Tag Archives: chinese

10 Ways to Relax like a Local Expat in Beijing


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Tourists in Beijing often prioritize visiting places like the Great Wall and Forbidden city. They have good reason to. These are not only beautiful attractions in their own right, but also emblematic of China.

However a lot of people don’t want to deal with the crowds or stress of traveling around and trying to check off every box on their Fodor’s travel guide. They want to experience the city as a local might.

This list is for those people.

We all love China. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that sometimes a guy has got to eat a slice of pizza and try to visualize he is anywhere else but here…in China.

Don’t judge me, OK?

1. Visit Wangfujing Bookstore and have a coffee above the Oriental Mall 


View From Starbucks at Jiangguomen Wai 

Location: 东城区王府井大街218
218 Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District

Wangfujing and its adjacent snack street filled with scorpions and fried shark fin is a great place for tourists. However, those whom live in Beijing prefer to skip all that and instead visit the Wangfujing Bookstore, located directly across from the snack street. The store has six floors of books, with the third floor containing English books as well as Chinese language learning materials (in case, you know, you want to be less helpless in the city).

After visiting the book store you may be tempted to try fried scorpion… Take my word for it, you can skip that. Instead, ride the escalator up to the office buildings above the Oriental Mall and have a coffee at one of the most underrated Starbucks in Beijing next to the Hyatt. This is a great place to get a view of Jianguomen Wai and some buildings beautiful examples of contemporary Chinese architecture. 

2. Eat pastries and drink coffee north of “The Village”


Pasticceria North of “The Village

Location: 三里屯北小街1
1 Sanlitun Beixiaojie

Sanlitun Village is the de-facto foreign quarter of Beijing. 

The reason for this being that it is surrounded by many embassies and is beside the city’s main business district. North of of the main area for restaurants and shops, called by many “The Village”, is a tidy corridor of cafes owned primarily by an Italian gentlemen who I have never met. Anyway, you can get meals there and, more importantly, eat sweets at the pasticceria while sipping a cappuccino.


3. Eat Nachos in Sanlitun Village

Location: 朝阳区三里屯路19号三里屯Village南区4号楼3S4-32
S4-32, 3/F, Bldg 4, Sanlitun Village South, 19 Sanlitun Lu Chaoyang District

Taikoonli is an upscale shopping center in Sanlitun Village, and is also home to a few restaurants that Expats swear by; one of which is called Cantina Agave and has some of the best Mexican food in town. Sure, Chinese food is good and all, but what self respecting traveller doesn’t enjoy a good dose of sour cream and guacamole from time to time?

4. Relax in Changping and Mentougou Districts  

Link (Mangshan National Park): http://www.ebeijing.gov.cn/feature_2/BeijingParks/BeijingParksA_Z/t1177019.htm

Tired of honking horns, screaming mothers, and heavy pollution? Well, Beijing’s mountains in the west of the city offer some of the best medicine for urban headaches. 

Completed in 2015, the Changping Line departs from Xierqi Station in Hadian and travels out into Beijing’s Changping District. The Dongguan subway stop provides access to Mangshan National Park nearby the Ming Tombs, which is a nice hour hike up to a pagoda. This is but one of the many options in Changping.

Another way to take advantage of the surrounding mountains is to ride Line 1 until you reach Pingguoyuan, the most western station. From there you can access Mentougou district, which is a popular area for villages and buddhist temples. One of the most famous Buddhist temples in Beijing, Tanzhesi, is located here.


Tanzhesi Temple

5. Relax With A Massage 

Location: 朝阳区工体北路17
17 Gongti Beilu Chaoyang District
Link: https://www.thebeijinger.com/directory/bodhi-therapeutic-retreat

Massages in China are considerably cheaper than in western countries. You should take advantage of this! Remember, you won’t be here forever. One of the most popular places to get a massage is at Bodhi in Sanlitun village. They offer a solid middle of the road option. 

6. Ride the Beijing Subway

Taxis are cheap in China. Yes, I know it. But you know what is even cheaper? The subway. It used to be that you could travel anywhere in the city for just 2 RMB. Now it’s gone up to a distance fare system where the most you pay is 7 RMB. Still, nobody is complaining.

7. Spend the Day at Ikea

The Swedish furniture importer is much more than a simple warehouse, it is also a place to sleep, hang out with friends, and eat. Chinese and foreigners alike enjoy going to Ikea on dates or just to kill time. Sound crazy? Well, some things you have to see to believe.

8. Bike Around the Hutongs Aimlessly 


Beijing is a city known for its history, and a big part of that is its traditional houses called hutongs. Although the hutongs are rapidly disappearing as the city pushes into modernity, there are still plenty to see (particularly within the second ring road).

If the hutongs are Beijing’s most famous style of architecture, than the same can be said for the bicycle mode of transportation. Although the time of everyone riding on two wheels has long since passed, it is still a very pleasant experience to cycle in Beijing as its an extremely flat city. Spend a day either alone or with a friend and get lost in some of Beijing’s old inner city. 

9. Eat barbecue and drink watery beer 


Kao Rou, Chinese For Barbecue

One of my first memories in Beijing was eating chuar (barbecue) and drinking watery yanjing beer late into the summer nights. During the winter this isn’t an option. But when the weather is still warm enough and you can get away with it, I highly recommend pulling up a plastic stool and ordering some roasted lamb and mantou bread. 

(I also recommend making sure that the restaurant you choose is at least halfway decent and that you are not going to eat anything questionable, such as rat or dog.)

10. Play Football in Chaoyang Park 

Location: 1 Nongzhan Nanlu, Chaoyang District

Beijing is an international city and so it is only fitting that it has a decent football scene (soccer for us Americans). Chaoyang Park is located just east of Sanlitun and holds five on five games on various nights of the week. This is a great way to let off some steam and keep sane. Sometimes all you need to fend off homesickness is a to work up a sweat with some friends.

What’s Up With This Sharing Economy Thing?

“What’s up with this sharing economy thing?” I say to my friend Mike as I stare at the line of beat-up yellow bicycles parked at the foot of my apartment building.

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“It’s kind of like an agreement. We all put in some money and then share something.” Mike gestures to the line of yellow bicycles. “It’s kind of like everyone in the city buys a bicycle, but doesn’t lock them.”

“I see. Still, it seems a little odd to me. There are so many of them now.”

“Yeah, I know. Seems like people really like to share when everyone benefits.”

I nod my head to Mike. I guess I can’t argue with that. It’s nice to be able to ride a bicycle in any part of the city and not worry if someone is going to steal it or not. When you have a good subway system and access to bicycles at every stop it makes you wonder why someone would want to buy a car in the first place.

Then you get on the subway in the heat of summer. Everyone is sweaty and you can’t find a seat. Your clothes stick to your skin like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth and you suddenly don’t wonder so much why people still drive cars.

Mike and I ride our yellow bicycles out of the compound and down a dusty street in search of some stir-fried vegetables over rice. Still, I think to myself, there have been much worse ideas.

小黄车 xiǎo huángchē- a new word with Min老师

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Making My Peace with Hongbao Culture in China

As of writing this article, the population of China is just over one and a quarter billion people. That makes it the most populous country in the world. It also makes it hard to get special attention or treatment for any problem you might have. 

dragon and boy

Chinese have developed a way to get that attention and its called the hongbao (red envelope stuffed with money).  This is both literal (yes sometimes you have to bribe people), as well as metaphorical (more often the case that your “hongbao” will look like a special gift or service). 

As a foreigner, I naturally stand out and therefore receive special treatment more easily than others. However, I also see the constant exchange of this both literal and figurative hongbaos as I mentioned above. 

They are given to people like doctors, teachers, policemen, and government officials in exchange for things like heightened attention on a loved one or the expedition of an important document.

For outsiders, and even for many Chinese themselves, this practice can be particularly hard to live with. It undermines the law and seems unfair. However anyone who stays here for a longer period of time must understand and adapt to this practice or else risk insanity.

For the time being, it is a part of life in China.

Hongbao Plus One

This past weekend my girlfriend received a red envelope in the form of an invitation to a resort in the north of the city: on the border of Beijing and Hebei. The parents of some students in her class wanted to solidify their relationship with their children’s caregivers and therefore offered the invitation to the student’s homeroom teachers. I went as the plus one.

The resort was the recently opened water town called Gu Bei Shui Zhen (古北水镇), which is basically a replica of a water town that you might find in the southern city of Suzhou.

For people not familiar with China, this is like saying that somebody built a replica Virginia tobacco farm in upstate New York. I don’t really like these kinds of places. They feel very fake, like the very soul of the place is missing.

Normally when I travel, I like to visit local places. I don’t stay in fancy hotels, and opt for budget accommodation like a hostel or cheap hotel. I like to focus my time and resources on visiting places, rather than staying in my room. To me this is what traveling is all about- talking and experiencing life as the locals would see it- rather than an airbrushed resort version. 

Chinese, and coincidentally enough my girlfriend, are the opposite. They don’t mind if something was made particularly for them. The most important thing is that it’s beautiful. If a place’s architecture doesn’t match the geography and history of an area, well, so what!

At least there is a nice pool. 

Moreover I found the entire situation slightly unnerving. The parents essentially decided the schedule and, even though they were very nice people, it felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells around them. It’s not that I don’t think it was very generous of them, it just felt a little odd to me.

The differences in our expectations of teacher-student relationships as well as travelling experiences tell us a lot about Chinese and American culture.

I would never choose to go to a place like Gu Bei Shui Zhen on my own. As I said above, something about its in-authenticity repels me.

I would also never invite my child’s teacher on vacation with me. Just like Gu Bei Shui Zhen, it feels slightly unauthentic and uncomfortable. 

How to Develop Cultural Literacy

The challenges posed by a clash of cultures here is a great metaphor for the challenges of living in another country. When confronted with these types of situations, the best thing you can do is to adapt- if only for the sake of preserving harmony- which is perhaps the most you can hope for when living abroad.

Even though I often feel like speaking out against these types of cultural practices in china (specifically the practice of giving envelopes and superficial relationships), doing so would accomplish nothing. In fact, it would make me more stressed out.

In the end I am not in China to change it. I am here as a visitor. I hope that my presence and interactions help to open them up a little bit to outside ideas; but ultimately I don’t plan on naturalizing.

The Result

As a result of practicing this cultural literacy I was able to lay back and relax with my girlfriend. Even though I did have the urge to criticize both the resort and circumstances under which I had come, I restrained myself and am very happy that I did. The most important thing was that she enjoyed herself and the parents felt like we were being reciprocative of their generosity.

This experience served as further proof that I rarely have all of the answers, and my own expectations are often wrong. I can’t change the way I feel about these types of places and relationships, but I can seek first to understand and not to be understood.

Yes, that is a Stephen Covey line. And while I am not promoting his whole system, I do think it is an important building block of living in another culture happily.

A Master Teacher Produces Brilliant Students

名师出高徒 (Mingshi chu gaotu); a Chinese idiom that means “A master teacher produces brilliant students.”

We see teachers in all areas of our lives. At school, in the temple, on the playground… teachers are everywhere.

We are often teachers to others.

We need to constantly ask the question, “Who is my teacher?” Don’t be fooled, we always have one. And if a master teacher produces brilliant students, what does a mediocre teacher produce?

It’s hard to find a master teacher. So we float around and learn things here and there. Then we move on. A sort of teacher-student carousel.

But what do you do when you find a good teacher?

You hold onto that teacher. You follow that teacher, because master teachers are worth their weight in gold.

Questions That Effective Language Learners Ask Themselves

Have you ever wanted to learn something so badly that you studied it all the time?

If you are like me, then you have experienced the point at which studying becomes counterproductive.

When learning something new, it is important to take intermittent breaks. This practice allows you to replenish your “focus muscles” and reflect on your progress.

In fact, this past weekend I took a break from my Mandarin studies.

I knew it was time for the break because I had lost both my focus and desire to sit down with textbooks, flashcards, movies, etc. Moreover this period coincided with a three day weekend courtesy of Qing Ming Festival in China (I live in Beijing).

Qing Ming is a time for Chinese to visit the tombs of their ancestors and pay their respects. For me, it was a good time to let my brain relax.

While I relaxed, I noticed how my brain actually had a hard time cooling down. It seemed like I was constantly looking for things- anything I could consume- a book, movie, writing in my diary, anything to distract myself.

(I am very aware of my own preoccupation with being occupied. I find that meditation, exercise, and eating healthy are good ways to keep myself sane.)

But sometimes I still blow up little things, like my language learning hobby, and create new areas of stress.

That’s why I take breaks. And when I take breaks I also ask myself some questions.

I like to reflect and consider these areas of stress within the context of my life.

Once I do this, I can better understand why I am acting in such a way, and then change my behavior if it will help to decrease my stress (or accept it and move on if there is nothing that I can do in that moment).

I wrote down these questions for language learners, but you could also apply them to other subjects/areas in your life.

OK, so here it goes…

1. Why am I interested in learning this language/subject?

The most successful students have a good answer to this question. Such answers normally go deeper than the surface. They are tied to our likes, interests, and backgrounds/childhoods.

In terms of language learning, people who live in a target country have a strong reason to learn. People with family ties to a language also have a strong reason.

Try asking yourself a few questions about why you are learning a particular language.

  1. Do I enjoy the culture?
  2. Do I plan on living/visiting this country in the future?
  3. Do I have familial ties to the language?

2. What are my goals for learning the language?

Tests and courses are popular for learning because they give people clear learning outcomes. They become even more useful when they are tied to industry or academic standards.

People who are studying English, for example, often take the TOEFL or IELTs to enter university or acquire that highly sought after raise. Such reasons are powerful motivators.

These questions should help you judge the efficacy of your language learning goals.

  1. Do I have a professional use for the language?
  2. Will I use the language outside of my job?
  3. Am I interested in the culture that the language resides in?

3. How much time and resources do I have to put towards learning the target language?

People have different amounts of time and resources available at different times of their lives. When you are younger, then you need to consider your studies. As you get older, professional and familial responsibilities take up more of your time.

Tutors, language courses, books, apps are all good resources but they also cost money.

A student, for example, will have much more time than a single mother. A young sales clerk might fit somewhere in between.

Consider these questions to help better understand the limitations of your time and resources.

  1. What are my personal and professional responsibilities?
  2. How much free time do I have and when do I have it?
  3. How much money can I allocate towards learning materials?

Wrap Up

These three questions are a good start to understanding 1) why we are interested in a language (or subject for that matter), 2) what we hope to accomplish, and 3) if we are being realistic or not.

I find that being realistic is perhaps the most important of all the three. If we are not being realistic, then we are apt to either overstretch or underestimate ourselves.

Of course, a large part of this practice is the art of understanding yourself. The more practice you have in learning new things then the easier this will be for you.

Do you use a process similar to this? Is there anything that you agree or disagree with in the article? What language are you learning now?

6 Ways To Improve Your Mandarin Studies

Have you ever wanted to find and implement a more effective approach to learning Mandarin Chinese? People who study Chinese know that it is an incredibly arduous process, full of pit falls and roadblocks.

I remember when I began studying Mandarin in 2013. Like most of intellectual pursuits I start, it was so incredibly interesting and fun in the beginning.

In that time I would drive down to Boston every weekend to learn the basics like numbers and greetings. I got a thrill from it. Yes, this is it… look at me! I would think to myself. I am learning something truly exotic and interesting. 

I moved to Beijing that summer. I would sit in my cramped Beijing apartment, copying down characters over and over, hundreds of times even.

What had seemed like an exciting hobby in the beginning had effectively become a pool of anxiety. Yet, despite my doubts I kept going. Maybe it was ignorance. More likely it was pride.

I have used, and continue to use, multiple methods when studying Mandarin: Pimsleur, university courses, training school courses, tutors, self study, e-learning resources, language partners- and so on.

I have reached an HSK level 4 and am currently preparing for the 5 (Chinese proficiency test administered by the PRC).

The following is a list of methods which I have found most useful. I hope that it can provide some insight for those interested in Chinese and/or language learning in general.

1. Use Standardized Tests As Goals (HSK)

Standardized tests are very helpful in goal setting. Goals in the context of language learning allow us to push ourselves and develop a strong base in vocabulary and grammar.

Don’t fall into the trap of learning language “from the streets”. Humble yourself and take advantage of what professional organizations have created as a means accelerate your language learning process.

HSK is an acronym for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试), which is a Chinese proficiency test administered by the government’s Confucius Institute. It is the most popular and useful accreditation for learners of simplified Chinese.

(Sidenote- international companies are more and more attuned to this qualification and if you are serious about a career in China/dealing with Chinese then it looks good on your resume.)

2. Pimsleur

Pimsleur is a series of audio recordings that uses repetition to help learners improve their pronunciation and listening comprehension. I have found it particularly useful in learning Mandarin because of the inherent difficulty in learning the phonetics and tones.

I suggest doing the Pimsleur courses on your way to work or class. When I first started out I downloaded it to my smartphone and participated during my commutes.

Sure, people probably thought I was a little strange, but it was a great way to practice listening and speaking before I was able to actually have a conversation.

3. Attending Chinese Only Events

Events where people only speak Chinese are a great way to get practical experience as well as to train your ears. In the beginning you certainly won’t understand everything, but that isn’t necessarily the goal. The goal is to learn the language’s cadence .

I think learning a language is a lot like muscle memory. You need to expose yourself to the language and, the more you do this, the more your brain will start to recognize differences in sounds, pronunciation, and tones.

If you don’t believe me try this. Pay attention to people that study Chinese a lot on their own without much exposure to native speakers. Compare them with those who are exposed. You will notice that the first group has less trouble communicating with native speakers, even though their knowledge of the language may be less nuanced. 

4. College Courses

I have attended both training schools and college programs in Mandarin. I don’t go to training schools anymore because I think they are mostly a scam and the curriculum is nonexistent. Teachers just show up and go through a book (if you are lucky). That’s good for them, bad for your Chinese.

Similar to standardized tests, university courses offer a much more structured approach to learning Chinese. Furthermore, and a perhaps stronger reason, is that you will be surrounded by students who’s Chinese is most likely a lot better than your own (I’m looking at all the Koreans now).

When I took a college course I often felt compelled to study and prepare more because my classmates were at a much higher level. If you are looking to make a big jump in your Mandarin, I highly suggest taking a college course.

5. Translation

I use the translation method to practice reading and writing. I don’t literally translate the text into my native tongue, but I go over it a few times to make sure I understand it well enough that if I were to be asked what it meant, then I could explain it in English. I have found that writing it down in English is largely counterproductive and a waste of time.

I am really in love with this method and perhaps I will write more about it in a future post as there are many different aspects to it.

6. Flashcards

I prefer to use flashcards that I make on my own with cut up pieces of paper and a black pen. The words I write down come directly from my own translations and therefore are very useful.

Flashcards work well in combination with testing environments because they are an extremely efficient way to increase your vocabulary.

I have also used the online service Memrise, which is a very nifty flashcard E-learning site/app. (Although I don’t recommend shelling out for the premium version).

Final Thought- think about what helps you to focus.

When designing your own study routine think about what is most effective for you. When I say “most effective for you”, I am really talking about what kind of activities can hold you focus.

People say that you need to understand how you learn, but I think that is too vague. It is easier to think about which activities allow you to focus and stay engaged.

From my own personal experience it is very easy to just “go through the motions” when studying anything. Just “going through the motions” isn’t what you want. If you want to progress in anything, you need to bring your attention to it and understand how all the little pieces fit together.

There isn’t a magic pill, but there are small incremental changes you can make that will improve your efficiency. People aren’t naturally better at learning languages then others, they simply understand which activities are most effective.

Do you agree with me? What methods have you found effective for studying Chinese or another foreign language?

How To Become An Advanced Mandarin Speaker

What Is An Advanced Mandarin Speaker?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a beginner and advanced Mandarin speaker is? Serious language learners know that one of the big differences between the two levels is that advanced speakers not only understand the meaning of words, but the words’ nuances as well.

The better you understand each word and its specific “flavor”, then the more likely you will be to achieve “Advanced Mandarin Speaker” status. 

I recently had the experience of preparing my CV in both English and Chinese. My friend had recommended me to apply (always a good thing) to the company that was interested in expanding their business in China. Translating my CV into Chinese was both a first and valuable experience.

CV copy uses a grade of language that is both professional and straightforward. This was simple for me in English. However, for the Mandarin version, it made me realize both how far I have come, and the large gap between myself and native speakers.

While talking with a Chinese friend about some of the nuances in my translation, two words, “Gu4Wen4” (顾问), and “Zi1Xun2Shi1”(咨询师) both meaning consultant, stuck out to me as an interesting piece of language that other Mandarin learners might appreciate knowing.

The following four points explain the nuances of both words. This knowledge is an important piece of not only business Chinese, but of the language learning process. 

The Difference Between 顾问 (GuWen) and 咨询师 (Zixunshi)

“Gu4Wen4” (顾问) is less formal

顾问 is commonly used for sales people and is decidedly more casual. The sales staff at training centers, phone shops, and other sorts of stores are referred to using this word. Use it as a respectful way to refer to sales people who are not necessarily subject knowledge experts. 

“Zi1Xun2Shi1”(咨询师) is more formal

咨询师 is is used for people who possess highly specialized fields of knowledge. In this same vein it also has a much more academic tone. Research specialists like scientists, engineers, and academics with PHDs are all considered 咨询师.

Of course, this is the word I ended up choosing to use for my CV because the job title I held was in research and development (not sales). Even though I don’t hold a PHD, I still think it is more aligned with the work I was doing.

“Gu4Wen4” (顾问) only appears in titles

Although 顾问 is less formal, it is actually less useful than 咨询师 than you might expect. Mostly it is used to form compound nouns for names, such as a salesperson, legal advisor (法律顾问) or an organization, like the Central Advisory Commission (中央顾问委员会).

“Zi1Xun2Shi1”(咨询师) contains the verb, Zi4Xun4 (咨询)

The word for a research consultant 咨询师 is actually a form of the verb 咨询 (to consult or seek advice from). This verb is actually very common and useful to know in general.

师, the word for teacher, tutor, or master, is simply a way to make the verb into a human noun.

In summary, both words are definitely useful, however it is important to understand the difference between the two. If you can do this, then you will be one step closer to an “Advanced Mandarin Speaker”. I also highly suggest keeping an eye out for other synonyms as you study to increase your knowledge. 

Have you heard these words before? Do you know of any other words that have similar meanings but important differences?