From Sandstorms to Ikea: What I learned in Beijing

School Trip at the Great Wall with the Beijing Language and Culture University

My dad decided to take me on a 3-week trip to China after I graduated from university. My mom had passed away the year before from breast cancer, and so he thought this father-daughter trip would be a nice way for us to getaway and move past this difficult time in our lives. It would be my first time visiting China so I didn’t know what to expect.

Our trip involved visits to 8 cities and a countless number of historical sites. As we traveled through each place, one thing was unmistakable. China was developing at a rapid and dizzying pace. When we sailed for 7 days on the Yangtze River, I would be one of the last to see some of the few thousand year-old temples and villages situated alongside the river bank. These relics would be flooded the following year by the 3 Gorges Dam, an ambitious project meant to generate more energy to power the nation. In Beijing, we visited popular tourist sites like the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Heavenly Temple, but in another part of town were construction sites for stadiums that would be used to host the 2008 Olympics. Even Chongqing, a place I rarely heard about at the time, was like any other metropolitan city in North America but with 10 times the people. Everything was grand and the energy was palpable. I promised myself I would return one day.

After 8 years working in New York, I finally decided to make my way to China. I was taking Mandarin classes on a weekly basis and they just weren’t cutting it. I also thought about my mom often, and if I learned anything from the way she lived her life, it was that I should always take a chance to do something I’m curious about. A friend of mine had recently taken a 6-month immersive Mandarin program at the Beijing Language and Culture University and her experience motivated me to do the same. So in February 2010, I moved to Beijing to start a new adventure.

Our friend had arranged for us to meet one of her friends who was from Tajikistan. If you didn’t see him in person, you would have thought he was Chinese because his Mandarin was flawless. He took a bus to meet us at the airport and arranged for us to stay at a hotel near campus so we could tie-up any administrative loose ends with the school. A few days later, he introduced me to a couple of local students who he had maybe only recently met himself. While the students didn’t really know me, they graciously took me apartment hunting, negotiated my lease (which was all in Chinese), and even took me furniture shopping (at Ikea no less!).

Within 5 days, I was completely settled into an apartment which featured:

  1. Clap On! Clap Off! sound activated lights in the hallways — designed to conserve energy (there wasn’t a blackout in the building as I had initially thought);
  2. A bathtub that drained water out of the side of the tub only to drain into another drain in the floor; and
  3. Flimsy windows that would do nothing to shield the one sandstorm that unexpectedly blew in from Inner Mongolia that spring.

Classes started everyday at 8am and ended at 3pm. I was by far the oldest person in the room (even older than the teacher). The first three months were tough because I tried to translate everything from Cantonese to Mandarin and it turns out that the spoken languages are completely different. I would hire a tutor for 30RMB an hour (equivalent to US$5) to give me extra lessons. I also found a language partner who came from very modest means that would practice speaking Mandarin with me while I spoke to her in English. She felt it was important that she learn English as it would lead to more opportunities in the future.

What I found most surprising were the different countries represented by the student body. There were people from Russia, Africa, Korea (North and South), Japan, Canada, United States, Germany, Mongolia, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia to name a few. Two thoughts crossed my mind: 1) Clearly I wasn’t the only one who saw what China had to offer; 2) How embarrassing is it to be Chinese and not speak the language? I had better step up my game! In the end though, we all became good friends because the struggle to adapt to a foreign environment while learning a new language is a bonding experience like no other.

Indeed, after the 6-month program, I would find myself interviewing with Lenovo for a Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea regional role. The company interviewed me in 3 languages — English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Luckily for me I learned just enough Mandarin to get over the finish line and the rest is history. My experience in Beijing was wonderful in many ways but what I didn’t expect was how it would change me:

  • Be More Kind: What got me through these 6 months were the extreme kindness of the people I met while living there. The people that helped me settle into Beijing were essentially strangers and yet they helped me unconditionally. Since then, I stopped being so guarded and started being more generous to others. Kindness is contagious.
  • Be More Grateful: After meeting people with such modest backgrounds, it struck me later on just how fortunate I was to be living in Beijing as an expat. The contrast was stark and I became infinitely more grateful ever since.
  • Be More Open: My main intention for learning Mandarin was to use it as a way to land a job. However, it became a way for me to connect with people from other places on a much deeper level. I would stop being so judgmental because as it turns out, we aren’t so different after all.

Originally published at

The founder of Dreamwriters, a self-publishing platform for young creative writers and artists.

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