A little rebellion

Yep, someone has “borrowed” a public Ofo bike and taken it up the apartment block. And it’s not just pedal bikes I’ve seen go up in the lifts…

One thing I was very surprised about when I first started living in China was the little acts of rebellion and ‘rule-blindness’. Sometimes I don’t think it’s intentional – for example, obtaining a license for the road was once extremely easy and did not require much of a test at all – but sometimes these little rebel moments clearly are. For example,  not everyone rides with a license, because if you’re caught speeding and you have a license you can be fined. If you don’t have a license… Well, the idea is that it’s a bit harder to slap a fine on you.

Huh.

And I don’t think a lack of license gives an excuse to go through red traffic lights and drive directly against traffic whilst walking your dog.

Going backwards

When I talk about rebellion I’m not talking about fully fledged rule breaking. In fact, this area of China seems to be very peaceful. But it’s more like the little things like if a sign tells you not to do it…

Chances are, people are still doing it.

I’ve seen people sneak food and drinks (including alcohol) into cinemas and KTV (whilst speaking loudly into their phones), people jumping over ticket barriers and two ladies on a scooter, one with their arms out-stretched, holding a 4ft by 4ft cardboard in-between them, weaving through traffic.

I think a lot of this is all about saving money. I’ve spoken to many people who don’t like to pay for services they feel is not essential, which is exactly why they don’t bother to try and access certain western websites. And I can relate a bit. I’ve certainly snuck in food and drink in a cinema more than once in the UK. And I’ve seen people jump over ticket barriers in the UK plenty of times, too. (though I’ve seen some of them get caught and pinned down too.)

Perhaps my examples aren’t too good… Alas, I’m tired! But once you’re in China, you’ll understand what I mean.

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Starbucks in China

Dang it camera! Focus!

I’m kinda embarrassed to be yet another foreigner who can’t resist going to western chains in a foreign country.

Yeah, okay. I’ll admit it. Every now and then I go to Pizza Hut for a fancy dinner and Starbucks for a fancy cup of comfort while living in China. I enjoy eating out at various Chinese restaurants or snacking on Chinese bakery products, however every now and then when I miss home or need a de-stress from a difficult day, I find myself wandering into an American coffee chain.

Many western chains seem to have adapted well to Chinese culture. For example, KFC’s menu in China is famous for having successfully adapted to Chinese tastes while still satisfying western tourists and immigrants, while burger chains like Mc Donalds and Burger King serve items that are simply unrecognisable to westerners like me.

Starbucks on the other hand seems pretty standard. They serve the usual coffee with the same Italian words underneath Chinese characters. One of the main differences is that many drinks are available both hot and cold, which means you get to enjoy a delicious iced hot chocolate during the summer period. The coffee served at Starbucks is also somewhat sweeter than what UK residents will be used to. (In general, bitter coffee is hard to find in this region of China. Sweet is a favoured flavour in food and drink.)

I was expecting to see various fruit teas which seem to be very popular elsewhere, but then again now that I think about it, Starbucks doesn’t seem to attempt to compete with established Chinese favourites. After all, you don’t go to Starbucks for your dragon fruit bubble tea, you go to Starbucks to get your overdose of caffeine.

Usually there is at least one Starbucks staff on duty that can take your order in English, at least from what I’ve experienced. The quality of the coffee is very good and while it is expensive, because a lot of other aspects of living in China is cheaper than what we’d expect in the UK, the coffee is slightly more affordable as a weekly treat. I enjoy the Starbucks’ specials the most, such as their toffee nut coffee, which was incredible. Unfortunately, I can’t find a photo of the coffee and the Christmas period is now over. Photos of coffee are a little boring though, so I don’t blame my past self for not bothering.

I have noticed that this particular chain of Starbucks sells some stunning cups and glasses that I’ve often been tempted to purchase for friends and family members. Their items are pricey but the quality is strong and the mermaid collection during a summer month was particularly beautiful. Somehow I resisted, worried that they’d break on the long trip home.

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We didn’t quite manage to resist their Christmas collections. Friends who know me well may guess which one I now happen to own.

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The desserts are also charming and I recommend taking a look during a festive period when they are very special and tasty. Though of course, expect Chinese flavours in many of these desserts, like sweet red bean. International croissants are also available and I personally think the food you can purchase at a Chinese Starbucks chains is better than the taste-like-fridge-costs-a-mortgage sandwich you can purchase in a UK Starbucks chain.

Preparing for a Student Production – TEFL Nightmare #2

Just when I thought all had returned to calm…

My kindergarten is very keen on giving parents an opportunity to see their child display their English talents. Only recently did we have parents follow their children during a whole morning, only to leave them in the afternoon causing them to cry for a solid half an hour after. The students felt an enormous amount of pressure during the day and some very strong English speakers remained very quiet under the eyes of their parents.

Despite my negativity we did receive good feedback from the parents and in all honesty it wasn’t too bad. The lessons went well and we did manage to have a good time. However, the Chinese teachers are once again showing similar signs of stress regarding the children’s upcoming end of semester production and it absolutely must be perfect. Because all children are naturally perfect, confident and fluent second language speakers, right?

Normal classes are off the register and now we must intensely practice two songs that they already know, accompanied by dance they can already perform, for two weeks.

The students are mad bored and us English-native-speakers are losing respect and discipline in the class. It is frustrating to say the least. They are not learning any new English – in fact, this obsession with perfection in how you appear to be is detrimental to the children’s education.

It’s sad really. I often pass children being made to pose a certain way by the parents and many students are very conscious of what they look like and what they wear from such a young age. Could the majority of their childhood photos be staged? Just like the majority of selfies that are taken throughout social events I’ve attended here? Doesn’t that take away from the magic and realism of life? Doesn’t that make life seem a bit empty? A bit fake?

Also, my students are at different levels. The ones who struggle are not stupid or incapable – they’re just at a different stage of development and all show strong capabilities in various talents and fields. I hate to think of the pressure that these students and the overachievers will be going through in their lives.

Finally… It is difficult to find a way to make the two songs they have to practice 3 hours a day exciting and fresh. These students have now learnt to say ‘no’ and refuse to join in.

I don’t blame them. I would be sick of jumping like a frog every 15 minutes too.

Teaching Open Day in China as a TEFL Teacher

My Christmas in Hong Kong

There were quite a few photos to sort through!

Christmas is never going to be perfect when you’re away from family. I dearly missed spending the day with my family by my side with their fantastic humour and warm spirits, while spoiling myself on delicious yorkshire puddings and smooshing them in gravy. Can you believe that Australians do not even have yorkshire puddings?! I’ve no idea why the puds remained only in Britain.

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However Hong Kong was fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed my time. I booked a holiday with my partner and a couple of friends and I have no regrets going all out for the holiday from the Friday to Christmas Day, including booking a nice hotel by the gold coast and visiting two famous holiday parks  –  Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park. Although it had recently became cold, summer came back for the festive weekend in a glorious way. It was hot – but not the kind of heat to make you wilt, just enough to allow you to feel comfortable in a tshirt throughout the day.

Before I went to Hong Kong I stayed a night in Shenzhen to attend a compulsory party from my TEFL agency. The party itself wasn’t too bad, although the audience was very rude and talked through the acts, including an act by a talented musician who patiently asked the audience to quiet down in order for them to hear their own instrument, and a group of young Chinese students performing a play. As soon as the awkward hosts attempted to run a pub quiz we were out of there. We grabbed the free umbrellas and ran.

On that night we stayed in a lovely hotel in Shenzhen that was surprisingly very affordable, despite booking it subtly during the party a few hours before. The hotel had a beautiful lotus theme that was absolutely stunning from the reception, to the dining area to the room itself. I would certainly like to stay in this hotel again if I happen to spend another night in Shenzhen.

The hotel also came with a free help yourself breakfast, with delicious noodles, cake (you really can eat cake for breakfast in Guangdong) and char sui bao, which if you’ve been keeping up with the blog is one of my favourite things to eat in China. What a lovely start to what was going to be a hectic and full on day.

I personally think that the underground metro system in Shenzhen is very good. The stations are located in useful areas, the maps are easy to read and both the stations and the trains themselves are very clean. I am an infrequent user but the journeys I have taken on the trains have been pleasant and I am happy to see that there are many staff members around. These people have been happy to give advice on which trains to get on and I have also seen them board and patrol trains for security as well assist fellow passengers should they need help or have become unwell.

In the UK the London underground can feel quite dirty and security can sometimes be a problem. I dearly love the London underground, but it is interesting to see how things are different elsewhere and sometimes, better.

Security is also heightened in the stations and if you want to board a metro train you will need to put your belongings through airport-style security and have your water bottles tested. You may also be occasionally asked to be scanned, airport-style too. I personally don’t mind this and it doesn’t take much time at all. It’s all very swift and efficient, and hardly any queues even during busy times.

The metro is also very affordable from a visitor perspective, however I cannot comment on the perspective of a local in Shenzhen. It is easy for foreigners to buy a single journey ticket to your destination. Just find a machine, tap on ‘English’, then tap on the desired station you wish to travel to. Like most machines and counters, you cannot use your card so you’ll need to have cash at hand. These machines do not accept high value notes, so you will need your 5 yuan, your 10 yuan and sometimes your 20 yuan notes. They do not accept 1 yuan notes either, but they will accept 1 yuan coins which you can receive more commonly in commercial areas in Shenzhen than you can in Zhongshan.

Finally, the small group and I made it to the border crossing which is helpfully one of the metro stations you can take from Shenzhen.

The train did not take long at all, however it took 3 hours to get through the border control, due to unimaginable large quantities of people. It was incredibly draining and time was ticking. After all, we only had a full weekend and had to leave back to Zhongshan on Christmas day itself!

Hong Kong

We originally planned to take a train half way to our hotel but after strong encouragement from the Hong Kong staff members, we ended up agreeing to take two busses, one to the centre of Hong Kong, another that took us directly outside our hotel. We were a little unsure of how to find either of the busses and found ourselves getting rather lost at first. Some of the directions we received were contrasting which made it all the more confusing. Time was ticking and our stomachs were rumbling. At some point we stopped for lunch which was actually just what we needed.

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Goodness me I didn’t realise how much I missed jacket potatoes!! We found a lovely cafe that had ‘sandwich’ in its name. I don’t remember, but the food was very affordable yet high quality. After the break and a bit more effort we found our second bus to the hotel.

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Our hotel was called ‘The Golden Coast Hotel’ and was suited to upmarket guests. It had pleasant features such as fancy fountains, a swimming pool, a gym and funky glass/mirror lifts. The rooms were huge and the views they offered were staggering. It was so nice to spend each morning just watching outside the window, following the little boats and the big cruise-liners cross the sea. The hotel was only 2 minutes away from the beach and it was magical spending Christmas day with both my feet sunk in the sand.

The hotel was very comfortable and I could only dream of being able to spend another weekend there again… (Anyone feeling generous??)  The hotel also did a great buffet which featured all kinds of food; bakery products, dumplings, noodles, cereal, fresh fruit, cheese sausages, real bacon, baked beans, sweets, jams, potato… Well, that’s all the stuff I can remember trying to fit onto my plate. If you happen to visit the Gold Coast Hotel make sure you get a package with the breakfast included.

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After checking in at the hotel we went straight to the Disneyland Resort. We took a 40 minute taxi that only cost about £15 split between five passengers. Hong Kong Disneyland offered a two day ticket that was only 60 or something Hong Kong dollars more than their single day ticket, so we visited the park on two consecutive days, Saturday the 23rd and Christmas Eve.

On the Saturday the park was jaw-droppingly empty. The queues for rides were minimal and I was staggered by how easy it was to get around. I was expecting vast amounts of crowds Asia is famous for but we suffered none of that at all. The only time crowds impacted the day was during a night show parade where thousands of visitors lined up on the roads to watch the show. It got crowded when the parade was over, but how can one really complain about that?

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I’m not actually that much of a Disney fan. Sure I enjoy some of their films, but I don’t enjoy the whole Mickey Mouse thing, nor am I a roller-coaster junky. But for Christmas, I enjoyed the whole cheerfulness that the Hong Kong Disneyland resort could give me and the group I travelled with. There was festive music everywhere – not the annoying cheesy stuff, but actual decent music, some of it live and played by professional players such as jazz or brass bands. The staff were pretty friendly – some of them were looking a bit too happy, their large smiles creepily empty – and could easily answer any questions we had.

The rides that I did attend were also pretty cool. I didn’t expect to enjoy rides such as the Mystic Manor – which took you through a manor that was ‘cursed’ due to the mischief of a fez wearing monkey. There was also a fun river boat tour which was epic during the night, with random flames appearing at certain parts which were strong enough for you to feel the burst of heat.

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I also tried out the ‘Iron Man Experience’ which frankly, was pretty stark and lame. You wear these stupid ‘Stark vision’ glasses and watch a typical marvel clip with an empty villain. After visiting a planetarium in San Francisco last year my standards for 3d immersion has ‘gone through the roof’. But the safety video before hand involved a surprise Stan Lee, so that was entertaining.

I think that one of my top experiences in Disney was not a ride but an event called the ‘Festival of the Lion King’. The story line was fun and it was interesting to see how they ensured the story was understandable for both Chinese and English speakers. The music and singing was of high quality and the fight scene with Scar was epic, with talented firedancers and other special effects. There were also Chinese subtitles available but it would have been cool (and not difficult to implement) if there were English subtitles too.

From the feedback of my friends who did attend the roller-coasters – they were of very high quality, as long as you had the stomach for it. The Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Train was the definite favourite, which left friends hyped up for a solid hour afterwards. The scenery around the mine train ride was beautiful.

Yup, we see that UK flag over there.

One of the weird thing I like about these kind of parks is admiring the efforts they make on the surroundings and Hong Kong Disneyland did not disappoint. The scenery for each region of the park is distinct and well themed. Naturally our favourite region was the adventure world which contained random fire torches lit up in various places and jungle aesthetic. I couldn’t quite catch that on my camera but oh well. Another excuse to visit again later, right?

On Christmas Eve the park was busier but it was still not uncomfortable so. According to sources on the Internet, Hong Kong Disneyland isn’t as crowded as the other Disney parks, however on Christmas Day they had to prevent guests from entering because it was overwhelmed with visitors. We didn’t have any such problems, luckily. Before we left the park on the second day we stayed behind for the fireworks. We already enjoyed watching them the day before, but because we knew they were good we stayed once again. The fireworks were extraordinary, and followed the music well. Mulan made a cinematic appearance on the castle itself and as you heard swords clash large plumes of fire burst from the castle. It was a very entertaining display and one of the last opportunities to watch it, as the routine will be permanently changed to a Frozen theme in the new year.

As we left the park, Disneyland gave us one last surprise.

It snowed.

It was enchanting and heart warming to see cold snow fall from the sky. It fell on our heads, covered the trees and market roofs. It was a nice send off and a magical occasion. I would definitely recommending taking a look at Hong Kong Disneyland for Christmas.

Oceanpark

But the adventure didn’t stop there, and on Christmas Day itself we made our way to Oceanpark, known for its mix of roller-coasters and animal exhibits. As someone from the UK it blows my mind that you can get a metro train and arrive exactly to where you intend to go. Can you imagine getting a train straight to the entrance of Longleat Park, Legoland or Colchester Zoo?

It was so easy to find the metro and take it straight to Oceanpark and surprisingly, the queues were minimal to enter the park itself. We first made our way to the aquarium which did take sometime, around 40 – 45 minutes to enter, but it was worth the wait and we knew they’d be some queuing to do on a commercial and busy day.

Once we entered the aquarium we had plenty of room to view the exhibits and I appreciated that it wasn’t crowded inside. I had some concerns about what the animal welfare might be like, but most of the exhibits were very large and staff seemed concerned to remind visitors to keep their voices down when viewing sensitive animals or turning off flash when taking pictures. The rays were easily the star of the show and were a metre long, excluding their tails.

The other fish in the exhibit was cool but come on... It's a ray!

I’m not a fan of jellyfish but I have to admit they were rather dazzling to see and there was also sharks and other fish to look at and admire. The one fault of the aquarium was the disappointing size of the octopi exhibits which I hope they improve on in due time.

There is enough on this planet for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed

The aquarium also had a very pro-conservation attitude sharing video clips of various fishing practises and explaining their impact amongst other things. Each animal exhibit had a ‘how you can help’ section which encouraged recycling, purchasing fish caught in a certain way and avoiding some fish altogether. I thought that was cool.

After the aquarium we went straight to the pandas. After all, that’s why I demanded that we go to Ocean Park.

What, you thought it was for the fish?

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Ho ho ho.

I really, really like pandas. I’ve always wanted to see one in real life and I knew that being in China I was so much closer to achieving my goal. I have been considering visiting Shenzhen Zoo, however I heard that they still may have performing animals and that’s definitely not something I’m interested in seeing. Chengdu is meant to be one of the best places to see the pandas as the city has a dedicated panda breeding and research program, however although Chengdu is also in the south west of China it’s about an 18 hour drive on a good day, or a two hour plane. Hong Kong provided a nice, easier alternative and what better day than to complete a life goal that on Christmas day itself?

We queued to see the pandas at around 2ish and we had to wait through a 15 minute queue to get into the exhibit. The staff reminded all visitors to be quiet using the international ‘shh’ sign.

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Finally, there in front of me was the giant panda. I was so happy to see it, and clearly it was so happy to see me. In the first two minutes the panda decided to empty its lunch on the rocks you see below its butt.

I was expecting the panda to remain in this position. Pandas are known to be lazy, after all. However, just as my phone nearly ran out of memory, the panda moved around its exhibit, almost like a gorilla, it was fascinating to watch it patrol its ground.

It seemed to enjoy climbing on the rocks and the wooden frames in the exhibit. It also itched its back like you’d expect of a regular bear which was kinda funny to watch. I had the chance to return to the exhibit a couple of hours later and watched it munch on bamboo which was equally awesome. There were two pandas in separate exhibits close to each other, both with beautifully decorated scenery that the pandas seem to make the most of. There was also a red panda exhibit and they were seriously cute too.

Red Panda Exhibit

When you pass the pandas you don’t go straight back to the main section of the park. Instead, you follow a beautiful ‘traditional’ stoned path with hanging red fish and an otter display. I loved seeing the otters, but unfortunately we had other exhibits we wanted to see and had to get back to the Zhongshan on the same day! I’d love to return and watch the otters for longer next time.

Afterwards, you walk through a goldfish exhibit which was really fascinating. There was a particular display that showed you how goldfish evolved to how they are today, displaying their ancestors and the first strains of goldfish into the common goldfish. You can also read explanations in English about how to identify various goldfish which again, I didn’t quite have time to read but it looked interesting.

After that, I spend way too long in the panda shop.

Sorry everyone.

I came out with a panda tshirt which I have been obsessively wearing since alongside my stitch tshirt I got from disneyland. I also brought a beautiful panda box that has actually tasty shortbread biscuits which I intend to be my new art box, and it was surprisingly very affordable too. Truly, the panda shop was a dangerous place to be for a panda fan.

After that we looked for the Australian exhibit but we couldn’t easily find it so we skipped it and went to the cable cars. I’ve never been on a cable car before, so while everyone else were like ‘meh’, I was like ‘AHH, WHOOOA, WHY HAVE WE STOPPED, OH THE SCENERY!’. It was probably like taking a 5 year old, but hey I was still buzzing from seeing a giant panda.

The cable cart did take some time… Turns out they’re not the fastest of things and you kinda need to take the cable cart in order to get to 50% of the park. We didn’t have time to see the arctic foxes (seriously, I’m going here again in 2018) nor the other polar themed exhibits but one of us did get to ride on ‘The Dragon’ which seemed pretty funky and had a couple of loop-de-loops.

On the cable cart back I was able to video call my Mum and brother which was very special to me. The free wifi in the park was surprisingly good, despite being so many feet up in the air on a mountain.

After a quick last peek at the pandas it was time to leave Oceanpark and return to Zhongshan, where I live. Turns out our ferry wasn’t too far away from the station. We collected our tickets that we pre-ordered online (through WeChat, of course) and boarded the ferry.

It was so, so easy to board even as a foreigner who can not speak or read much Mandarin. I get travel sick and I did feel a bit nauseous on the last half of the journey, but I should have had the wisdom by now to not drink a cup full of hot chocolate just before travelling. The journey took 1 and a half hours and then we needed only a short taxi ride to our local district. I would definitely travel by ferry again and would take my family to Zhongshan by ferry from Hong Kong if they ever wanted to visit. No stress, no fuss and very affordable.

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In 2017 we made the most of our Christmas abroad and had a wonderful time in Hong Kong. The weather was incredible and though I don’t intend to miss out on seeing my family for Christmas ever again, it was for sure a Christmas to remember.

One Month Old!

This blog is now just over a month old!

It’s been lovely to receive the occasional feedback from friends and family, I can only hope it is still interesting to look through. I plan to keep the blog going at a fairly regular pace, though I reckon it may slow down during the upcoming semester break as I travel. (More content for the blog later though!)

Once further posts have been published I plan to change the layout to emphasise the categories further.

I want to talk further about my experiences and tips for teaching as a TEFL teacher, my travels in China and past travels elsewhere and my attempts to pick up some Mandarin. I have about 30 ideas for new blog posts, but I reckon as I look through my recent holiday photos I may have a few more.

If you enjoy the blog, do let me know your thoughts.

How Christmas was Nearly Cancelled

I took a good look online for a 100% honest and trustworthy agency for TEFL teachers in China. I don’t think they exist.

I had a lovely Christmas but my goodness, the days leading up to it were stressful. My partner and I had decided to leave our apartment to visit the beach and holiday parks in Hong Kong, which is only an hour and a half away by ferry. We love our local area but we wanted a change of scenery for the holidays, and Hong Kong offers some staggering views.

We are both TEFL teachers and our specialist from our TEFL agency in the area promised, yes, that’ll be fine. Have a lovely holiday. Yadda, yadda. Our agency is responsible for all of our legal documents. Turns out of course, that they forgot to renew them. Oh, it won’t be a problem, they say. It will only take a couple of days, they say.

That’s fine, if they didn’t make a costly mistake on filling out these vital documents incorrectly in the first place. As they were incorrect, the usual procedure is to redo the documents all over again. Yeah. That means applying for a new visa from scratch. Something you need for working in China is an up to date criminal record check from your respective country. The agency were sure to tell us to get them asap before we left, so we did. Now they’ve expired, so it’d be impossible to sort out in China. We’d have to go back to the UK.

Christmas flop

The agency ended up having to ‘plead with the people in charge’ to make an exception.  We had already booked our main hotel, and ended up being in limbo about whether or not we should cancel it in order to get a refund in time. Would our agency compensate us for our financial loss? Nah. We were sure they wouldn’t. This agency has been quick to blame others for their mistakes.

So we didn’t book transport to get to Hong Kong, neither did we book a hotel in Shenzhen (where we had to attend a compulsory ‘party’ which was a load of rubbish, of course). We didn’t want to waste further money and it didn’t look like it was going to work out.

Turns out, we received our passports the day before we left to Shenzhen. The plead was accepted.

But what troubles me is that…

A) Three fellow colleagues did not receive their passports in time, so had to spend Christmas in Zhongshan despite concrete plans to travel.

B) The agency knew that the procedure for renewing documents had changed.

C) The agency should have sorted out this situation in October.

D) We lost money as we could not book transport and the Shenzhen hotel in advance.

E) We found out that there was a problem through second hand information, not by the agency themselves until days later.

F) If the plead didn’t go well we would have to leave China. What would happen then? We’d do the entire process all over again? We’d have to go back to the UK in order to repurchase a CRB check, as well as pay and travel to notarise and authenticate it. No thank you! Of course, the agency would have to pay for this (unless they went 100% loopy, which might be possible?), and while I would absolutely love a free trip home, it would severely damage the children’s education and create tension between the Chinese teachers and foreign teachers, ultimately making it a negative place to work when we’d get back. Not only that, but we’d have to take all our things home, in the possibility that we wouldn’t be able to get back!!

Teaching Open Day in China as a TEFL Teacher

I’m also frustrated because I didn’t have time to do everything I wanted to do. I wanted to plan the trip, get excited about it, schedule all these video calls I wanted to have with friends and family, buy a Christmas jumper – that kinda stuff. But while Hong Kong was brilliant, I was so tired from all the stress leading up to the event that I simply didn’t have the energy or ‘Christmas spirit’ I was hoping on.

To all my friends who have been wondering where I’ve disappeared to – I hope that explains it a bit.

At some point soon, once I’ve uploaded all the photos I’d like to talk about my adventures in Hong Kong in detail. But I also think it’s important to remember the not so great experiences too.

Free or Affordable Online Resources for Learning Chinese

There are tons available – But which ones actually help?

Before arriving into China I was able to spare a short time practising Chinese Mandarin through various apps on my phone. Some mobile apps taught me basic sentence structures but offered me no practical vocabulary, some were intimidating and over-complex, and others taught outdated and unused Chinese phrases. Gah!

Holding a phone

Let’s face it, for Android the app store can be somewhat of a mess full of untrustworthy and childish reviews and dodgy apps. I’m not sure if the Istore or equivalent for a Windows phone is any better either, however I can only confidentially write with an Android perspective as that is what I own.

I currently live in Guangdong province and while there are many, many varieties of Chinese that are natively spoken, I decided to try my hand at Mandarin as many of the locals know at least some Mandarin even if it’s not their first language. These are the online resources that I found most helpful.

Learn Chinese Free – ChineseSkill

LearnChinese
Learn Chinese while the panda stares down at your soul.

One of the first mobile apps I downloaded was Learn Chinese Free – ChineseSkill. Like most language learning apps, they throw Chinese/English at you and you have to select the correct answer – whether that is a Chinese – English translation, a Chinese – Pinyin translation or either of the two vice versa. ChineseSkill follows this average formula well but does annoyingly give you four lives during each ‘level’, which means if you make mistakes four times you have to restart it all over again.

Generally I dislike this learning formula as it forces you to learn in a linear structure. You can’t skip learning colours in order to learn food for example. This also means that a topic which may not appeal for you will feel particularly grinding. However, with ChineseSkill and a few other apps, I cannot deny that I have learnt some useful Chinese and alongside reading, watching Chinese dramas online and other learning methods, these apps can benefit your language acquisition.

I particularly like ChineseSkill because it helped teach me some basic grammar points, such as using he/she/they/we/I correctly. Many of these apps will not do this which makes ChineseSkill a very useful app for beginners. Like with every other resource, use this app alongside others.

Skills you can learn:

  • Reading Chinese characters ✔
  • Writing Chinese characters ✔
  • Chinese Pinyin ✔
  • Listening skills ✔
  • Speaking skills ✔

Note: Chinese Skill does offer ‘Premium Lessons’ but I have not investigated this at all. The free content you get will last a very long time.

Hello Chinese

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Learn Chinese as Confucius stares into your soul.

Hello Chinese is a great free to use app with optional paid for content should you wish to support the app developers. Each ‘topic’ you learn contains some useful notes which are carefully and honestly written, some of which give you useful cultural context. However, it does stick to the usual formula of forcing you down a tree of topics you may or may not be interested about. You aren’t stuck with lives however, so as long as you plough through you will be able to complete lessons quicker.

Completing various topics will earn you coins you can spend on the game of the day, allowing you to practice various language skills from reading to listening, to writing and speaking. I think these games are generally great and would consider going Premium to unlock full access. One of the downsides of this app is while it does release many, many useful looking podcasts that explain Chinese culture and help you listen to conversations played by Chinese actors, if you are in China you generally cannot access them as they are released on Youtube.

Overall, HelloChinese is a user friendly app that on the surface looks a little less intimidating than ChineseSkill. I highly suggest downloading both.

Skills you can learn:

  • Reading Chinese characters ✔
  • Writing Chinese characters ✔
  • Chinese Pinyin ✔
  • Listening skills ✔
  • Speaking skills ✔

Du Chinese

Du Chinese
This app told me about the melon seed face shape, amongst other things.

Du Chinese is a brilliant app that is regularly updated with new, fresh and relevant topics to read and listen to. I have followed the adventures of Little Ming, Ben and other characters as I read and listen to little extracts of their lives with some excellent cultural references to help understand China a little more.

For example, Du Chinese recently released a topic with Ben, (an American native) who discusses how Christmas is celebrated in China with his Chinese friend. It was very interesting both as a practical way of learning Chinese and by understanding some of the culture too.

Du Chinese categorise  hundreds of extracts they call ‘lessons’ into levels of difficulty including a kind ‘Newbie’ level for total beginners which I’ve enjoyed. Each lesson displays both Chinese characters and Pinyin, though you have the option to turn off the Pinyin should you wish. Perhaps more importantly, you can highlight any character you want for a translation, as well as receive whole sentence translations. This means you can access both word for word ‘literal’ translations and understood the true contextual meaning of the sentence. If you’re keen to remember certain characters you can add them to your own personal dictionary, as well as search for characters yourself with their own dictionary. Useful!

You do need to pay for their premium service to access the majority of their lessons but they release new, free lessons on such a regular basis that free members can still thoroughly enjoy the app. Of all apps I’ve used, Du Chinese is one of my favourite tools for practising my reading and I highly recommend it.

Skills you can learn:

  • Reading Chinese characters ✔
  • Chinese Pinyin ✔
  • Listening skills ✔

Memrise

Memrise is a diverse website and app that offers hundreds of learning and revision programmes including Chinese Mandarin. Memrise does allow for user-generated content, however I recommend taking a look at the official Chinese programmes Memrise offers. Memrise offers a few different Chinese lessons at varying levels including a solid programme for total beginners.

Memrise is not a great app to use by itself – but then, you’re not really meant to use just one tool to learn a language. The magic of Memrise lives partially in the name – Memrise is one of your sources for revision. The app does very well at tracking your strong and weak points. It will help you with both character recognition, listening skills and pinyin reading skills.

I do not recommend Memrise for total beginners, but it’s a good and useful app to have and I personally enjoy my Memrise account.

Skills you can learn:

  • Reading Chinese characters ✔
  • Chinese Pinyin ✔
  • Listening skills ✔

DuoLingo

Duolingo
Learn characters without learning their meaning until a couple lessons later while the green owl stares endlessly at your soul.

DuoLingo is a leading player in online language learning and revision and features an impressive number of free language programmes. At the time of writing users can access all of the DuoLingo content with the option of paying to remove a few ads that aren’t really bothersome at all.

I have enjoyed using DuoLingo to learn and revise my French skills, as well as other European languages. However, I have not found so much success with non-Latin based languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. DuoLingo hasn’t quite mastered teaching languages that has new characters to learn and total beginners will definitely find the programmes that DuoLingo offer very intimidating.

Can DuoLingo improve your Chinese skills? If you are not fluent, definitely. But if you’re a total beginner, give this app a miss until you are confident with basic sentences and grammar.

Skills you can learn:

  • Reading Chinese characters ✔
  • Chinese Pinyin ✔
  • Listening skills ✔

Italki

 

Learning a language takes time, commitment and bravery. You need to learn and repeat words and phrases, no matter how puzzling the grammar may seem and you need to use it on a day to day basis with native people. I find it difficult to practice that last one, but it truly is the best and fastest method of learning. At the end of the day, no matter how much time or money you spend on an app or online resource, you will never become fluent until you speak with natives.

Italki is an online business which allows you to order language lessons directly from a fluent (and native) teacher. The prices for these online lessons are very affordable and many teachers offer a discounted first lesson which can reduce the feeling of risk.

I do have an Italki account myself and if you decide to give a lesson ago and follow the link we both get $10 dollars worth of credit. (Yippee!) But even if you decide to make an account and not pay for the lessons, you can still benefit from the articles the website features. I enjoyed reading about describing body shapes in Chinese, because often my Chinese friends describe their shapes (and their worries about it) openly.

Skills you can learn:

  • Listening skills ✔
  • Speaking skills ✔

Future Learn

Cultural context is very important for achieving fluency in a language and the Chinese language is full of cultural references. For example, phrases like ‘People Sea, People Mountain’ might not make immediate sense to a Westerner, however this is a phrase Chinese Mandarin speakers may use to describe crowded areas such as the local transport or a busy tourist destination.

Future Learn offers hundreds upon hundreds of free lessons often created by universities and their professors. It’s always worth taking a look at the website now and again to see if there may be a course that interests you. As you go through the lessons you can comment with your opinions and ideas, as well as ask any questions you may have. I have ended up socialising with other Chinese language learners as well as interacted with TEFL teachers like myself.

Skills you can learn:

  • Cultural context ✔
  • Language skills, if there is a specific Mandarin lesson available ✔

In conclusion…

So far, these are my favourite free/affordable resources for learning Chinese Mandarin, but I’m sure there’s many other helpful websites and apps I’ve overlooked or haven’t found yet. Of course, there are many ways to watch Chinese dramas online which can be very helpful (and entertaining) as well as hundreds and hundreds of other more academic-y education-y stuff that I suppose is great and all that.

Do make sure the website you’re learning from is legit though, as some websites do not know what they’re talking about and are there to grab you from the search engine straight to their advertisers. Others try to snag you into making a free account with aims to spam your email box and encourage you to subscribe to a premium service that may or may not blow your mind.

If you stumble upon this as a wannabe Chinese-Mandarin language learner, do leave a comment about your progress and thoughts. Otherwise, Mum, if you’re reading this – Hi!!! Hope it’s not too chilly in the UK. x0x0x0x0