willow zheng mandarin

Students in China - Gloria and Lea in Beijing

The question which is often asked is why?  Why would someone living in a small community in Oregon want to study Chinese?  Well, the answer is quite simple.  I have a daughter who was born in China.  A few years ago a friend had recommended the Northwest China Council for language classes.  That is where it began. 

Gloria and Lea at Language School

My daughter was 4 years old when she first started taking Chinese classes with Willow Zheng.  Because she was so young Willow let me sit in on the classes and take notes for my daughter.   We drove 120 miles roundtrip into Portland every Sunday for the first 3 months.  Once winter began we knew that driving to Portland every Sunday was not going to be an option.  So we decided to do private lessons with Willow whenever the roads were good for driving.   We did this for 3 years.  At this point I knew that in order for me to be able to help my daughter I would also need to learn Chinese.  So we started driving to Portland every other week and trying to stay afloat with our Chinese learning.

Willow is a great teacher and we still continue to study with her.  However, I knew that we would never get past the basics until we immersed ourselves in Chinese culture and language.  So I started researching language schools in Beijing.  I chose Beijing because I find it a very vibrant city.  I also thought Mandarin would be easier to understand.  Other cities in China have strong dialects which I felt would make our study even harder.

In selecting the schools I found huge discrepancies in price.  I finally selected iMandarin because a friend had recommended it. .   iMandarin’s headquarters are based in Shanghai.  Their school in Beijing is quite small but the staff is very professional.  Private lessons were around $18 per hour.   I did not have the option to take group classes because of my 8 year old daughter.   They did not have group lessons for children unless it was during the summer months.    I decided to sign up for 40 hours of intensive private lessons for each of us.  We took 4 hours of lessons a day which is a lot.  The only reason we were able to keep up was because some of it was review.  

Both my teacher and my daughter’s teacher were great.  They spoke English yet they always encouraged us to use our Chinese.  My teacher was relentless.  We had 2 hours of intense practice, lunch break and then 2 more hours of intense practice.    

We rented a small one bedroom apartment which was about 1 ½ miles from the school.  I wanted to be within walking distance of the school.  It was the best decision I made.  We would walk back and forth to school and I was never stressed over buses or subways.   I had thought of a home-stay but I knew in my heart that after class I would need some alone time.  I was right.  I ended up having to study at least 2 hours a day to keep up. 

We traveled in Oct of 2008.  The weather was perfect.  Clear blue skies (that’s right) and temperatures in the 60’s and low 70’s.  It only rained once in the 3 1/2 weeks that we were in Beijing. The first week was a bit of a challenge especially when it came to eating.  I was trying to keep our costs down so I had planned on eating home most of the time.   I found the supermarkets were geared for westerners.  They tended to be very expensive (20% higher than at home) and I did not want to spend my time cooking.  I also did not want to eat out in a restaurant every day. So, I started eating where the locals ate.  To this day I will never feel the same about Seven/Eleven.  The 7/11’s in China have huge kitchens.  They cook up fast food Chinese and serve it for lunch and dinner.  The food is both healthy and reasonably priced.   The 7/11 was right next to our apartment and we were able to do take out most nights.    

Whenever, we had free time we would go to the parks.  It is in the parks that I felt the most at home.  The parks in China are amazing.  They are frequented by the locals from early morning until late in the day.  The activities in the park are endless.  You will see dancing, tai chi, singing, acting, meditation, yoga, all types of musical instruments, yo yo’s, ping pong, badminton and the list goes on and on.    The people were always warm and friendly to us.   They encouraged us to try their hula hoops and yo yo’s.   They tried to converse with us and would give warm smiles when they heard that we were in China to study Chinese.  

The longer I stayed in China the more my desire has grown for speaking Chinese.  Even now months after we have left China my daughter and I still have a Chinese chat.  We are struggling to keep up with our Chinese.  We are continuing our lessons with Willow.

We are planning on returning to China to study.  I hope that it will be sometime soon.  Here are some of the things I will do differently.   I will choose a school that is less expensive.  Schools that cater to Koreans, Japanese and Europeans tend to be less expensive.  I will do a part time home-stay and part rental apartment.  So much is learned in the home of a local.  I may even learn to cook some of the Chinese dishes that I love.  I will try to stay for at least one month.  It takes a couple of weeks to just settle in to the change in environment.  

My daughter and I very much enjoyed our first learning experience in China.   My guess is that every educational experience in China will be different.                                   

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