号. This is a link to the location on baidu maps:

Leveraging the HSK

For anyone who is interested in learning Chinese and then possibly pursuing a career in China, the HSK has taken on a new level of importance.

China’s new visa points system has now added to what was previously a somewhat vague list of work visa requirements and honed it down to screen for the kind of foreign work force China sees will bring the greatest benefit to their economic development. The new system provides a list of potential points to be earned for, among other things, the visa applicant’s level of education and contracted salary. The pattern is designed to give priority to high-level foreign workers. Within the new points system is a new emphasis on Chinese language. They not only want high-level employees, they want them to be able to communicate and work using Chinese, and the standard of measure for earning points is the HSK (汉语水平考试).

This article is not about how to earn points from your education, or how to write a contract for a big points earning salary. For most professionals, the level of degree, degree major, work experience, and other qualification factors will already be established. The one place one can set themselves apart for their new employer and potential work visa is with language, and the only way to do that is to pass some level of the HSK.

How the HSK and the points system works

As you can see from the chart below, the HSK can be scheduled and taken throughout the year. Test results are available approximately 16 days after the computer version and one month for the paper-based version.

Test Time

Closing Date for Entries

Result Date for Test



















































































The HSK points system is based on which test is passed from HSK 1 to HSK 6. For work purposes, passing HSK 1 equals a 2 point credit, which then increases by 2 points for each level to a maximum of 10 points for passing HSK 5 or 6.

Passing the HSK

There are many different approaches that can be taken in preparation for the HSK, including everything from self-study to group classes to 1on1 classes. For many the most efficient and the quickest route to earning HSK points is through either small group or 1on1 tuition. There are many programs available, but this article is intended to focus on the 1on1 and small group method. Below is a chart that indicates the number of class hours required to move from one HSK language level to the next in either a small group or 1-on-1 tuition context.

HSK Level


Numbers of classes required for each level (H)

1on1 classes

Group classes

Level 1 to Level 2




Level 2 to Level 3




Level 3 to Level 4




Level 4 to Level 5




Level 5 to Level 6




You can see from the chart what is required to move up from one level to the next and how the required vocabulary and classes increase as the HSK level increases. This chart does not of course take into account factors such as age, aptitude, commitment level, etc., which can impact the number of class hours required to reach the language level each HSK is testing for.

There are also test prep courses available at schools such as my own ( that have been developed strictly for test preparation, which you can see from our chart below.


Number of Class(Times)



Level 1/2

40 classes, 2 classes per visit

44 classes, 2 classes per visit

Level 3/4

48 classes, 2 classes per visit

56 classes, 2 classes per visit

Level 5

72 classes, 3 classes per visit

84 classes, 3 classes per visit

Level 6

78 classes, 3 classes per visit

90 classes, 3 classes per visit

These courses are intended specifically for test preparation. For example, if you’ve already studied Chinese, and feel confident that your language level is up to HSK 5, but have no test experience or just want to brush up and prepare in such a way you can test with confidence, then these types of courses can prove very helpful.

In the end, any individual’s aptitude, career goals and ambition will determine how far they can go with their Chinese and how far up the HSK points ladder they can climb. Other external factors of influence include the quality of one’s teacher, study materials, and preparation.

So if you want to set yourself apart and meet China’s increasingly stringent standards for Employment, then the HSK must be considered. It also must be realized that any individual’s quality of life and work in China will increase exponentially with one’s language level and understanding of the culture.

Maybe it’s time to make HSK prep a priority for your life and career in China. Thanks for visiting our blog:


How to: Chinese Motorcycle License

If you’ve lived in Beijing for very long, you know that transportation for trips out to the Great Wall or the countryside can be expensive, or inconvenient. So my wife and I decided to purchase a car. I already had my Chinese driver’s license, so we registered in the lottery (摇号) having convinced ourselves we would eventually be granted a license plate. However, three years later, many of our local friends had been granted plates, but we had given up. What other recourse did we have? We could rent cars when needed, but that was a hassle, or we could borrow cars from our Chinese friends, which we had done on a number of occasions, but that’s just not the same as packing for two or three nights and heading out to the countryside on a whim.

The solution for us was a Chinese motorcycle license (摩托车驾照).  There is no lottery for a motorcycle license plate, and no restrictions (限号) likely the weekly one day restrictions automobiles have to deal with. We both decided this was a brilliant idea, the only problem was, I had no experience on a motorcycle, and no foreign license I could use to avoid formal training class in Beijing. How did I get through the process? This blog is the story of my own experience with the process, and the result.

The steps:

In order to apply for a motorcycle license, China law requires that you either hold a Chinese drivers license for one year or can prove you have an overseas motorcycle license. So if you don’t have a motorcycle license from your home country you must first provide the necessary documents for your drivers license application at the Chinese equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), International Department (北京车辆管理所涉外管理科)near Shibalidianqiao (十八里店桥). These include your current Passport and current Resident permit with a minimum validity of 90 days, a valid drivers license issued from your home country with a certified translation, four 1” photos with white background, and a health certificate issued by an approved hospital. Bring several copies of each when you make you application.

You can get your health certificate at almost any local hospital, which I found very simple to retain for my original Chinese drivers license at the Sino-Japanese Friendship hospital International Department. I just told them what I needed, provided a photo (this is in addition to the 4 required with the application), had a hearing and vision test, and was on my way with health certificate in hand.

Submit all of these documents along with several copies of each and the current application fee to the DMV and sign up for a test date. The test for either a regular drivers license or motorcycle license consists of 100 test questions that are taken from a much larger selection of questions. Be sure to purchase a copy of the test questions and answers available in English at the DMV and allow enough time to study well when you sign up for a test date. There are several hundred questions to study, and 90% is the minimum passing score, so be prepared. Your test will be taken on a computer system that will give you your score immediately. Assuming you pass the first time, you can go back to the front desk and either arrange for your license to be mailed to you, or in some cases, you can wait for them to prepare it and take it with you.

If you’re among those who already have a motorcycle license from your home country, then you can follow all of the instructions above, with the exception that you must apply for the motorcycle test. This test also consists of 100 questions chosen from a list of over 400 multiple choice and true/false questions. Take note that the test is only available in Chinese. But if you read some Chinese, and are determined to pass, then you can take advantage of an app that has all of the test questions and also includes practice tests. You can find the app at . This app was a lifesaver for me as it provided the opportunity to learn all the characters I was lacking to read well enough to pass the test.

The rest of the story.

So once the decision was made, I began to research the motorcycle license process. Having passed the English test a few years earlier, and so now qualified to apply for the motorcycle license, I was thinking “how hard can this be”. I was soon to be enlightened. So in addition to having retained a drivers license, I was now required to not only pass the 100 question motorcycle test, but also had to take a practical riding class and pass a riding test. The practical riding course was by far the most interesting and enjoyable part of the process.

Foreigners are require to sign up for the riding course at the Laoshan jiaxiao (老山驾校). You can see their website at and find their address just north of line 1 using your favorite maps app. I suggest you make a stop on the way and get your physical exam report at the nearby hospital (石景山医院).You want to head over to east entrance where you can find the physical exam department (体检). They first asked for a photo and an application, which I filled out in a couple of minutes. I then stepped over to the left where a nurse examined me along with an older Chinese gentleman. We both looked at a few pages in a book to check for colorblindness, followed by the vision chart. She then sent me next door to pay 10RMB, after which I returned with a receipt to pick up my completed exam form.

It’s about a brisk 15-minute walk from the hospital to the school. You can take a taxi up there, but it may take a while if you want to take a taxi back as the school is a bit secluded. I walked in with great confidence, submitted my documents to the school (all the same as those required for the drivers license) and was then asked  how well I could read Chinese, “你的汉子怎么样”, I was shocked to learn that the motorcycle test was only available in Chinese. I’d been studying an English version, but later learned the test had been revised and was no longer available in English. To be honest, I was certain as I paid for the course that I would not be back to take it. Another surprise was that foreigners don’t pay the same fee as the locals. At first I thought this unfair, but as I went through the process I realized Laoshan has to provide more services for foreigners. Below is an overview of the process. You can see that you have to pass a 50 question test before you can schedule your riding class, but you have to pay for the classes in advance of the first test. On the way home I sent a message to my wife that it would be a miracle if I got my license. I still believe it was a miracle.

1)   Prepare all the required documents, photos, translation and copies.

2)   Get a physical exam certificate.

3)   Go to the Laoshan school with all of the above and pay for the course.

4)   Get a phone call from Laoshan school to meet them at the DMV and sign up for the first 50 question test. There representative will be there as scheduled to help you get signed up for your test.

5)   Go back and pass the test.

6)   Take your test results back to the Laoshan school and wait 2-3 days for them to call you with your class dates. Note that when you sign up for class you have the choice of weekend classes or a 5-day midweek morning class.

7)   Take the riding course and pass the riding test.

8)   Go back to the Laoshan office with your results (note that only foreigners have to follow this process). They will call you in a few days to let you know when you can go back to the DMV to sign up for your final test.

9)   Go back to the DMV at the designated time, pass your test, and either wait for your license or arrange for them to mail it to you.

A few days later I got the call from Laoshan to meet their representative at the DMV. As it turned out, there were two of us there to register for our first test. I set mine test date up for a two week delay figuring I needed as much time as possible to prepare for the test, but I still had no idea how exactly to prepare. After we had both set our test dates the other student asked our rep the key question “What is the best way to study for the test”, she was a bit perplexed at the question, “You don’t know about the app?”, I should have known, there seems to be an app for everything these days, why not one that includes everything you need to study for your Chinese motorcycle license.

As it turns out, the app did not work on my iPhone, but they also have a website that works just the same (, or even better for me when studying at my desk with my laptop. So over the next two weeks I spent many long hours reviewing all the answers to both the multiple choice and true/false questions. I then used the practice test function. This was no longer about freedom for my wife and I to travel, it was more about the challenge of passing the test.

On test day my wife came along for moral support. You basically just need to show up a few minutes before the test. There are usually quite a few folks waiting. When the test time comes an official will make an announcement and everyone will head upstairs to the testing room. I needed some help finding the motorcycle test on their computer system, but once situated I rolled through my 50 questions in about 12 minutes, missing one question. I was out so quickly my wife thought something had gone wrong. We had experienced the first miracle in the process.

We then went directly to Laoshan and showed them my test result. They were a bit surprised, which was an encouraging reaction. They called me a couple days later with the start date and basic information for the riding course. The only items I was required to bring were all my documents, including the receipt for my payment, and a helmet.

My first class started at 8AM on a beautiful Spring Monday morning. After passing the first test, I was really excited to get started riding. I’d only borrowed a motorcycle for 30 minutes so I could teach myself how to use the controls, shift, etc. This proved extremely helpful as our instructor didn’t do much instructing. He did a roll call, walked us through the course we would be tested on that Friday, showed us how to start the old 70cc bikes we would be using all week, assigned us riding partners for taking turns through the week, and then watched us for a few minutes as we took our turns going through the course. For the better part of our first 3 days he left us alone to figure things out for ourselves, coming back now and then to make sure we hadn’t destroyed any equipment. There were sixteen of us in the class with 8 motorcycles going through the course. On the first day he told us that the law required us each to be there on time each day and to practice until 12PM. There were several students who asked if they had to come every day, and he just repeated himself. In the end, most of us were there every day, but a few only showed up now and then. For the most part, in the end, it didn’t matter what technique we used, it was about getting through the course without any of our mistakes being noticed.

On Thursday our instructor had us line up our bikes and ourselves up just as we would be for the police officer who would be arriving to observe us the next day. His main point was that we should do our best, and if we made any mistakes and the officer asked us how it went we should just pretend it went fine and tell him so. If he asked us twice, we were to tell him we made a small mistake, in which case he could still pass us or give us a second chance.

We were all lined up and ready to go when the officer showed up. He gave us some simple instruction and then we got started. It was surreal. Here we were, 16 of us testing for a motorcycle license and about 10 more testing for a sidecar license. There were at least 3 of us on the course at any given time with the officer speaking with each of us and signing us off as we finished. That is one pre-occupied officer, sitting in his car, facing away from half of the course, and trying to observe all of us…impossible doesn’t describe the conditions. Several made mistakes, some of them fairly major, but he didn’t catch any of them. Needless to say, everyone passed on the first try.

The officer then excused me to go to the office (all the locals then had to go to the local DMV office and immediately take their test). At the office they confirmed my results and once again told me they would be in touch to tell me when I could go back and sign up for my last test.

About a week later I was back at the DMV, but this time I wanted to test as soon as possible. I continued to practice for the test, and when the time came I passed with a 100% score in about 10 minutes. 30 minutes later I had my license in hand and my wife and I were on our way home to celebrate. A completed miracle.

There is much more to this story with respect to my Laoshan school experience. My fellow students were incredibly helpful and great fun to be with. We still have a Wechat group that stays in touch. Some of them go on rides together and all of them have treated the laowai (老外) like I was their mascot.

Photo Apr 28, 4 08 00 PM

My wife and I have also really enjoyed the freedom our Suzuki GW250 has given us. We ride it everywhere, but mostly out to the north of Beijing. Road fees are the same as for cars, but that and fuel costs are very inexpensive compared with hiring a driver or renting a car.

This is a friend who has a sweet little B&B out near Mutianyu Great Wall

This is a friend who has a sweet little B&B out near Mutianyu Great Wall

I’ve since also tested for and retained my motorcycle license in my home state. Someday, when we move back to the USA, I’m hoping to ride there too.

As the owner/manager of 1on1Mandarin I do reap special benefits. Our teachers and staff are always will to see their laoban and all of our foreign staff and Chinese language students succeed.


What Exactly is a 华人 (huaren)?

“Xiao Li, I have a question to ask you,” said our Ayi very quietly late last Friday afternoon, just as she was about to go home.

Our Ayi (阿姨, house helper) is a trooper, now aged 63, and no taller than my 9 year old daughter. She is a traditional, conservative little lady, always immaculately groomed with her tidy black dyed hair and little high heels which seem to add very little to her height. I often wonder whether she can sneak into the subway as a child. She is certainly under 150 cm. When Ayi’s 4th daughter (yes, FOURTH child – she is of the generation who tried desperately for a boy and stopped only because her family was getting ridiculously expensive to raise) went to the US to study, she vowed NEVER to visit such a non-Chinese place, AND she renewed her vow to never eat any foreign food. “I’m Chinese. Why would I want to eat American food?” she retorted very unapologetically.

‘Xiao Li’ is the nickname she calls me, meaning ‘small’ + my surname, since I am younger than her. Coincidentally her surname is also Li, but I would never call her ‘big’ Li, or even ‘old’ Li. ‘Ayi’, meaning ‘aunty’, is good enough.

I have come to realize that Chinese people rarely call others by name, not like in the west where people often mention each others’ names before talking to them. So with such an ominous start to a conversation late on a Friday afternoon, I took a deep breath, sat down, and wondered whether she was about to ‘retire’ again.

“I want to ask you if you know of any unmarried huaren华人for my granddaughter”.

My mind swirled as I tried to process the meaning of the question. I remembered she has a granddaughter who just finished university and commenced work this past year. Is it for her? Yes, it’s for her. Do you mean a man, or a housemate? Yes, boyfriend, so she can marry him. And why a ‘huaren’? So they can travel together….

Over the weekend, as I pondered the meaning of a ‘huaren’, I went first to good old Pleco ( which defines ‘huaren’ as ‘ethnic Chinese person or people’. And I consulted Chinese friends so I could understand the sort of person my Ayi was trying to find.

It seems that ‘huaren’ includes Chinese citizens (中国人 zhongguoren) but it also includes those of Chinese descent who may hold other passports or who might be living overseas. This is certainly a wider category than just ‘zhongguoren’.

It’s now Tuesday, and I smile inside at the thought that our dear old Ayi is ‘open’ enough to include even overseas Chinese in her family. I take this to be some sort of acceptance of my own family, who I always thought were outsiders, ‘waiguoren’ (外国人foreigners), here in China but who must also be, by definition, ‘huaren’. But, then again, the day she asks me to introduce her granddaughter to any of our Caucasian friends, I will need more than just a sit down… I may need the whole weekend to recover!

I love the fact that learning Chinese in Beijing is not just about the language. It’s the culture and the people as well :)

What is YOUR take on Ayi’s request?

“Learn a Chinese Phrase” Review of the series of videos on YouTube

“Learn a Chinese Phrase” Review

I was contacted on Facebook a while ago by Patrick Bresnahan asking me to review the “Learn a Chinese Phrase” series of videos on YouTube. Patrick, his fellow students and their Chinese teachers at the Confucius institute of Wayne state university have produced a great series of videos that achieves what it sets out to do: teach viewers a Chinese phrase.

The videos are suitable for Chinese learners from beginners right up to advanced (at least for the advanced students who haven’t come across these particular idioms before). The videos are all short, humourous, with good explanations of what the phrases mean, and plenty of repetition. Putting all these things together then you have a package that is easy to watch but effective helping you remember the new vocab that they are teaching you.

Learn a chinese phrase screen shot

Relevant vocab

The phrases that they are teaching you are relevant too. I hadn’t learnt the phrase 八卦 (ba1gua4) in any text book, but having watched their video, then yesterday I understood what my teachers were taking about when they were talking about some people 八卦 other people. I think it is great when there is such a short period between learning a phrase in theory, and then very soon afterwards hearing it being used by native Chinese speakers.

The videos can be found on youku / souku for those in China, and on youtube for everyone else (or anyone with VPN).


Learning Chinese requires good perspective

Learning Chinese requires good perspective

It seems all students of Chinese have the same experience at some point in the study – they feel that they just aren’t making the progress they want to. I have experienced this myself, and it is currently true of one of our students at our language school here in Beijing who I met up with over lunch today.

Now, it may be that for some people they are experiencing frustration and disillusionment because they are approaching their language study in the wrong way, or simply not allocating enough time to their study. For these people it is worth taking time to stop and look at your goals, and what it is going to take to reach those goals.

But in the case of this student who is having 10 hours of 1on1 tuition each week, and topping that up with at least 20 hours of self-study, and plenty of social interaction with Chinese friends, he is doing all the right things, he is making really good progress, but he just doesn’t feel it, and he would rather the progress was quicker.

For this student, and others in similar positions, let me share with you a helpful poem that my father once shared with me.

T.T.T by Piet Hein

TTT illustration for the poem by Piet Hein

Put up in a place
where it’s easy to see
the cryptic admonishment

When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time./

On a similar theme, you might want to check out Olle Linge’s recent helpful posts on Hacking Chinese of persevering with Chinese when you are lacking motivation.

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.

Why tones and I were not friends: how to improve your Chinese tones

You sit down in your first mandarin class and they show you something like this:

Pinyin Tone Chart


You practice the four different tones.  ā, á, ǎ, à.  You practice differentiating between your mother (妈: mā) and a horse (马: mǎ).  (Fair enough!  Though, I’ve often wondered how Chinese people whine to their mother.  My kids manage to make the sound ma into an entirely new tone altogether!)  You practice different pinyin drills, different tones together, the neutral tone.

Easy, right?

So, so, so wrong.

My hate-relationship with Chinese tones began way after I had begun learning Chinese.  I’d already lived in China for a couple of years, but after I started learning Chinese full time, for the first 6 months of being generally unintelligible, I’d still gotten away with being able to fudge my tones.  I was able to communicate, people would get my meaning, and just make allowances for it.  As someone who loved talking, I wasn’t going to let minor pronunciation problems stop me from communicating.

So I hacked away.  Well that’s not what I thought.  In my eyes, I forged ahead, building confidence in my ability to communicate, excited at how I grew to be able to babble on much like I did in English.  What with the new vocabulary I was learning, and the new grammar I was practicing, I felt armed to conquer the Chinese language.

That is, until I stopped to hear myself speak. To really hear myself speak.

After 2 years of absorbing the language and 6 months of seriously studying Chinese in Beijing (where, by the way, tones really matter), my husband and I made a video for some Mandarin speaking friends back at home, a video postcard if you will.  I wrote the whole script, even threw in a few jokes, and we sat down to record it.  I sat down and babbled away, whereas my husband wanted to do take after take after take until he was happy.  After editing it and sending it off, I felt as though we’d really made a lot of progress in six months.  When our friends (native Chinese speakers) received our video postcard they were really positive about our progress. But the feedback that kept coming back to us was how great my husband’s Chinese was.

I have to admit I was a bit cheesed off.  Thankfully my husband is not the sort to gloat — in fact, he was even indignant that he’d hadn’t done a thing but read my script out!  But after I calmed down (ok, it took a while!) I realised that there had to be some truth to what they were saying.  So I sat down to watch the video. Properly.

When I sat down to deliberately listen to my Mandarin, I realized they were right. My husband’s Mandarin, his spoken Mandarin, the Mandarin he needs to use every day in order to communicate, from what you could see in the video, was excellent. Mine, however, was more of an indistinguishable flow of words.  Not to say I couldn’t be understood, because I did throw in enough vocabulary and gestures and emphasis to give my meaning, but I could no longer ignore that my tones were absolutely everywhere and this was seriously debilitating my Chinese.

At that point I had a bit of a meltdown.  After all the hard work I’d put in, all the confidence I had in my language was gone.  For about a week I actually could not speak Chinese.  I’d open my mouth, completely panic at what was going to come out of my mouth, and just freeze up.  I spent a few days hating Chinese tones, or threatening to move down to 南方 (nánfāng: the South) where tones don’t matter so much, and generally just being infuriated by the insanity of this language.  But when the emotion subsided, I knew, I finally realized, that tones were something I could no longer ignore.

(Interestingly, it was a little hard to find things online on how to help my particular problem.  It’s not that I can’t say the tones.  I always could say single-syllable words very well when reading the pinyin with tone markers.  I could get through a vocab list with no problem.  My problem was more that I wasn’t remembering the tones of new words (or old words for that matter) and was just making them up or replacing them with English intonation when I spoke.)

So it was time to get back to basics.

It was slightly demoralizing to be going from book 4 of a series back to book 1 (I was learning from New Practical Chinese Reader at the time), but I did it.  Not in my classes, but for a period of time, my entire time of self-study was going back to the beginners book and not moving on until I had absolutely nailed the tones.  I upgraded my Skritter account to a paid subscription and changed the mode to Tones Only.  (In my opinion, as much as I love Pleco, doing this on Skritter was preferred to using Pleco for tones practice.  I think it has to do with the unlimited testing process (ie, keep going until you feel like a break with the same words coming up again and again, rather than having a list of words to work through only once)).  I sat down and wrote down every word in the vocab lists (even wǒ, hǎo, nǐ …) with the correct pinyin – including tone markers (can you believe I had hardly ever bothered to note down the tones when writing pinyin before!) because I started to realize that I hadn’t in my head associated even the most basic of words with their tones.  It really, truly, was back to basic, and it was a hard slog.

But it was totally worth it.

I learned the difference between

  • zhòngyào (重要: important) and zhōngyào (中药: Chinese medicine)
  • and yǎnjing (眼睛: eyes) and yǎnjìng (眼镜: glasses) (actually I still find those two really hard to say properly and 你戴眼睛吗? is just scary if you think about it), not to mention燕京 (Yānjīng: yes, the beer!)

And I learned that

  • you can’t go to the markets and ask for tù dòu (兔痘: rabbitpox, compare with tǔdòu 土豆: potato)
  • and 服务员 (fúwùyuán: waiter/service assistant) will get really confused if you ask for yī wàn mǐfàn (一万米饭: myriads of rice, read as yí wàn: note that 一 changes tone when you read with other words; compare with yī wǎn mǐfàn: 一碗米饭: a bowl of rice, read as yì wǎn)
一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn


Another helpful tip I found at,  which has a great table of 20 simple two-syllable words to build up your ‘tone muscle memory’.  After saying these words in sequence for just a short while, I felt that I could get my head around the differences, particularly anything involving the 2nd and 3nd tones, and especially 2+3 and 3+3.  This familiarization with tones helped me to hear the correct tones when listening, which has helped so much more in being able to replicate the correct tone when speaking.

By far, I’m still no expert.  The other day I still had to ask my 5-year old daughter how to say 裤子 (kùzi: trousers) correctly.  And it sometimes means I have to say a sentence (or particular words) twice over just to make sure I said it correctly (I sound like I have a strange kind of stutter).  But just accepting the fact tones really do matter was the biggest step I took to improving my Chinese.

And now Chinese tones and I are friends.

What about you? Are you friends with Chinese tones?  What’s been your Chinese tone journey?