Almost Fearless

Dreaming of Beijing

Weekly photo: Where is Cole?


Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

In two weeks we’ll be leaving our apartment in Chiang Mai and heading to… Beijing.  My goal is to become as-fluent-as-possible in Mandarin Chinese in the six months that we’ll be there by doing total cultural immersion, speaking only Chinese at home, taking language lessons with a tutor, hiring a Chinese nanny who doesn’t speak English and generally trying to spend as much time as possible using the language out in the real world.  Shopping, cooking, dining out, sight-seeing, wandering the city, getting directions — whenever there is an opportunity to speak Chinese I’ll do it.  Will I become proficient?  A shaky intermediate?  Fluent-as-a-native?  I’m excited and curious to find out.

As an aside, I’d like to crowd-source my apartment hunting if I can… does anyone have recommendations on good neighborhoods in Beijing?  Seeing as the city is the size of the entire state of Connecticut but with six times as many people (imagine the entire Northeast squeezed into the area around Hartford), I’m feeling a little daunted at the abundance of options.

China… here we come!




Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • A friend of mine lives in the Dongzhimen area in Beijing. She works as a teacher there and I love the area. It’s very close to shopping mall, super convenient to transportation, and still in the midst of very traditional Beijing hutongs (though many of these hutongs are being wiped out to make way for big condo complexes.)

    By the way, how are you managing the visa issues in China? They are so strict about how long you can stay there.

  • Alright! You will love Beijing. I miss it even now.

    Our apartment was a stone’s throw from Jinsong subway station. Lots of shops and restaurants around, and easy to get to other parts of the city by taxi or subway.

  • now i feel kinda like a stalker. today i finished things off that will send me to china in Q1 next year 🙂 Already excited to read about your experiences 🙂

  • Arh, a lovely picture and I am massively impressed – total cultural immersion and as fluent as possible in 6 months. That sounds like a really exciting challenge. Looking forward to seeing how you get on! Best of luck.

  • This is great! We’re headed to Beijing in March as well, my husband just signed up for classes at BLCU. We haven’t done much research on housing yet, so not sure I’m all that helpful. But my husband just recently secured his student visa, so feel free to reach out if you need any help. Chinese is a tough language… you and my husband are brave souls. Can’t wait to hear more about this leg of your adventure!

  • We lived in Xiamen for 2.5 years, and although I went to university for 2 semesters, the language is difficult.

    One of the main reasons is that the university puts the emphasis on writing. The reason being is that Chinese don’t understand Chinese. There are so many different dialects, they often will say “ting bu dong”, meaning I hear you but don’t understand.

    To know the language well takes years, although if you immerse yourself you should have a grasp of basics.

    One word will have 4 or 5 tones, which result in different words, and in other cases, same tone, will have two meanings.

    Love China, but you need to get out to the country side to really experience the beauty of it. Beijing/Shanghai although nice don’t really allow you to get a sense of China.

    Recommendation- sign up for, which will give you a good start, at learning how to speak basics, and travel to smaller towns.

    We love it, and still miss it.

    • The dialects piece was a major reason I chose Beijing. In Xiamen, they speak Hokkien, right? I have friends in Shanghai who reported a similar difficulty — it was hard to learn Mandarin there because they don’t use Mandarin on the street but rather Shanghainese. That’s why I decided to spend my time in Beijing because I think that immersion aspect, where you hear the language spoken everywhere, is really important.

      • In Xiamen, they speak many dialects, as with many cities in China. People from the countryside move to the larger cities hoping to get jobs.

        You would have been fine in Shanghai, as they speak Mandarin there as well and found many of the Chinese that speak Shanghainese, will speak amongst each other, or default to English if they believe you don’t understand them.

        If you have the opportunity, learn taiji, (Chen style), it’s one of my favourite things to do, and glad that I had a master to teach me. You will learn a great deal about China, history and its people.

        Good luck with your time there, although i suspect you will want to stay longer than 6 months.

  • I’m very excited for you – being in China makes it so easy to have mind-blowing experiences! :oD
    As for the language, you will learn a lot, but be prepared for it to be difficult and not to progress as quickly as you’d like… Chinese is perhaps the hardest language to learn. WHich will make it all the more rewarding :o)

  • I’ll be eager to read about your experiences. Language learning figures big in my 2012 goals (Thai & French, to be specific), and i’ve been reading a lot of the language learning blogs lately. Bonne chance et bon courage!

    • And good luck with mandarin (not chinese)… if in 6 months you can learn, numbers, directions, greetings and a bit of “My name is” already you can call it a success

  • There are cheapish apartments around near the university. Bring thermals. Beijing was freezing a couple of weeks ago, will be below zero when you arrive. Lots of expat magazines and websites for you to check: the Beijinger is supposedly a good one. Beijing’s quite an expensive city, at least in accommodation terms.

  • Like Alison said, we’re very jealous! We really liked being in the Chaoyang area. It has easy transit access to the airport and the central area, plus there are great parks (Ritan, Tuanjiehu, Chaoyang) with fun kid activities. Our kids still talk about the massive ball pit at Fundazzle, a play place near the Workers’ Stadium. It gets expensive around the Sanlitun area but you should be able to find something reasonable a little further out.

    In addition to the Beijinger, the Beijing Kids magazine is a great resource for family activities. Good luck!

  • no recommendations, but i wanted to wish you the best of luck in picking up Chinese! I start my swahili lessons on Monday as I fell in love with the language while we were in Tanzania :o)

  • Christine, I told my hubby that is the first time since reading your blog that I have not been envious. I have this image of Beijing as one crowded city with horrendous traffic and air so polluted you need to wear a mask. But as an American, I know I have been fed so much propaganda — it’s hard to know what’s true anymore. I look forward to continuing to read your blog and learning what your life there will REALLY be like!

  • I recently moved back from China, and what an adventure you will have! I agree with Lorenzo, but a mask when you arrive as the air in Beijing can be brutal (smog and sand don’t mix very well!). I lived in China for a year, and with all intentions of becoming fluent, learned what I call “Taxi Chinese”. I mastered the basics of counting, greeting conversation, and how to order a beer. But as Tina said, my most frequently used phrase was “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand)…Enjoy the journey!

  • In November we saw the sun after four days in Beijing. Hard to imagine someone volunteering to put herself and her child in that dark, dusty, freezing and opressing place. But I hope you have a great adventure and come on top. We had a very good driver, that I would ought recommend for trips in and outside Beijing.
    On the other hand, what happened with the DVD that I ordered almost two years ago? I hope you don’t give up on that, we’ll return from our trip in January 2013 and I hope I’ll have it by then.

  • Cool! Beijing is a great place to learn Mandarin — you will hear it everywhere, and see much less English than in Thailand. Spoken Mandarin is not that hard, it’s just the writing that takes a long time. Good luck!

  • Wow, sounds awesome! Good on you for embarking on such a challenging adventure. China is a somewhere that I am a little daunted to visit, though my partner is fascinated with the place so it is definitely on our list. Can’t wait to follow along on your language/cultural journey.

  • Cool! Good luck to you on that front. Total cultural immersion is a huge undertaking, but 6 months should be a good amount of time to become conversationally fluent 🙂 I’ll be in Beijing near the end of May!

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