For two years, from June 2012 to June 2014, I lived in a rural town called Taigu in northern central China as part of the Oberlin Shansi Fellowship Program. Affectionately dubbed “The ‘Gu” by its inhabitants (aka only the six foreigners living there), Taigu was a magical, although sometimes crazy place to live. It was especially great for language learning, as absolutely nobody speaks English there. I went into my two years in China with approximately zero hours of Mandarin language study, and I came out completely unafraid to speak to anyone. This does not mean that I am in any way a master of Chinese – I am far from fluent. But, I am now able to communicate anything and everything that I wanted to say, even if I don’t know half the words, because all my inhibitions regarding language (feeling embarrassed about speaking, not wanting to make mistakes, not knowing the words) have completely disappeared. And once that happens, there is nothing that can stop you!
In the beginning, though, communicating was kind of rough. I was probably only getting about 20% of what people were saying around me, I couldn’t do any sort of talking on the telephone, and god forbid that someone just randomly come up and talk to me in the middle of the street because I really didn’t do well with being caught off guard. That being said…there was always a part of the conversation that I could understand, because whenever Chinese people would talk to me, it would always come up that I was not Chinese. And this was how they would react: