Learning Mandarin & Planning our Journey

Trip Start Jul 22, 2011
Trip End Aug 12, 2011

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

We made the decision to visit China about more than a year ago. It all started with our friend Ming.  Ming is a math professor at the University of Miami.  Each summer he returns to China to teach.   He asked if we wanted to meet up with his family and travel for a few days.  We decided to meet them in Jiuzhaigou for four days in July.   In preparation for the trip Harvey decided to take courses in Mandarin at the University and Margie decided to research and plan the trip.  We both listened to two Teaching Company courses on the history of China.  Chiuhung teaches Mandarin at the UM and was kind enough to let Harvey audit her courses.  Over time we became friends.  Learning Chinese is a daunting project.  At first it seemed impossible.  How do you learn a language without an alphabet?  How do you memorize all of the characters when you have no frame of reference?  For people our age, how do you memorize anything?  The first lesson had about 30 words to memorize.   I started to wonder if there was any hope.  The breakthrough came when I realized that I could handle five words.  So I started to memorize five words at a time, wait for 15 minutes to see if it was still in my head and then add another five.  After awhile I was amazed to find that I could actually do it.  As I continued to use this technique a few things happened.  First I started to see patterns.  Chinese has radicals.  These are basic characters that mean things like sun, moon, wood, fire etc.  The words are usually made up of combinations of the radicals.  Once you start to recognize these characters and sounds you begin to have a basis for understanding the words.  Second, my ability to memorize increased dramatically.  Leaning 10 words at a time became natural.  This started to apply to other areas of my life.  Chinese grammar is a bit different from English.  The conjugation and word order are very different.  The concept of tones does not exist in English.  If you really want to speak Chinese well you need to reorient your mindset. 

Deciding where to go in China and whether to travel independently or with a group led me down a path of learning about China's history, geography and culture.  For a country with over 5,000 years of history and 1.3 billion people, how could we get a sense of the people and place in 21 days?   This challenge is the stuff of fascination for me and is one of the best parts of traveling.   There are plenty of ways to learn these days, from scouring the internet, studying guidebooks and the daily reading of the TripAdvisor China forum.  I also love to read and once my mind was attuned, a day didn’t go by where I found an article in a newspaper or magazine about contemporary China.  This was supplemented with expat and journalist books about living in China, historical fiction, audio courses by the Teaching Company and Chinese movies with English subtitles that were recommended by Chiuhung, Harvey’s Mandarin teacher.

I had this sense that China was just so culturally and linguistically different from any other destination we had visited that although we normally travel completely independently, this time it made sense to do a hybrid travel plan choosing a travel company where we travel independently but have logistical support.  China Highlights was unbelievably patient and helpful in this planning stage.  They provided a guide and driver in each location, handled the logistics of airport transfers, hotel and flight bookings, and with my contact, Eva Wang’s local knowledge, we finalized the itinerary.  I found their willingness to customize pre-packaged tours for each location and openness with pricing to be refreshing in comparison with other travel companies I contacted.   As it turned out, working with a China based company, and one with a true commitment to customer service, smoothed our way on several occasions; both Harvey & I appreciated their commitment to customer satisfaction.  We originally planned a six week trip and were working with another travel agency whose trips were featured in several travel magazines.  We put in a lot of effort to learn the language and culture and wanted to get a great deal of exposure.  However, after everything was set we ended up getting some unexpected surprises and lost trust in that agency.  We decided to have a shorter trip and started over with China Highlights that has excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.  When you are going to a country with such a different culture it seemed to make sense to limit the duration of the first trip to contain the exposure to the surprises we experienced with the first agency.  From the planning to the detailed coordination of the actual trip, China Highlights delivered as promised and we’re really glad we chose to book our trip through them.

Our final itinerary included China’s major iconic sites in the cities of Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai offset with visits to three national parks and World Heritage Sites of Huanglong, Jiuzhaigou and Huangshan, and a taste of a rural agricultural area at Yangshuo.   With 11 nights in cities and 10 nights in the countryside, we balanced our city time with nature.    We had hoped that having a private guide in each location would facilitate communication with Chinese people through assistance with translation and help with Harvey’s vocabulary and pronunciation.  This turned out to be far better than we ever hoped as we not only saw historical sites and beautiful scenery, we had many memorable moments interacting with Chinese.  This took our trip to another level and contributed in a significant way to making this a cultural journey.

Now that we are back home, we often are asked "so how was your trip?"  Both of us will have this blank stare on our face or offer only silence on the phone.  This is initially interpreted as a negative.  This is far from that.  It is that a sound bite or even a few sentences can’t even begin to capture the impressions and experiences of being in China.  To fill out this response, a personal anecdotal description of our experience follows.  We hope you enjoy the journey along with us!
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