I’ve been aiming for HSK 4 pretty much since I passed HSK 3 three years ago, and it took until I was a fulltime Mandarin student this Summer to feel confident I had the required level of understanding and realising I would just need to undertake a bit of vocabulary cramming to get there. Now the HSK 4 is behind me and I’m waiting for the result, I can’t help but feel a lack of motivation to keep studying. What am I aiming for now?
The reasons I started studying Mandarin 7 years ago back in university were completely random. As a second year student I felt I had got the hang of university and ought to be participating more in extra-curricular activities. I was neither sporty or sociable, and possibly due to the influence of a new friend from mainland China, I chose Mandarin. It was just once-a-week, with little pressure, leading to 10 extra credits on my transcript, and I liked it. I liked that others were bemused by this choice. At level one we wouldn’t be examined on characters, so I found them irrelevant, and overwhelming I suppose – I stuck with pinyin. However, I was keen enough at that stage to apply for the Study China Programme – a partly-government funded month-long trip to China – and although not chosen for the Easter programme, I made it onto the Summer 2008 Hangzhou cohort. It was something of a turning point, as most people on the programme were beginners and I went into the intermediate group, which boosted my confidence and furthermore I found I had picked up quite a few characters (that photographic memory only my mum raves about) so received praise from the teacher. It was my first long trip away from home and I spent the month overwhelmed by culture shock and homesickness.
Throughout the following two years my Chinese progressed somewhat through language exchange and odd bits of self-study, mostly writing characters and little speaking, while getting through my year abroad in Germany and the final year of my law degree. When the time came to think about what to do after graduation, and with the little desire to go into the legal profession, I came across the British Council‘s English Language Assistant Programme, a year-long programme in one of many countries teaching English. Still feeling the buzz of learning this unusual language, I decided to apply, went to interview and finally was posted to Nanjing. Little thought was put into this decision, since I felt I had no other options, and I embarked on this year pretty unprepared, so it wasn’t a surprise that it was a real struggle early on. I found my Chinese was the best within the group of teachers posted in Nanjing (there were four of us at my school) and could help everyone to order food, take taxis, etc, but I missed home terribly. However, after passing the halfway mark, a visit from my family and a trip to HK, I found my first Chinese boyfriend. It wasn’t a serious thing, but it helped my Chinese no end. He was a local, had never left the province and spoke not a word of English (do 哈喽 or 三Q count?). The following months were much more exciting. Finding Chinese friends meant I got a real insight into Chinese lives and culture, trying a lot of great home-cooking along the way.
Back in the UK after the year was over, I had a serious case of reverse culture shock and maintaining my Chinese and finding Chinese friends at home became very important to me. I completed HSK 3, discovered 微信 and 陌陌, moved to a flat right next to Birmingham’s Chinatown and lived this kind of half-Chinese life. I’m sure my friends thought
still think I was crazy! I made the Chinese language very much part of my life and managed to maintain my level reached in Nanjing but also increase my knowledge of colloquial Chinese, regularly chatting exclusively in Chinese using 微信. I guess I would have bobbed along that way even longer, but then I met my now-husband and began this whirlwind romance which brought me to live in China now and finally taking the time to study Chinese fulltime. My motivations for learning the language changed. I wanted his family to get to know me – the real me, not just in the ‘oh look at the pretty white foreigner sitting in the corner’ way – and for me to get to know them and learn about my husband’s upbringing.
Before we took the leap to come here, I held an ambition to one day reach the point where I could work in China on an equal footing to a local, that is be hired for my skills rather than my appearance or status as a foreigner. Whilst being able to find teaching jobs very easily is a blessing, teaching is not my calling in life and I have found I’m much more suited to personal tutoring or one-on-one coaching of friends rather than 60 (or even 6) in a class type situations. This ambition has definitely changed since being over here, as I feel more and more as if I am valued simply as a foreigner and nothing more. I admire the multiple bloggers (for examples Linda Living in China, China Elevator Stories, Marta lives in China, Laowhynot amongst others) who have found themselves real jobs based on their merits, but I acknowledge my current lack of profession/specific skills, so don’t think this is a realistic aim.
I’ve also realised that while living in China is something that I want now, I can see that it won’t be forever. My husband and I will inevitably make the move back to the UK where we can both follow our dreams and career ambitions. I hope that my Chinese skills will lead to career opportunities there and have multiple ideas for my career back in the West. Moreover, as we are currently expecting our first baby, Chinese will never to cease to be important to me. I hope to raise bilingual children, no easy feat I’m told, and think this will only be possible if I am also proficient in Chinese, especially should we move back to the West sooner rather than later.
Since the HSK exams are good markers for Chinese proficiency, I shall aim for HSK 5. With a new baby to be my focus in 2015, who knows when I will have a chance to sit the exam, but I need a goal and I will reach HSK6 eventually. Yes, I will!