Immersion Training – 100% Immersion into Chinese culture while travelling
If you didn’t know already LTL stands for “Live the Language”. LTL is based on immersion and the practice of immersion training. Today, our friend Callan tells us the best way to achieve genuine immersion when travelling.
The best travel stories are more often than not the result of poor foresight, lack of preparation and general incompetence. A trip where the trains run on time, the hotel has hot water and all the sights are “simply delightful” is incredibly boring.
Staying in a hotel and being ferried from sight to sight also isn’t the best way to get a feel for local culture.
You could in theory spend weeks travelling in China without ever having to speak to anyone and just show reservations and address cards on your phone.
No need to try and speak Chinese, no need to talk to anyone and simply keep your earphones in listening to Taylor Swift’s old stuff on repeat.
But who would want to do that?
The whole point of travelling is to get a feel for what life is like in different places. “Immersing yourself in Chinese culture” perhaps isn’t the best term for this as it’s a bit monolithic and there are huge divisions between rich and poor or urban and rural.
What this guide is therefore looking at is how to travel in a way that will allow you the chance to meet a larger cross-section of Chinese society and not just, for example, young, middle-class, urban professionals (may their Tiger beer towers be forever full).
Welcome to our guide for immersion training…
Immersion Training – Get out of the Expat Bubble
Immersion Training – Go Alone
Immersion Training – Travel Rough
Immersion Training – Take Slow Trains
Immersion Training – Buses Are Also Good
Immersion Training – Hitchhiking
Immersion Training – Don’t Rely On Your Phone
Immersion Training – Take a Chinese Tour
Immersion Training – Get Off the Beaten Track
Immersion Training – Bonus Tips
Immersion Training Tip #1 – Get Out of The Expat Bubble
The bubble is warm, safe and has tacos. It’s also veering on alcoholic and in some cities expat circles have come to resemble a mid-18th century village where nobody has a TV so all people do is go for lunch at a different restaurant every day and gossip about who slept with who.
If you’ve ever walked into a bar and realised you know at least half the patrons, congratulations, the bubble has you.
When travelling, gravitating towards the expat bubble is natural.
The people of the bubble are all strangers in strange places, they’re friendly and they’ll have some great tips about things to do while you’re in the area.
But, as this is an article about Chinese cultural immersion training.
Getting sloshed with Vlad and Enrique, charming as they are, isn’t really getting the most out of one’s trip.
Try to spend some evenings doing things Chinese people do.
Go for a walk in the local park – evening entertainment in the park is so incredibly wholesome it’ll either put you to sleep or make you feel as if you have profound moral failings.
People dance and sing and write calligraphy with giant brushes while fat Chinese kids frolic and chase their friends.
There’s old people roller-skating, snacks to be had, tai chi and even people playing instruments made out of gourds.
Popular with expats and locals alike, KTV is also one ordeal everyone must try at some point in their lives.
The seediness of KTV very much depends on the company you keep and level of sobriety.
Or you can get sh*tfaced with businessmen and karaoke girls. There’s something for everyone, one supposes.
Immersion Training Tip #2 – Go Alone
Travelling with other people means you’re less likely to talk with new people, less likely to accept spur of the moment invitations and more likely to stick to an agreed schedule to ensure everyone is happy.
Having a strong preference for travelling alone for exactly these reasons, I’m not the best person to allay fears of people being nervous about it but will try anyway.
It’s not really that different from going to the shop alone. It just takes longer and you have to carry more stuff.
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Immersion Training Tip #3 – Travel Rough
The further you get out of the cities, the cheaper hotels become.
Off-season you can find lovely rooms for less then 100CNY (roughly 11GBP/13EUR). But we’re talking about immersion and so holing up somewhere nice is not helpful.
You could take a private room at some hostels to be sure, but the authentic experience really is a dormitory.
Bear in mind, most Chinese university students spend years living full-time in dormitories (a fact that is a matter of controversy on Chinese social media due to foreign students often getting private or two-person rooms), and so do most workers.
Dormitory life in China is therefore very social. Locals staying there aren’t necessarily just tourists – although some are – but may be doing internships in the city, there for business, visiting to take exams or new in town and looking for a job.
It’s an interesting cross-section and people are quite keen to cook together if you’re into that sort of thing.
Now, the cheapest dormitories are only open to Chinese identity card holders.
They may make exceptions or simply be so off-the-books they don’t care but I would never recommend you to do something you shouldn’t.
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There are dozens of super unofficial dormitories in residential complexes and, if you’re really not comfortable with that, it’s common to see them advertise like normal hotels on sites like Booking so just watch out.
Generally you can tell by whether the place only has a Chinese name and if the address is in a residential area.
Hosts will still charge you more than what everyone else is paying but the atmosphere is a lot more informal.
The owner might also feed you dried fruit and take a strange amount of pleasure in watching you eat it, or wake you up at 2pm in the morning on a Sunday because they have brought you some cake.
There are also proper tourist hostels with lockers and check out times but most of these are at tourist destinations or in big cities.
In some places though you’ll have no choice but to stay in a hotel because there just won’t be anything else advertised.
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Immersion Training Tip #4 – Take Slow Trains
Similarly to the dormitory thing, yes China is rich and wonderful and reformed and opened-up and what have you, but the gaotie (high-speed rail) isn’t cheap by any means.
Yet apart from the price there are several other reasons you should take the slow train.
Firstly and most obviously, stuff moves too fast to get a proper gander out the window.
You can go through whole villages in the blink of an eye which means there’s far less opportunity to nose at what people are doing in the privacy of their own courtyards, which is no fun whatsoever.
Secondly, the gaotie far more resemble the metro in the sense nobody really chats to fellow travellers or engages in shenanigans.
The same can be said to an extent about the sleeper sections of the slow trains but you usually do end up speaking with a few people.
Where you really want to be though are the hard seats on the slow trains.
They are really, really uncomfortable, especially overnight.
But the baijiu floweth and the card games becometh increasingly louder to the chagrin of the few people actually trying to sleep beneath the neon lights that seem specifically designed to bore straight through your eyelids.
Cattle class is arranged so that the seats form six-people booths and folks usually get chatting in their segments.
Depending on the direction you’re heading, you get a lot of migrant workers and they’re a chatty bunch, especially if they’re heading home.
You get asked lots of questions.
- Where are you from?
- Do you like China?
- Do you have a boyfriend?
- Do you prefer Western men or Chinese men?
- What do you think of Xi Jinping?
You get extra points if you can drink baijiu and smoke the line-your-throat-with-tar cancer sticks that are puffed at between the carriages.
People also have super interesting stories, such as one guy who’ll tell you the only time he ever visited Beijing was as a student in the sixties during the you-know-what, and you’ll have literally nothing to do with your time but listen.
You’re very unlikely to find someone dead set on speaking English so it’s a good opportunity for the old language practice.
As a side note, if you want to hear people tell stories about their lives (like what it’s like to be an old gay man in Guangzhou) and you’re a fairly advanced learner, check out the podcast 故事FM.
Also, although this may have changed, the worst thing about the high-speed trains is that they don’t seem to play that song when they reach the terminal station.
How are people supposed to know it’s the end of the line if they don’t play that song?
If you don’t know that song you almost certainly do. Here it is:
Immersion Training Tip #5 – Buses Are Also Good
Buses aren’t too social but they’re good for getting a glimpse of all those out-of-the-way villages you’ll never, ever visit. Long distance buses have beds.
Make sure you don’t accidentally end up with one of the super short beds at the front because it’ll be uncomfortable, or a bed at the back of the bus because some bus models put three beds together so it feels like you’re actually sleeping with random dudes.
For reference, I’m five foot ten (1.78m) and on the lower end of average weight/build.
I find the berths a bit squishy. They also make you take your shoes off when you get on the bus so don’t wear old socks.
One of the great things about some routes is if you arrive at the final destination in the middle of the night, they will allow you to stay sleeping on the bus until the sun comes up.
The other advantage buses have is the stations don’t tend to unnecessarily prohibit you from taking certain items on board.
Yours truly was forced to part with a rather nice bottle of rose-scented deodorant on one memorable trip to Zhuhai and had to sign documents promising not to be naughty and never bring hazardous material on the train again.
Immersion Training Tip #6 – Hitchhiking
You can hitchhike in China with a bit of forethought, although you need to flag people down using the same hand wave gesture as a taxi so it can be a bit awkward if you want a free lift.
Deep in the countryside, people are usually quite good at letting you hop on the back of their motorbike trucks for a few miles.
The best guide for hitchhiking in China is on Hitchwiki, which also includes a nice little explanation of why tones are important when it comes to saying “hitchhiking” in Mandarin.
Immersion Training Tip #7 – Don’t Rely On Your Phone
Turning off your phone is arguably the opposite of embracing Chinese culture.
Yet despite all the apps that promise to teach you a language through some sort of digital osmosis, with no effort, care or attention needed on your part, phones are sometimes terrible for learning languages because they make it much easier for you to find things out without actually having to ask people.
That’s another reason you should get off the beaten path.
There are whole swathes of the country without 4G. Some places only have 2G and, as much as it hurts, 2G just can’t support Meituan.
It could also be said that the internet just hasn’t figured out a way to adequately shield users from out-of-date advice.
You can find travel guides now with information old enough to be graduating high school this year.
By all means, check Wikitravel or your travel knowledge repository of choice, but go and talk to people too.
You’ll be surprised what people think is worth seeing in their town or city. I was once taken to what was described as “the place everyone meets in the evening” in Xining.
I was imagining a hideaway with tea boiling on a stove and carpets hanging off the walls.
I ended up at Haagen Dazs for what I can only describe as coffee and ice cream soup.
It’s not like in Shanghai or Beijing where if you ask you’ll get taken to some teashop the bloke is in cahoots with and charged 1000CNY for a cuppa – tourist trickery is not yet as sophisticated outside the cities.
There’s also a danger of being too reliant on Pleco when you’re trying to speak Chinese, giving up after the first blank stare and typing it in to show someone.
There are two layers to this. The first is knowing a word but pronouncing a word badly.
In this case unfortunately you’re just going to have to humiliate yourself over and over again speaking nonsense that could be obscenities until you get it right because that is the pain every Chinese learner must go through.
The second is being able to form sentences but not knowing one particular word in which case you should try to work around it instead of resorting to Pleco.
There will always be a word you don’t know so it’s a useful skill to learn.
Look at it this way. It’s better to make an arse of yourself in a city you’ll never visit again in a place nobody knows you than at the noodle shop downstairs that you pass by every day.
Immersion Training Tip #8 – Take a Chinese Tour
It’s not for the enjoyment; it’s for the cultural experience. Chinese tours are fascinating from a stylistic point of view because they’re full of numbers.
Everything is about how high, heavy and long something is rather than who built it and why, with the only anecdotes usually involving imperialists doing something awful.
It’s a shame in a way.
You could argue its better for information to be presented as numbers rather than a story but there’s really a gap in the market for that in-character, dressed-up, storytelling type of tour guide.
At present, Chinese tours sometimes feel like the equivalent of going to Whitechapel to see Jack the Ripper’s stomping grounds and learning the birth dates, death dates and chest measurements of all his victims but none of the gory murder details or theories as to who he was.
On the other hand, some Chinese tours go really big on technology.
Visiting the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang is an amazing example of how truly terrible this can be.
You start in a cinema where there’s a fairly nice video about some people having tea before an army we’re apparently supposed to be rooting for comes in and massacres them.
Then you’re given important information about the site such as ticket prices, which feels a bit redundant given you’ve already purchased one.
After that there’s a lecture about behaving yourself, then the lights go up and for one glorious moment you think you’re free…
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The doors swing open, you rush through, but alas it is a trap, for you enter into another auditorium.
You are then treated to far too much time looking at blown-up close-ups of what you are about to go and see in the caves, which has the effect of making the actual site feel rather small.
Meanwhile, at the Danxia landscapes in Zhangye, the majority of the tour consists of a guide pointing out rocks shaped like funny objects.
Immersion Training Tip #9 – Get Off the Beaten Track
Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Chengdu – all lovely in their own way and some definitely more than others – wall, bund, lake, statues, pandas.
It’s a start but it only scratches the surface.
There’s a few ways you can go about travelling in China in terms of itinerary should you want to soak up something different.
For something that’s culturally different, try Gansu, Qinghai, Guangxi, Yunnan, Ningxia or Inner Mongolia, simply because they’re probably the most different to the east coast due to the prevalence of minority cultures.
Off-season where the wall ends in Gansu is super quiet so you can literally walk along the Great Wall completely alone.
The only downside is that the further you get from the Han heartlands, the more the Mandarin becomes interesting.
But it’s not like you’re not going to find Mandarin speakers and you can have jovial arguments with Tibetan beer sellers about who speaks it worse.
Regarding the place-further-west-that-cannot-be-named, unless your idea of cultural immersion involves visits to police stations multiple times a day and a fantastic amount of barbed wire and road blocks, speaking from experience it’s not worth going there and there’s sadly nothing to suggest the situation will improve in the future.
If you don’t have the time or resources to spend weeks gallivanting, you can usually find a whole new world in-province anyway.
The idea is to go smaller. If you’re in Guangzhou, you could go to Qingyuan for example, which has a slightly built up downtown but also parts so rural it’s hard to imagine you’re only a couple of hours from one of the biggest cities in the world.
The gaotie also runs through it and looks creepily futuristic against the backdrop of sub-tropical Cantonese-speaking villages.
Immersion Training Tip #10 – Bonus Tips
TIP 1 – If you’re one of those people who can’t go anywhere without putting your headphones in, a cool thing to do is download music from the place you’re in to listen to while you walk around.
It doesn’t have to be folk music if that’s not your jam, but perhaps music from an artist who was born nearby or sings in the local language.
TIP 2 – If you’re in a city with an underground metro, take the bus. You get a better feel for a place if you can see it and it’ll be easier to get your bearings.
Some train stations in more rural parts of China can be a good few kilometres from the place whose name they bear.
This is important because if you’re arriving at an inconvenient hour there may not be public transport, which isn’t great if you’re say in the north in December and it’s well below zero degrees.
If everyone gets off the train and starts running, odds are it’s because they know the transport sucks and are trying to be first in the taxi queue. Be a lemming.
AND ONE MORE FROM LTL…
TIP 3 – Come and join the kings of Immersion here in China. Immersion a term banded around far too often.
Here at LTL, we have been utilising 100% true immersion since 2007… and the results speak for themselves!
Our students progress faster!
Immersion Training – FAQ’s
The practice of immersing oneself into a language is to surround yourself by a language as much as physically possibly.
1 – Changing the language of your phone to your target language
2 – Make friends with native speakers who DO NOT speak good English (or English at all.
3 – Visit that country
4 – Avoid expat bubbles
Yes. The process of immersion makes a significant difference to the speed in which you learn a language.
This is exactly why we have a specialist immersion program in a city very. very few people outside of China knows about.
It’s not easy. You constantly have to go against the daily norms you are used to. Avoiding your mother tongue, checking social media, speaking to friends from home… all these things need to be avoided as much as possible to achieve proper immersion.
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