How I learned Chinese – Part 3: Office Girl

In 2008 I took a job in Langfang, a small city in Hebei province between Beijing and Tianjin. It’s only an hour or so from Beijing by car so I was still in town on weekends. By this point I spoke quite good Chinese. I spent 11 years studying Chinese in classrooms, (including a year in a Beijing university), and then another 3+ years perfecting my accent and listening skills with taxi drivers and other locals. In Langfang, however, my Chinese rose to a whole new level.

The office building and my desk inside

The office building and my desk inside

The job was at a textile company in which I was the only foreign employee. I was not only starting in a new industry, I was doing it in my second language. In my first staff meeting I felt a little lost, as the conversation was peppered with vocabulary I didn’t understand. I decided to start working on acquiring all the new vocab I could as quickly as possible. For the first month I put in 30-40 minutes a day studying new vocabulary; once I got a handle on the basics, I scaled back to an hour a week.

Before I could start committing new vocabulary to memory, however, I had to work out what those new words were! I went through files and found all sorts of documents in Chinese. I went through purchase orders and inventory lists. I listed the names of  fabrics, products and accessories we used. I read through HR documents, contracts, and even banking slips. It was a discouraging process – reading these documents was slow going, and there were so many words I didn’t know.

Once I had compiled a list of new vocabulary, I pulled out all my old study techniques from university and got to work. After 6 months, I had most of the words on my original lists down, and after that only rarely went back to them for a refresher study session. After a year I was reading those same banking slips and order forms without a second thought.

A Chinese bank transfer slip - how much can you read?

A Chinese bank transfer slip – how much can you read?

I wasn’t done learning, though – not by a long shot. Very few of the staff spoke English, putting me in a real immersion environment. I was often the only English speaker in the open office area where my desk was; occasionally I was the only English speaker in the building. I once went 5 days without speaking any English (unless you count talking to myself, but at that point I was talking to myself as much in Chinese as English anyway).

One of the most effective learning tools turned out to be something I would not have expected: eavesdropping. Working in an open office space meant that all day I was half-listening to the other staff going about their business. I listened the the same group of people speaking naturally (not adjusted for a foreign ear) in a variety of contexts. I heard them talk with each other – joking, encouraging, complaining. I heard them cajoling, talking and joking with the delivery guys constantly bringing parcels in and out. I heard them making enquiries of new suppliers, sweet-talking suppliers we were asking a favour of, and hassling suppliers who weren’t following through on their promises. I heard them speaking to their family members – whether laughing with them or yelling at them.

The big advantage to listening to someone speaking on the phone is that you are listening to one side of the conversation. I would hear a few sentences, then there was a pause (while they listened) giving me time to catch up with what they had said, and actually understand it, before they spoke again. All this listening taught me a lot more about tone of voice in Chinese – how to communicate nuances through HOW you say the words. I learned how to tease, how to be witty, and the Chinese way to be sarcastic.

In addition to eavesdropping on others’ conversations, I also had to do a lot of conversing of my own. There were work conversations – during meetings, while doing HR tasks, and just around the office. There were also social conversations. I worked hard to be more than just the foreign girl. When I arrived, it was clear that many staff weren’t quite sure how to handle me – they thought of me as being a manager simply because I was a foreigner (like the boss) and yet I was younger than almost everyone else. The workshop staff in particular were often very deferential to me, which felt strange since many were 10 or 20 years older than me.

I looked for ways to connect, even though it often felt like too much for my introverted nature. Almost every day I had lunch with the Chinese staff, which was difficult in many ways but also very rewarding. I worked hard at participating in conversations, even though it was hard to keep up in the beginning. If we had a shipment going out and I didn’t have anything urgent to work on, I might spend some time helping out with small tasks in the workshop. I asked questions about their families and shared stories about my own family. It was a great way to share different traditions, and I think helped them see me in a more familial way.

Staff Christmas party 2008

Staff Christmas party 2008 (I’m the blonde in the back!)

About 6 months in, I was starting to be treated more like a little sister than a boss. When someone would serve my rice for me at lunch, it was with the air of an aunt or big sister fussing rather than an employee serving.

One memorable moment was after I returned from my sister’s wedding in Australia. Although 喜糖 xǐ táng (wedding candy) isn’t a thing in Australia, I bought a bunch of Australian lollies (candy) to give out to each staff member, calling it 喜糖. In the 18 months I’d been there, other staff had brought 喜糖 from family weddings on multiple occasions, so it was a familiar practice I could join in on. I also brought a selection of photos, using them to talk about wedding traditions in Australia, and show them my family. Many of the women were absolutely fascinated, especially since my Mum made the wedding dress and my other sister made her own bridesmaid dress. These were wonderful conversations; family was a topic that brought us together – regardless of how different our backgrounds and life experiences were, we all loved our families.

A year or so after moving to Langfang, my Mandarin was more fluid than ever. Chinese rolled off my tongue effortlessly – I spoke what I was thinking without needing to translate, without needing to stop and prepare my sentences. I could use both English and Chinese simultaneously, and often translated for friends real time. I regularly stunned locals who, hearing me before seeing me, were expecting a native Chinese. I have many, many funny stories along that line. I never cease to be flattered when this happens, even if I’m less surprised now than I used to be.

I was afraid I would lose my finally fluent Chinese after moving back to Beijing, but nearly 3 years later my speech is as fluid as ever. I may have forgotten a lot of textile and office-related vocabulary, but that’s to be expected. I know many foreigners more fluent than me, especially in terms of their vocabulary (I often have to talk around a word I don’t know), but mine still gets the job done.

Looking back over my experiences in order to tell this story has been great for me. I’ve remembered just how much hard work I put into learning Chinese, and I’m retrospectively quite proud of myself! I know there are so many words and grammar patterns I don’t know, and as long as I live here I’ll continue to learn, but for now I intend to enjoy my Chinese language abilities, the fruit of a LOT of labour :)


9 thoughts on “How I learned Chinese – Part 3: Office Girl

  1. Thanks for posting this three-part story – it was inspiring and tremendously fun to read! Inspiring I think because after twenty months of living in a house with 5-12 Chinese women (and managing said house for 13 of those months!), only one of whom speaks any English, I’ve naturally had a quicker learning curve than some and Chinese and foreigners alike all say “Your Chinese is so good!” — when in reality I know it still has a long way to go! Somehow I find I don’t know so many foreigners who speak really good Chinese (or maybe is just doesn’t come up much), so it’s refreshing to hear about someone who’s made the journey to true fluency. I identified with a lot of the learning tactics — I definitely “redeem the time” when standing in the ever-long line for an ATM machine by reading the detailed user instructions posted on the top of the ATM and looking up words I don’t know. I think I’m right in the “vocabulary explosion” stage where it’s not so much about grammar anymore as it is about learning hundreds of words, breaking apart the words like puzzle pieces into their component characters, learning the nuances of each, and putting them back together into dozens of other words. Also, question: at what point in your learning did different regional accents become easier to understand — and also readily identifiable to you as being from this or that part of the country?

    I’m Emily. We have met, but after reading these posts, I think we should be friends!

    • I got the “your Chinese is so good” my first few years. The comments changed once my accent improved, and after 6 months in Langfang the most common response was “If I wasn’t looking at you I’d assume you were Chinese”.

      I never found regional accents, that hard, to be honest, but part of that may have been that I was taught in three different native Chinese accents before I ever arrived here for my study year. My tutor in the US was from Wuhan, my main lecturer at uni in Australia from Beijing, and one semester there with a guy from Shanghai (who was NOT a good teacher!) I’ve had good friends from Sichuan, Anhui, Yunnan, Guangzhou, Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia – and had no trouble at all understanding them speaking Mandarin. I still struggle with fast garbled speech, like the thicker Hebei accents, though. As for identifying them…. I can usually pick southern and north-eastern accents, and Hebei (which is usually people speaking a dialect that is similar to Mandarin rather than true Mandarin), but nothing really specific.

  2. Oh wow, this is very impressive, congratulations on your language skills ! My daughter is learning chinese at school right now.

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    • Thank you! I love learning language, not least for the insights it provides into culture. It’s wonderful to understand life from someone else’s perspective :)

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