Learning Chinese is not an easy commitment, but once you make it, the choice can certainly pay off. For more than two decades, students choosing to study Mandarin in Kunming have made up a large chunk of the foreign population here in the Spring City. Some of them arrived long ago and have never left.
But 35 year-old Josh Neukam has been in Kunming a mere four months. After visiting the Spring City and traveling through Yunnan province a few years ago, he finally decided to move his family here from the US, drawn by the mix of modernity and tradition, the new and old versions of China. This combination was enough to encourage him to begin learning the language in earnest.
We sat down together recently at Kunming Keats School after Josh finished his morning classes. Our discussion touched of course on the struggles of learning Chinese, but also what drew Josh to this corner of China and how he chose to study where he did.
GoKunming: Let's start at the beginning. Why are you studying Chinese?
Josh Neukam: I came to visit some friends here a little over three years ago, and after decided to move here. I didn't want to be the guy who always has to say "I'm very sorry. I don't understand. Can you speak English?" I mean, no problem if you are just visiting, right? But I knew that I was going to move myself and my family here and the first priority had to be assimilating, and the best way of doing that is learning the language.
GK: When you were deciding to move to China, why did you choose Kunming, instead of, for example, a larger coastal city?
Neukam: I love the diversity. I love the food. I love minority culture. The city is delightful. It's large, but it doesn't feel so big. But it's a nice central place to travel around to other locations in China, around this part of the world. I love photography and, getting around Yunnan, with the number of places that you can see, it's just tremendous.
At the beginning, we had some friends from the US who were living in Kunming while I was doing a lot of traveling. I had never been to Asia and they described some of the highlights here in Kunming. I had only heard of Beijing and Shanghai. So I knew very little about Chinese geography and culture.
The thought of seeing both new China and old China was something that really caught my attention. So in 2014, my family and I came to Kunming to visit for a month. We traveled around to a number of the places — Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-la, Jianshui, Yuanyang, and of course all around Kunming. We really fell in love with the place. After that, moving here was a no-brainer.
GK: When you began shopping around for a school, what were you looking for?
Neukam: I was looking for a good class structure and language learning structure. I was looking for something that was going to be flexible, with smaller class sizes and an approach that was entirely student-oriented. Those were the main things.
GK: So in the end you chose Keats. What was it about their school that made you enroll?
Neukam: When we were here in 2014, my primary focus was to travel around Yunnan taking pictures and just enjoy the sites. My friend who lived here, I came to visit him at a language school. That's kind of when the idea came into my mind, that maybe I could come back, learn the language and create a life. I visited a handful of language schools when I was here in 2014. Some of them are a bit too flexible. When I sat in on their classes, I didn't feel like I was going to be challenged. Some of the teaching methods were geared toward Chinese standards, and I knew that would be difficult for me.
Keats has the best balance of things that are important to me. On top of that, Mandy, the principal at Keats, she just went above and beyond to answer my questions — not just during my first visit, but over the course of the three years that I was planning. She gave me the confidence that I could make this happen. I haven't been disappointed.
GK: What is a typical class like?
Neukam: I'm in a group class that lasts two hours every day, Monday through Friday. We typically start off with some vocabulary review and practice grammar from previous lessons. Then we follow up with conversational practice. The majority of each class focuses on new vocabulary and some question and answer practice. But our teacher really does a great job of adding in games, activities and the occasional field trip.
Nearly every week I see the school arranging trips to local places that have maybe tourist interest and cultural interest as well — places like the Stone Forest and the Western Hills. The teachers and administrators really provide unique opportunities for us students to engage with one another as well as any locals we meet.
GK: How are your classmates? Are they from all over or mostly from one country?
Neukam: My classmates are fantastic! They come from 11 different countries. Having that diversity really adds a great dynamic to our classroom interaction. I've developed some wonderful friendships here already.
GK: What was your level of Chinese when you began?
Neukam: Not as good as I thought it was. I really thought when I moved to Kunming that maybe my first month or maybe even my first two months of class would be more of a review. I'd done some self-study in the US, very moderate effort. It was nothing intensive by any means. But I think after my second week of class here at Keats, I realized how much of a newbie I was. I knew the basic greetings and some vocabulary...just survival Chinese it turned out. I thought I could communicate well enough with that, but that wasn't quite right.
GK:What's your Chinese level now? Can you give an example of your progress?
Neukam: I would still call myself a beginner, but a functioning beginner. I know how to ask where the restroom is in three different ways. I'm able to function around town conversationally. If I get into a taxi, going somewhere, I can hold a 20-minute conversation with the taxi driver for the entire trip. I'm able to ask questions about the things I want to buy and negotiate a price. I can order food in restaurants, and I usually know what I'm going to get. Don't misunderstand me though, I'm sure I've said a lot of things really incorrectly. There's still so much to learn, but I'm really encouraged by my progress so far. I didn't think I would be where I am now after just one semester with the school.
But language learning is not a constant upward movement. It's a roller coaster — it's up and it's down. So some days I feel very confident and all of the words seem to flow out of my mouth very naturally. Other times I feel like I've forgotten every word that I've ever studied. It's just depends on the day.
GK: Have you learned any of the local dialect?
Neukam: 'Meh'. That's the only one I can remember right now. It's the only Kunminghua I've learned so far.
GK: Do you plan to keep studying or are you off on another adventure soon?
Neukam: I definitely plan to keep studying. Kunming can't get rid of me that easy. My family and I really love this place.
GK: What advice would you give to foreigners thinking of studying in China?
Neukam: Do their homework, research the cities that they are interested in visiting, really check out the schools they may attend. I'm so happy I visited Kunming three years ago. We didn't know what our long term plans were at that time, but that visit helped us to settle in and made us a few connections around town. If you can visit wherever you'd like to go, I think that's incredibly beneficial, but of course I'm really partial to Kunming, partial to Keats. So I'd encourage anyone thinking of studying in China to consider Kunming and Keats. I don't think they'll be disappointed.
I know foreigners who read a lot of books about China before coming here, and I don't think that hurts by any means. But China is changing fast, so the most helpful thing for me was reading current articles — about schools, teenagers, trends, the lives of older people. I also try to watch modern movies in Chinese and listen to pop music. These sorts of things have really helped me and my family to adjust.
GK: How has your family's visa situation been handled?
Neukam: The school provided all the documents I needed, no problems at all. Everything in the US went very smoothly. Once I was in Kunming though, I found myself lacking some documents I needed for the residency permanent, but it wasn't the school's fault, it was mine. Keats was great at calming my nerves and walking me through all the steps I needed to take to resolve the issues.
GK: How do you plan to use your Chinese in the future?
Neukam: I'm still developing my long-term plans. But right now I'm focusing on business. I also love travel photography and Chinese culture. I'd really like to find a way to marry those things, to develop a photo tourism business down the road, or even just work with one. But right now I have a bit more time to learn and enjoy the journey.
Chinese is instrumental in making these things happen though. If I have friends, connections — if I'm able to network with people to find where are the best places to visit, which places ensure client comfort, the best restaurants — these sorts of things are important to what I want to do. I don't think I could put all of those things together without knowing the language, so learning it well is a crucial step.
I've learned from studying business in the US that relationships are very important, trust is very important. It's hard for me to imagine having a relationship built on trust without knowing the language. Chinese helps me understand the culture here more — where to take people, how to interact — all of those things that make business possible. My goal for learning the language is really to be that bridge.
GK: Along with your language lessons, how has your understanding of Chinese culture changed?
Neukam: I cannot imagine learning this language outside of China. Being here immerses you in the culture if you let it, and our teacher regularly introduces the cultural significance behind what we are studying — whether it's table manners, relationships or festivals. The most recent example was Mid-Autumn Festival — learning about the importance of the moon. Actually, maybe the most recent one was learning about etiquette — what to do with the chopsticks, where to put them, how to be polite when you're a guest in someone's home, what kind of gifts you should bring, when do you refuse a gift — all those very important things.
GK: We've spoken a lot about your education, but haven't mentioned the instructors very much. How have you found the teachers at Keats?
Neukam: Awesome. Seriously. I've never had a better teacher. She's balanced and giving and creates a good class structure that fosters efficient language acquisition. She's also excellent creating a positive environment. I've seen some classes that focus too much on structure and become a slave to it. Then I've met other teachers that want you to have fun, so the learning suffers because of a lack of discipline. Here it's just really balanced. We are a very lively class, sometimes very loud. But our teacher does a great job of allowing us to have that fun but also keeping it within the rhythm and structure we need. It's enjoyable. If she happens to be reading this interview later, I wouldn't mind if that helped out with my grade [laughs]!
Images 1,2,5,7 and 8: Stella Mao
Other images: Kunming Keats School