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From a small push to life-changing: My Mandarin learning journey

Updated: May 5, 2023 By Jaap Grolleman Print
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I moved to Shanghai in the summer of 2018, and back then I only planned to stay around two years in China, so I didn’t consider it necessary to learn Mandarin. In Shanghai, it’s OK to get by without speaking Chinese: You either point at pictures or show the translated sentence on your phone. For some situations like registering a bank account, either the bank account has someone who can speak English, or you can bring a colleague to help you.

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Either way, to solve two years of that marginal hassle, I wasn’t about to spend around 10,000 USD and over 700 hours on learning Mandarin. And yet I did.

In late 2018, my manager, a native Chinese, pushed me to take Mandarin lessons. She had worked in Hong Kong before, when her boss pushed her to learn Cantonese — so either she felt it was useful to her or she felt she had to balance out this wrong done to her — so she said I must learn Mandarin too. The gap between Mandarin and Cantonese isn’t as big as English and Mandarin, but alas.

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There was only one real school in Shanghai's Yangpu district, where I worked — GoEast Mandarin — but I mistook how far away it was. On the map, it looked near but Shanghai is so big, I still had to travel almost an hour. Halfway I had already decided I didn’t want to take classes, but when I arrived, my contact at the school, Emily, was waiting for me at the veranda. When we spoke about learning Mandarin she actually listened to me, not just pushing her narrative. The interior of the school looked cozy, like a living room. “So let’s try the starter course,” I figured.

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Mandarin didn’t turn out to be the struggle I imagined it’d be. Actually, the classes from Ellie and Stella were fun and I didn’t mind riding the long way to school. The progress from zero was fast. In a few weeks, I could order some dishes and say my name and nationality. I felt great. I was never good with languages in high school, so learning Mandarin and progressing as well as using it was a surprise. But then again, I was a totally different person in 2018 compared to 2005 — plus I was learning a foreign language while living abroad, which is very different than learning in a classroom in the Netherlands.

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Well. That was four and a half years ago, and all that time I have kept on learning and while reading books is difficult, I’ve reached a working level proficiency. I speak with Chinese people in the countryside, as well as at my job in a high-tech VR company in Shanghai. The little push from my manager, Emily waiting at the veranda, and my first two teacher's enthusiasm, that has made all the difference.

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Jaap Grolleman is from a small town in the Netherlands, and has been living in Shanghai since 2018. He's working as a marketing director at a VR company named Pimax, in Shanghai's Zhangjiang High-Tech area. In his spare time, he often travels to lesser known cities or villages around Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

Yuan Liao(Cecilia)contributed to the story.

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