Alex on studying at a Chinese school in Shanghai
GoEast student profile
Name: Alex Gibson
Nationality: United Kingdom
Time in China: 2 years
Chinese Level: HSK4
Other languages: English (native)
GoEast teacher: Kathy Meng 孟洋
Campus: French Concession in Shanghai
Favorite Chinese phrase: 授人以鱼不如授人以渔 Shòu rén yǐ yú bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú. (Teach a man how to fish, don’t give a man a fish.)
Why did you come to Shanghai, China?
I wanted to study Chinese history, but in order to do so I had to learn Chinese — so I thought the best place to do it would be in China. And I chose Shanghai because it’s the most modern place. At the moment I’m teaching English to kids, 3 to 16-year-olds. Big range.
Were you always interested in Chinese history?
Not at the beginning. First, my idea was to study Russian history, like communism. But I hated the person who taught Russian history. It was the whole “choose your lecturer, not your subject”. So there was a lecturer who was really good and she taught Chinese history. So I ended up focusing on Chinese history and I fell in love with it. I did my master’s in Chinese studies and decided to move here.
Did you know any Chinese language before you arrived?
Only the very basic stuff. When I first got to Shanghai in 2017, my Chinese was non-existent. I could talk to a 3-year-old but wouldn’t understand most of the things they said.
I did Chinese history, literature, and a bit of language for my master’s degree. Modern Chinese literature mainly in the 20th century. China changes so fast, so every 10 years it’s like totally different literature. I’m terrible at literature but I did love the books that I got to read. I like the new sensationists in the 1930s. So it was them looking at the city–they fell in love with the city. Like the city’s kind of a monster, a dream. I really like the new sensationists because they looked at how China was changing, going from almost a medieval country in lots of places to really modern society.
How are your Chinese language studies at GoEast going?
I think good? Not perfect but I’ve got great teachers. I can always practice with the people I work with because I work with a lot of Chinese people as well. They’ll just ask me questions throughout the day in Chinese, rather than first asking in English. If I don’t understand, then they’ll use English.
What advice do you have for people who are just starting to learn Chinese language at school?
You have to practice. It’s horrible, cause you do feel embarrassed, but the only way to really improve is practice. I’ve got friends who don’t really do any actual proper learning but because they constantly keep talking, they do improve quite quick. Their reading and writing is worthless but their speaking is quite good, cause they constantly practice it. I’m good with the writing and reading but as soon as I have to talk, you just get embarrassed.
What do you want to do when your Chinese language skills improve?
I’d love to do a PhD, doing like oral history. So, it’s like, I need to be not just good. I need to be able to understand 80-year-olds. And I know how bad that is cause I can go to England and talk to an 80- or 90-year-old and be like, “I have no clue what he’s saying.”
With a few of my friends, every now and again, I’ve gone to their hometown. One of my friends, I talked to his grandma and it’s hard, but I did understand a good majority of it. She was just telling me about her life. Like, she married some soldier and went to Beijing and then her nightlife in Beijing and that. So it’s really interesting. I love talking about those stories.
How do you practice your Chinese language skills?
Just talk to as many people as you can. When you’ve got coworkers who are Chinese and you’ve got nothing to do over like Chinese New Year or anything, they probably will want to invite you. Go. Some of these people have never even met a foreigner before so they love that you speak Chinese. Even if you’re terrible, they love speaking to you in Chinese. I remember getting really really drunk and just talking to people in Chinese. It was totally wrong, incorrect, and everything, but you’re practicing. And the food was really good as well. It’s a good way to practice Chinese and eat a lot of food.