Is it absolutely necessary to know Chinese when living in China?


Exchange students from Finland, Japan and Indonesia with a Chinese writer

– common language Mandarin Chinese

There are many kinds of foreigners coming to China: students, English teachers, travelers, business men, expats of international companies and their families. I’m sure everyone agrees that it is beneficial to know Mandarin Chinese when you live in China, but is it absolutely necessary?

Thank you Jennie for the blog post idea!

 It’s possible to live in China without knowing Chinese

Lots of expats live here without knowing the language, it’s absolutely doable but it has a big effect on your life. You will most likely eat in Western restaurants where the staff speaks English and rely on photos when you visit a Chinese restaurants. Haggling the prices on markets isn’t that easy because the language barrier and you can’t hear what prices the other customers get.

You will need a Chinese friend to help you with many things like renting an apartment, going to the post office and communicating with your cleaning ayi if you happen to have one.

But you will miss out a lot

You can have a perfectly happy life in China if you stay in the expat bubble, but is that really what you want to do? Why to move to a new country if you don’t explore the culture and meet some locals?

Even learning simple phrases like 你好(ni hao, hello),谢谢(xiexie, thank you) and 对不起 (duibuqi, sorry) the Chinese people will see you in a completely different light. They are always happy to hear us foreigners speaking Chinese and will do their best to cheer us up by complementing our language skills even after your very first ni hao.

By learning some Chinese you will show your respect to the culture and the people. Show them that you are willing to learn new things in order to communicate with them. It makes me very happy every time I hear a foreigner speaking Finnish, which is also regarded as a difficult language.

No excuses, learn the basics!

We all have our excuses not to do something, I can very well relate to that. But I’m sure we all can find at least 5 minutes every day to learn the basics, right?

You can start by:

Have any questions about learning Chinese? Ask away in the comments!


Reader’s Question: Hong Kong Travel Tips

Today it’s time to answer some Hong Kong related questions from my reader Alysa. If you have questions about living in Guangzhou/China, feel free to send me an email: sara(a)sarajaaksola.com.

Hi Sara!

Its me, Alysa, I’ve been following your blog for a while, commented on some articles, and asked you all the questions about your school and the student visas :) Well, I have to go to HK to try to renew my visa, but I had such a great visa before I didn’t have to go back for…I don’t know, 5 years? Anyways, I was wondering if you knew any good budget places to stay there, and are there any shopping centers you recommend I check out? I’m not interested in souvenirs…anyone who’s lived in China this long isn’t. Where do you usually go shopping while you’re there, for good deals or western products that are hard to find in GZ?

Thanks for taking the time to read this. :) A short reply would be great, but maybe some others would also like your thoughts on this?
– Alysa


Dear Alysa,

Glad you asked!

Cheap Accommodation

Recently I’ve always stayed at the same place when I visit Hong Kong and that’s Cosmic Guest House. They have excellent location at Mirador Mansion in TST and their rooms are cheap. Of course these cheap rooms are super tiny, but that’s what you get in Hong Kong. Prices start from 180HSK per room.

Don’t believe the photos on their website though, the rooms aren’t as big or clean as they might seem. Check out reviews and photos from tripadvisor before booking.


I personally don’t do that much shopping when visiting Hong Kong, but where I always go is the Swindon Book at 13-15 Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Of course books in Hong Kong are expensive, but you can get many books there that are impossible to find in the mainland.

As I’m far from expert at shopping, you better check this site for shopping areas, malls and street markets.


What if you could eat and drink as much as you like for 50HKD? That’s possible when you head to Mr. Wong’s in Mong Kok. Get a group of friends and let the cook prepare “some food” for your. No need to look at the menu! This place is famous among the exchange students as it’s cheap and even includes beer. It’s the only must restaurant I recommend in Hong Kong and you can read more about the place with photos on The Adventures of Abby.


I personally think that the best Hong Kong can offer us visitors are the great outdoors. Clean air, blue sky and excellent hiking trails. There are so many islands and routes to discover, like Tai O Village, Family Trail on Lamma Island and the Dragon’s Back Hike.

If you have other tips for Alysa, please leave a comment!


Summer is coming to an end

Summer is slowly coming to its end here in Guangzhou, even though the temperatures outside doesn’t really confirm that. One day it’s raining cats and dogs, the next day I’m melting under the harsh sun light. In this post I want to share what I’ve been doing this Summer and my plans for the rest of 2013.


I finished my last semester in June and started working from home. I spent my working time in front of my computer just to spend my free time at the same spot too! I didn’t really write my thesis that much, but I visited Hong Kong, watched TV series, helped a few customers to buy products and planned for my future.

Working from home wasn’t as easy as I had thought. You might remember, that I live together with my Chinese boyfriend’s parents, so I’m almost never alone at home. I have to drop everything when it comes time for lunch or dinner. For the parents it’s also a bit hard to understand why I spend my whole time in front of this piece of electronics, day after day.

I also find it hard to concentrate at home (that’s why I’m writing this from Starbuck’s). I suddenly find my self longing for an office! Or renovating the old house to our liking so I could have more time alone at home.


Besides work I’ve been reading more books when I noticed how easy and cheap it’s to read Kindle books on my iPad mini. I read two books about the place between China and South Korea, books about making something amazing out of your life and started reading in Chinese too, after a long pause. I recommend $100 Startup and The 4-Hour Workweek, even though parts of the latter didn’t really fit my situation.


I’ve also been planning what to do with my blog, how to grow it and make it more useful for all of us. I’m trying to post more now and answer questions from you, as I get emails and messages from readers every week. I hope later this blog would pay for it self, web hosting isn’t free you know, or even more. I would love to see this hobby of mine bringing some income that would allow me to use more time with all of you.


The Big Project for this year is of course my thesis which is about study motivation among Finnish exchange students in China. I want to find out why us Finns study Chinese. There seems to be absolutely no research about Finnish people studying Chinese at the moment, at least I haven’t been able to find any. So I though answering the “why” would be a good start.

I have big hopes for my thesis as well. I’ve gotten good grades from writing courses at university, writing has always been my strong subject. I’m quite sure teachers have quite high hopes for me as well, I’m kind of a good student. Getting anything than the best grade would be a disappointment for me personally, but it’s not easy to get. There a lot of work to be done, huge huge amount of work, this isn’t something I can finish the last night (like my essay homework).

Final Semester

As I have paid a full tuition fee for my last semester, I also want to make the most of it. I’m planning on enrolling some selective courses that I find interesting in order to keep on learning. I also like the uni environment and don’t want to lose it so quickly.


At the end of the Summer I met a Teacher M who is such an amazing character. She has the power in her to encourage others and make you believe you can do anything. She asked me why I haven’t been tutoring students in Chinese, I said I’m afraid I’m not good enough, and so I realized that fear had been keeping me from trying new things. I’m far from perfect, wouldn’t call my self fluent yet, but I sure can teach beginners a thing or two about this fascinating language!

Along of my new realisations about my self, I’ve been thinking of applying for scholarships in hope to start master’s degree next year. My first option would be to continue with Teaching Chinese as a Second Language (TCSL), but I might apply for other majors as well just in case.

Right now I want to pursue jobs and projects like teaching, tutoring, translating and interpreting. I hope to try some of these before end of the year. I want to do the “impossible” and combine my passions and my work. I will only know if it works, if I try!


Studying at Sun Yat-Sen University: Spring semester’s grades

I’ve been studying at Sun Yat-Sen University for four semesters now. As many of you know, my major is Chinese language and I’m specializing in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language (TCSL). On Spring 2013 I had my last compulsory courses and in this post I want to share my grades and final feelings of those courses.

You can also read about my other previous semesters here:

I hope these posts are helpful to anyone who plans to study their bachelor’s degree at SYSU.

But lets take a look how I did last semester:

综合 Comprehensive Chinese

Last March I wrote how “My biggest challenge have always been how to be motivated when studying boring material”, that was definitely the case with this course. Because I wasn’t inspired by the course or the teacher, I had difficulties motivating my self to learn and do homework.

I’m not surprised that I only got 79 (out of 100) from this course.

计算机 Computer Course

We learned a lot of important things about Word that will definitely help me with my thesis. Studying Excel was a bit boring, but I actually learned some useful skills that I’ve used after the course. Power Point was really familiar to me already, as we had to make many presentations at school, so there wasn’t that much to learn.

I was bit surprised to get 95.

偏误分析 Error Analysis

The course was all about looking at students’ sentences and finding their mistakes. It wasn’t always that exciting, but I understand it’s important for future teachers to know how to correct your student’s errors. To make it a bit less boring our teacher made as do short spontaneous speeches in front of the class and other classmates would keep their ears open for any mistakes.

I got 93 from this course.

教育心理学 Educational Psychology

Absolutely my favourite course of the semester! Even my thesis is about study motivation, even though I unfortunately didn’t get this teacher to help me with my thesis, as she was taken already by my classmate. We learned a lot about both learning and teaching. As our final exam we had to write 3000 characters in a topic that could be the same as our thesis.

I was happy to get 93 from this course.

毕业论文写作 Thesis Writing

I really liked our Teacher Li on this course, she’s an amazing person. I know that writing is often my best skill, much better than speaking, and she even praised my homework in class once or twice. Writing our theses without this course would be much more difficult, so luckily they got the new textbook out just before our course begin.

I was also very satisfied to get 92 from the course.

What’s next?

I was really surprised that this was my best semester! I almost feel like did our teachers be too easy on us or how could I get so great grades from most of the courses. The one odd 79 doesn’t really bother me much as I know the reason why I didn’t do well on that class. Sure I could have worked harder, but what’s done is done.

The next step is of course to continue writing my thesis. I have to send out the questionnaire in September and then in October we have to hand in our first draft. Everything should be ready in December for dissertation defend.


Guangzhou: Zhu Village


Zhu (Pearl) Village is located in the Tianhe district of Guangzhou. It’s an urban village these days, but the roots get back to the Southern Song Dynasty. I never knew that there could be so much history to be found in the Tianhe district, as it seems so modern with expensive brand stores and high rises. Luckily I got a chance to write a small piece for a magazine and heard about the Zhu Village.


You can take a metro to one of the stations marked in the map above and then continue with taxi. Or you can take a BRT bus and get off at the Zhu Cun (珠村) station. These busses all reach the village: B1B5B15B16B17B20B26 and B27.


I visited Zhu Village two times, first for the magazine and then to experiense the Chinese Valentine’s Day that was on the 13th this month (7th day of the 7 month in the lunar calendar). You can click the map above to get a bigger version.


The first steps into the village made me a bit sceptical, could there be anything ancient found here?

IMG_2965I do enjoy visiting urban villages too, excellent for exploring the daily lives of locals and migrant workers and taking photos of their everyday living.


I even managed to get this cute dog to pose for me! I’m still shy to photograph people, even though that’s what I would really like to do. Sometimes people also refuse to be photographed and I’ve missed many great shots by being a bit too slow.


It’s a bit hard to navigate inside the Pearl Village, but getting lost in the small alleys is also part of the urban village experience. I would advice you to arrange at least a few hours for strolling around.


During my first few months in Guangzhou a Finnish girl asked me why I wanted to stay in Guangzhou. Why wouldn’t I move to Beijing where there is so much more history and culture. Well, we don’t have Forbidden city in here, but everyday living is also an important part of culture and these villages dating back to the emperors’ times are a piece of rich history as well.


Culture isn’t just “high culture” like opera, plays, ballet, but it’s everything humans do. What you eat for breakfast, what kind of clothes you wear and what you watch from TV after work.


If you are interested in the urban villages of Guangzhou, I recommend you to check Adam Robert Young’s photos. He used to live in Guangzhou and took such an amazing photos with interesting stories.


There are many ancient sites inside Zhu Village, including 44 cultural relic buildings, 33 ancestral halls and 8 society temple altars. You might not be able to go inside to all of them, as old people are using them as poker and mahjong venues these days.


The best time to visit Pearl Village is during the Chinese Valentine’s Day which will next time be on the 2nd day of August 2014. Before going though, you should familiarize your self with the ancient legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl.

Wikipedia tells us:

“The general tale is about a love story between Zhinu (the weaver girl) and Niulang (the cowherd).Their love was not allowed, thus they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River ( the Milky Way).Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies would form a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day.”


I read online that if a couple happen to fall in love with each other in Zhu Village, their romance will last for eternity. I saw many couples visiting the village, but according to Wikipedia Qixi Festival is important both to single and married.

“Young girls partake in worshiping the celestials (拜仙) during rituals. They make wishes for marrying someone who would be a good and loving husband.”

“The festival also held an importance for newly wed couples. The celebration stood symbol for a happy marriage and showed that the married woman was treasured by her new family.”


The old temples and buildings were full of decorations during the festival. Miniature houses, people and all kinds of objects. Everything was also on sale and we heard one old lady saying: “They don’t buy anything, why to take so many photos!” My boyfriend explained that the locals had already celebrated the festival and this part was for the tourists to come and spend some money.


A young couple taking a photo of them selves.


In Guangzhou there can’t be a festival without food! We found all sorts of drinks and snacks for sell at the Qixi Square. It’s a bit hectic with all the sellers shouting their offers and different smells blending in together.


During the Qixi or Chinese Valentine’s Day, the local villagers have a tradition to gather together for lunch. Tables and chairs were laid out in front of and inside of the biggest family temple. There was also a local TV station shooting and interviewing locals for the news.

Have you visited urban or ancient villages in Guangzhou or elsewhere in China?