As part of my internship program, I take Mandarin classes twice a week. My roommate and I meet with our teacher at a café in Sanlitun (a popular expat haunt) and learn for about an hour and a half. However, my practice is only limited to small exchanges with vendors and my time in class. I realized the only way I can make real progress in this city is to find make Chinese friends and practice with them. So earlier this week I put an ad on the Beijinger (an English-language web publication for expats in Beijing) looking for a language exchange partner. I took a chance with one of the first responses: a local Chinese girl from Inner Mongolia studying international politics named Lily.
I didn’t know what to expect from language exchange. Both of us had never done it before! At first our conversations were short and simple, with questions such as “How old are you?” and “What do you study?” I spoke very slowly and used some basic vocabulary, and she with me. However, as we were waiting for the bus to go the National Art Museum of China, we realized we had a lot in common. We liked a lot of the same shows, we both loved Korean food, and we were both fascinated by the other’s culture. Eventually the conversations became more complicated. “What do you like about Beijing?” “Do you have a lot of foreign friends?” “Do like the Avengers?”
Every now and then I would stop and ask how to say a certain word and she would teach me. And sometimes she would stop me and ask what something meant and I would explain it. Even though most of what I was saying was Chinglish (me inserting as many Chinese words as I knew into my sentences), I learned a lot of content that I hadn’t learned in Chinese class with my tutor. Phrases like “green tea ice cream”, “by myself”, “foreigner”, “roasted lamb skewer”, “take a picture”, and “I’m full”, for example. Lily was just excited to practice her oral English with me and learn some American slang, like “yolo” and “on fleek”.
Travelling through Beijing with someone who has lived here for four years is also drastically different from travelling with your fellow expat friends. I took a bus today! I never take a bus because of the lack of English. We asked locals where the best noodles were, places where the tourists never go. I ate lamb skewers and soft-serve green tea ice cream for the first time today! And Lily had never been to any of these places either, so today was a never venture for her as well.
Today wasn’t really so much about what we saw but what we experienced together. We were born in different parts of the world, but here we were enjoying art together, discussing social norms, and expressing the same distaste for fermented tofu soup. I can’t wait to hang out again! Who knows what I’ll learn next time.