The Importance of Talking to Strangers When Learning a New Language

At some point in your life you were probably told to not talk to strangers. “Stanger! Danger!” is how it was marketed to kids . I mean, I get that the young’uns probably shouldn’t be hopping into creepy full-size vans with no windows, but come on – most people aren’t out to hurt other people. Also, don’t hate on full-size vans — I used to own one and it was a-mazing.

Oh, just me, some friends, and a big, brown van. Those were the days. 

In fact, from what I’ve experienced it’s just the opposite. Most people want to help, be empathetic, and are there to point you in the right direction if you need it. This is the world I’m living in and while others live paralyzed in fear of what someone might to do to them I’m out proving every single one of them wrong.

Are there bad people out there? Sure, I’ve met some of them and I’m sure I interact with less than most thanks to the fact that I’m a male and 6’7”. But, I’ve talked to plenty of solo female travelers who feel the same way I do. It’s worth the risk to trust and to reach out to those who might be outside of your comfort zone and for me it’s how I’m living on a day-to-day basis.

Talking to strangers is part of learning another language

There’s only so much I can learn inside of a classroom, which is why I’m currently living on an island that most people don’t even know about just south of mainland China. I’m here because I want to learn Chinese and to do that I need to be reliant on the language to feel comfortable and must have a goal of being able communicate things for myself as soon as possible. And do this I need to talk to strangers. Lots of them.

I’m learning a lot in the classroom, but it’s not enough

Sure, I know some great locals here, but even the nicest people are going to get sick of me asking for their help when I need to buy a bus ticket or order something online. I have to be able to do it on my own, and the only way to do that is by talking to as many people as I can, making plenty of mistake along the way all while learning how to really speak Chinese.

It actually makes daily life really fun and interesting as I intentionally try out new words, phrases, or pronunciations whenever I go back to the same coffee shop or dumpling restaurant. It’s like I’m leveling up, one small win at a time and over time it’s all going to add up into me actually knowing what the hell I’m saying most of the time. Or, at least that’s the goal.

Talking to little kids is actually good or learning, too

I’m already picking up so much of the Chinese language and it’s only been a couple days, which makes me really excited for learning more. Today in class we started looking at characters for the first time, finished going over all of the initials, finals, and tones and also started talking in some simple conversation. Sweet.

It’s exciting for me to continue to gain a level of comfort and understanding in the language and I can’t wait to see what I can do in a couple weeks, months, or a year. It’s going to be so awesome.

But, for now I’ll keep on learning, day-by-day, as well as talking to strangers as long as they’ll still listen to me.

What I Learned My First Day of Beginner Chinese Language Classes

Well, today was the day. The day that I’ve been anticipating for over a month now since I decided to move to China and learn Mandarin Chinese. Now that it’s here I feel great about the decision and even though it took a good amount of digging to find the Hainan Premier Language school in Haikou, it was totally worth it.

Having some structure is important for me

I was looking forward to having classes in the morning during the week for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that I’m going to learn the Chinese language, which is super bad ass and I’m totally excited about it. The other reason is a little more nuanced as it has more to do with getting me on a regular schedule, which I haven’t been on for a while now.

If you asked people if they like to be forced into some sort of structure during their workday many would respond that no, they don’t. But, take them out of that structure and they won’t know what the heck to do with their time and energy. I’ve realized that I’m one of these people and having just a little bit of structure to get me up and ready to roll in the morning is super important.

What I learned on the first day of class

So this morning I got up, worked out, and was in the classroom by 9:30am where my teacher and one other student were waiting to get the party started. For the next few hours we dove straight into some of the basics of the Chinese language that will build the foundation for everything else to come.

Here are some of the things that we went over in the first class. It was a lot to take in, but the pace was good and I already feel a lot more comfortable with the Chinese language.

Pīnyīn, Initials, and Finals

We started off the lesson with learning Pīnyīn (peen-yeen), which is the method of spelling out Chinese Mandarin in Roman letters and tones. If you ever see someone typing in Chinese characters on their phone, they find them by using Pinyin on a traditional Roman letter keyboard.

Pinyin is split up into the Chinese version of vowels and consonants, which are called initials (the beginning of words that are like consonants) and finals (the end of words that are like vowels and include the tones).

An example of initials and finals for nǐ hǎo (hello) are below, where the first letters are the initials and the rest of the letters in the words are finals. You can see the tone symbols above the i and a in both of them as well.

The initials are split up into different groups depending on how they’re pronounced. Some are very similar to how consonants are pronounced in English, like the letters b, p, m, and f. These are called labial initials.

Others, like z, c, and s are sounds that we don’t use in the English alphabet and are pronounced by keeping your tongue on your teeth while talking. I’m guessing that’s why these are called dental initials. These initials are going to take a lot of practice for me to get used to, but I’m already starting to feel more comfortable saying them and it’s only been a few hours. I was cracking up while practicing them today because I felt like a complete idiot, which was a lot of fun. I’m sure they will feel normal here soon.

The last thing that we learned were tones, which are what everyone brings up as the hardest part of learning Mandarin Chinese. I definitely agree that they’re going to be tricky, but I also think they’re kinda cool.

There are 5 tones if you include when you don’t use a tone, which is a little confusing, but that’s how it works. The other 4 tones are pretty easy to understand and I picked up on them pretty quick. It feels like learning a programing language to me — all I need to do is figure out the patterns and then apply it to other situations. Yep, I’m a nerd.

A good start and excited to learn more

I know, I know — it’s only been one day, but there’s something about learning new languages that I really love. I think it has something to do with my fascination of understanding other cultures because a language is at the core of each one.

Anyway, I really like the school so far and I’ve also met some other students, which makes this place feel more like home and not just somewhere I’ve been living over the past couple of weeks.

Now, onto day number two. ✌️️

A Tour of my Room at the Hainan Premier Language School in Haikou

I’ve lived in some pretty interesting places over the last couple years. In Manila I went from staying in a 4-star hotel with a butler to crashing in a dorm room in a hostel. I also slept in a nipa hut for 3 weeks while in Bohol, which is still one of my favorite spots in the Philippines.

Living simply in a nipa hut at Coco Farm in Bohol, Philippines

When I’m back in the U.S. I’m all over the place when it comes to where I end up sleeping. Sometimes that’s on a Greyhound bus and other times it’s at a friend’s house, with one of my brothers or sisters, or at my mom and dad’s.

In Atlanta I slept on a futon in my buddy Scotty’s dining room for 2 weeks

Here in Haikou at the Hainan Premier Language School I’ve actually got a really cool setup that has everything I need. It’s minimal, which I like, and over time if I need something I’ll get it But, I like to start off with less and see what I need along the way.

My Current Setup

Here are some photos and quick descriptions of how my room is setup right now. I’m up on the third floor of a 4-story building and there are probably another 10-12 students and teachers who are also staying in here with me. I’ve met a few of them, but with the holiday just finishing up not many have been hanging around.

When you first walk in the door there’s so much room for activities. There is also a TV that I’ll never watch, along with a desk that I’m currently typing this on. Next to that is a little mini fridge and an air conditioner that I’m sure will come in handy once the summer heat hits.

This little nook by the window serves two very important purposes. First, it’s where I hang my wet clothes (Chinese people don’t use dryers, ever) and second, it’s my gym. Well, by gym I mean some dumbbells someone gave me that are sitting on top of a doormat. It’s simple, but way better than lifting my bag every day.

Moving right along, here you can see where I put my massive wardrobe. There are some wooden things that work great as little shelves for my t-shirts and other things and next to that is an empty closet that I’m sure I’ll never use. But hey, you never know.

My bed is big, which is a bonus, and the mattress is just hard enough to where I don’t want to sleep in it all day long (even though I have a few times already). I have a little nightstand next to it, which is nice and the LED reading light that’s hooked to the bed is something I would never buy, but is really handy to have now that I own one. There’s also a little chair that I can chill in, which I’ve used once. It’s pretty comfy.

The shower has hot water, which is something I never had at the hostel in the Philippines, but the water pressure sucks and the drain is a little iffy, but nothing I can’t handle. The little squeegee/mop thing is to push the water that doesn’t go down the drain by itself and to dry off the floor of the shower. I also keep the window open next to it when I shower to give it the “I’m showering outside” feeling even though I’m sure the neighbors can see me, but whatevs.

Last, but definitely not least, here’s the sink and the toilet. There are mirrors all around it, which is a little weird, but it has allowed me to send my first ever toilet selfies. If you haven’t gotten one, just wait — I’m sure it’s coming soon. 🚽 📷

My New Home

Well, that’s my new spot here on Hainan Island, I hope you enjoyed the little tour and if any of you reading this want to check out the place for yourself, I’m always up for hosting visitors. Like I said, it’s not the most amazing place, but it’s got everything I need and is already starting to feel like home.

Moving to Hainan and Learning Chinese (Mandarin) in 2017

As I finished up my travels in the Philippines and other countries around Asia last year I started to realize a couple of important things about myself. The first being that from here on out, traveling is always going to be a big part of my life. There are several reasons why I feel this way and have chosen to pursue this type of lifestyle (which I’ll go into more later) but spending time in foreign cultures energizes and challenges me. These don’t have to be foreign cultures outside of the United States, but the more out of my comfort zone I find myself, the more alive I feel. So, traveling and exploring that which is unfamiliar to me is here to stay and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Ready to travel again
All packed up and ready to go again

Second, the longer I’ve traveled and the more places I’ve seen, the more I’ve been drawn to going deeper into just one culture longer-term. This means not just living and working in an unfamiliar place as an outsider, but putting in some focused time and effort into truly becoming part of the local culture. For me, this means first and foremost learning a second language, which is a top priority for me this year. I got my first taste of learning a new language and the impact is has on life in another country while spending time in the Philippines and to me it felt magical. The time I spent learning Tagalog and the ability it gave me to communicate with all different types of people while living there made me feel more connected to everything and everyone around me. Even with the limited vocabulary and understanding that I had, it was still a game-changer and unlocked parts of the Philippines that I would have never been able to experience otherwise.

I’m moving to China to learn Mandarin

I haven’t traveled all over the world at this point in my life, but from where I’ve visited and spent some time the country that caught my attention the most was China. It’s a country that’s changing fast and while it’s major cities are booming and nearly everywhere is fast-tracking it’s way to being fully developed, China is still like the wild west in many ways. To me, this transition is fascinating and something I want to experience for myself and be part of, so I’ve decided to make China my home permanently for the time being. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit and as really started digging into how I wanted to make my long-term move happen things started to fall into place and now I’ve got a plan that will take me at least through the rest of 2017.

The  main reason for me living in China will be learning Mandarin, the most widely-used Chinese language, which isn’t going to be easy. But, I’m excited to take on the challenge and will have a full-time class schedule to make sure I’m setting myself up for success when it comes to learning one of the hardest languages going. I’ve researched several schools that could help me conquer the tough task and after talking to people from some solid options in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing I’ve decided to go another route and learn in a smaller city called Haikou. Even though it’s home to over 2 million people (around the population of Chicago), Haikou is still considered a second or third tier city in China, which for someone learning Chinese is actually better since there will be far less English speakers running around. This will force me to speak more Chinese day-to-day, which will be tough as I’m learning, but should help me become conversational quicker.

Location of Haikou, China
Hainan is known as “the Hawaii of China” 

Haikou is located in a unique spot in China, as it’s the largest city on Hainan, the country’s only tropical island. It’s located south of mainland China near Vietnam, which means the weather is warmer and more similar to what I was used to in the Philippines and, as a bonus, the air quality is some of the cleanest that China has to offer. Boo yah.

The Hainan Premier Language School in Haikou, China

I’ll be taking my lessons at the Hainan Premier Language School, which I happened to find while digging through the depths of the internet to find a place to call home in China. While I found some really good options for schools in both Beijing and Shanghai, I wasn’t feeling super excited about any of them. They were in bigger cities, seemed to be more impersonal, and thanks to the high cost of living in both places they were also pretty expensive. But, as I kept searching I happened to find what I feel is the perfect place for me and I’m super excited to get this party started.

I feel good about the Hainan Premier Language School for a few reasons. First off, the weather is awesome and after spending a few ridiculously cold winter months in Indiana I’m ready to go back to a place that’s consistently warm year-round. The city of Haikou has an average temperature of around 68 degrees °F (20 °C) with highs of 85-90 °F (29-32 °C) and lows of 60-65 (15-18 °C). That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Average Temperatures In Haikou
Loving this weather and no air pollution!

Also, the school is all-inclusive, so my room is included and they’re even hooking me up with a private room, private bathroom, and king-sized bed. For someone who hasn’t had their own room for over a year, this is going be a nice, little upgrade for me. Having my accommodations all taken care of will also make it a lot easier for me to focus on my classes while becoming a Chinese-speaking phenomenon.

Finally, the school is managed by a local family that seems to be super nice and very accommodating, which also makes me feel good about spending most of my time there. I also happened to meet a woman who lives in Haikou while staying in a hostel in Hong Kong over a year ago and after chatting with her she had nothing but great things to say about both the school and the family who runs it. From what I can tell, they’ve built a great community around their campus and I’m super excited to be part of it for the next year.

Answers to some questions you might want to ask me

Now that I’ve shared this news with several of my close friends and family, I’ve noticed some common questions I’m getting about my decision to learn Chinese while living in China. Here are a few of the ones that came up the most as well as the best answers I can give you at this point.

Will you be working while you’re in China?

Well, yes and no. I won’t be working a full-time job, but I will continue to work on finding ways to create some sort of consistent income while working remotely. This will most likely include things like writing online content, managing work-from-home teams in the Philippines, and any other opportunities I can work on while living anywhere in the world. But, with all this being said, my top priority will be learning Chinese, which will take up a lot of my time.

What does “going to school full-time” mean?

I’ll be taking classes at the school every day, Monday through Friday, from 9am-noon. I’ll also be spending plenty of time on some 1-on-1 tutoring and practicing my Chinese skills on unsuspecting strangers around Haikou.

Is China safe?

I know that there’s a lot of negative press about China, especially with the government and how crazy it is over there. But, from my own personal experience, I’ve always felt really safe while spending time there and it’s not something I’ll worry about. But, just like with any other city, there are things I’ll need to look out for and people who will try to take advantage of me and other foreigners. But, this is all part of the adventure for me and not a big deal.

Can I come visit?

Absolutely, but you’re going to need a Chinese visa, which costs around $100+ and the flights aren’t the cheapest, but if you’re all good with that, then you’re more than welcome to come over to Haikou and soak in the local scene.

Will you be coming back to the U.S. at all over the next year?

At this point I’m not sure what my future travel back to the U.S. will look like, but I’m sure I’ll be back at least once or twice to visit in 2017.

Do you really think you can learn Mandarin?

Yep, I do and I’m going to put a lot of time and effort into learning it over the next year. I know it’s one of the hardest to learn, but I love learning languages and I feel good about my odds at this point. But, let’s see how I feel a few months from now. 🙂

Does this mean you’re going to buy more clothes?

What, you mean that one pair of jeans isn’t enough? I haven’t really put much thought into this, but for now I’m going to keep things simple and hold off on adding to my minimal wardrobe.

Do they have hummus in China?

I’ve never eaten hummus in China, but that’s probably due to the fact that I was usually occupied with eating all of the delicious dumplings, noodles, and veggies. But, if I’m there for a year I will definitely need to find a place to get my hummus fix. I’ll keep you updated.

My classes start in February

Well, this is my plan and my classes will officially start on February 6th, so I’ll be speaking some Chinese in no time. If you have any other questions about what I’m up to and there will be no shortage of stories from this adventure, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me soon.