How Learning Chinese Changed My Life

I landed in Taiwan in the summer of 1999. I was on summer vacation from a job at a high school in Colorado. I wanted to learn more about life in Asia. I was walking out of a McDonald’s when a woman approached me and asked if I’d like a job teaching English. I was young and interested in seeing the world. I signed on for a year.

Taiwan in August

I started work in August. Teaching was difficult. I slowly learned how to break information down into small pieces and then how to present it in a way that my students could understand. This is a skill that I benefit from even today. The summer was hot, but it rained every day at 5:05.  I would leave work at 5:00 and dash home on my motor scooter hoping to beat the rainstorm. I always arrived home soaked but refreshed. On the weekends, I explored on my own.

Learning Chinese

Then without knowing it at the time,  I changed the direction of my life. I took a Chinese class at Providence University. The instructor was amazing.  The harder I studied, the more she challenged me. I  found that I learned Chinese quickly.  The tones were difficult and took practice, but the grammar was easy. The class lasted 3 or 4 months, but it was my first step into a much bigger world. Not long after the class ended, I saw the instructor on the street.  We had coffee a few times and eventually started dating. We were married and had our daughter in 2003.

Speaking Chinese

In time, I started understanding basic conversation around me. I could connect with my neighbors who all told me my Chinese was excellent.  My Chinese wasn’t very good, but they appreciated my effort. Over time, I started understanding the culture more deeply and began noticing the social blunders I was committing at work. I became more efficient at communicating with my Chinese co-workers and over time progressed to attending business meetings held in Chinese.

Life in Taiwan

I taught English and managed the school. My role shifted to managing the relationship between the Chinese management and the foreign staff. I served as a buffer and cultural translator. I helped the Chinese management get what they needed to run their business, while helping the foreign staff understand how to succeed.

Life in Colorado

In 2007, 8 years into a 1 year trip, we moved to Colorado. In 2008, we started offering classes to adults. Business people found us and started taking classes. Before long, our focus had shifted to primarily offering classes catered to business clients.  In 2010, a corporation hired us. The CEO had been lost for 5 hours between the airport and his hotel. We found that many corporations lack the knowledge necessary to succeed in China. Our goal became to provide corporations (and their staff) the language skills and cultural awareness necessary to compete in China. We now provide classes at our office or on site training for corporations that do business in China.

Why China Feels Like the Twilight Zone

Relationships are profoundly important (and different) in Chinese culture. Relationships impact daily life on a level that people from the West simply don’t understand.

Surviving the Morning Commute in Taiwan

A friend was stopped at a stoplight on his way to work. He noticed a scooter towing a second scooter.  The light split the two scooters. The lead scooter stopped right after the intersection.  The second scooter stopped just before the intersection.  The second rider wisely pulled up until the rope was lying on the road and the cars could drive over it.

Just before the light changed, for whatever reason, the first scooter moved forward a few feet. The rope became taut. As the cars drove off, they hit the rope. The cars then drag both scooters scooters a few feet, knocking both riders onto the pavement.

This is a normal day in Taiwan. You see people doing crazy things on scooters. I once saw a husband riding a scooter with his wife and 4 kids!

Then things got Strange

The rope drops to the ground and everyone drives off. No one stopped to see if the riders were okay. The universal reaction to leave was frightening. What if my friend was lying there hurt? Who would have helped him?

We thought, “Someone should at least stop and see if everyone is okay..even if it wasn’t their fault.” Of course, we were taught to experience events from others’ perspectives. Parents ask their children, “How would it feel if Jenny didn’t invite you to the party?” We taught the quote First They Came. The quote teaches: when you ignore (really) bad things happening to someone else, when it is your turn, no one is left to help you.

While the Chinese take care of their family and friends, they just don’t get involved with strangers. It’s too risky and Chinese people avoid risk. When someone has a problem, you just move on and avoid that person’s problems becoming your own.

Why Relationships Matter in China

If you have no relationship with someone, you are not to be trusted. This is why so much business is done through “relationships.” (or as the Chinese say Guanxi) If I trust Mr. Huang and he introduced you, you are now someone safe to do business with. So live up to whatever Mr. Huang said or he looks bad.