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Life in Kunming: Studying Chinese in the Spring City

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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

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Nice interview! Definitely true about some schools being a bit too flexible. Did you by any chance visit Huayang Academy? learnchineseinyunnan.com/

Currently studying Chinese at Huayang and don't think its too flexible in fact it's very good. I've not studied in other schools so just wondering how you compare them ?

Also how do you find the Kunming dialect? it can throw me off sometimes and I feel I might move north eventually but its too cold

Although I have studied at Keats and find it's the bet place to study Chinese in Kunming that I know of, the article sounds a bit like a plug for Keats.
As for studying Chinese, imagine how idiotic it would be to live in any country for more than about 6 months and not be abler to hold a conversation in that country's language.

I've heard bits and pieces saying it's good and bad. Seems lately Keats and another school have been pushing reviews which I think damages them more than works in their favour. True it could be a paid article or a favour to Keats. As far as I know they are one of the top schools in China anyway,

Well I wouldn't say idiotic there are nice people here 6 years that can't speak the lingo. Also it is expensive to study some people gotta work.

I guess I might call them and see if I can visit the school as I might stay in Kunming next semester, just wondering if there is an outdoor group that hikes etc in Keats.
At Huayang we are lucky to have a lot of hikers cyclists etc. we went to jiaozi mountain and it was one of the best hikes i've been on in China check out the views for gods sake! medium.com/[...]

Well, I've lived places for more than 6 months without developing at least conversational language ability and I felt like an idiot. Being a nice person doesn't come into it.

Feeling like an idiot and being an idiot are Two different things!

I came here as a College English Instructor from Thailand where I taught every grade from Primary through University. In Thailand, as soon as my students heard me speak Thai, "it was all over." That's all they wanted to speak. It is a very big challenge to get Chinese students to speak English with each other. Even higher level Chinese English teachers are NEVER heard speaking English to each other. I noticed the Speak Chinese sign above. That's good. It's called Immersion. I purposely did not bother to learn Chinese here forcing my students to speak ONLY English to me. Calling anyone an idiot is a bit strong. I communicate & get around very well. Being fluent is not the same as being able to communicate!

@ redjon: OK, I agree.
@ForeignGuy: (1) I appreciate the problem, but it's possible to know a language and control its use in the classroom. (2) What about living in KM? Don't know your Chinese ability, but I'm not pretending everybody become fluent, which is the kind of irrational and impossible goal that has kept friends of mine from learning any Chinese at all - and that is a stupid mistake. On the other hand, if you can only buy things in the market in Chinese etc. you are shortchanging yourself, as well as those you attempt to communicate with and live among.

Well, I for one am closing on 5th full year in Kunming, and can not speak Chinese more than casual greetings or understanding how much money to give when I buy something.

Local spouse contributes a lot to avoid having to learn, and since neither of us are teachers, family happiness comes before frustrating teacher/student relationship.

Also, to me it seems that it gets easier to manage without Chinese every year - I suppose it is some kind of development both ways.

But I have been considering taking formal classes - not so much to hold a conversation, but as backup plan if things change career or otherwise.

@JanJal: Yep, I'm sure it gets easier year by year.

It get's easier upon learning the way's of doing things, kind of becoming an automation on the regular things.
I've been here 4 and a half years learning a little all the time but the language never perfectly sticks, just slowly grows. It's a tough challenge especially when like JanJal my local spouse contributes quite a lot when I have trouble. It's something I think is always worth keeping up with if you're going to stay for any long length of time.

A fave :

"A year from now you may wish you had started today."

― Karen Lamb

I found this article highly pretentious and should be placed in the ads or Keats website. The majority of gokunming readers aren't daft and kind of know what's going on with schools in the city anyway. Besides, the interviewee doesn't seem to really know why he enrolled. He mentions flexibility as a priority but states other schools are too flexible whilst holding the opinion that Chinese standards would be too difficult. A school with no Chinese standards and too laid back sounds dreadful in my opinion.

It does sounds like a veiled ad... I was drawn to the article because it sounded like something interesting could come out of it, like how do people even find kunming, why they want to study Chinese (other than feeling polite and politically correct), what do people do when they are done studying, how do they decide they are done studying, or something.

Instead, it's just... meh.

Hey Vicar, Alien, and Lorena, totally understand why you'd think the interview is a plug. Honestly it is... but a completely voluntary plug. I've just honestly had a great experience my first semester here. I was really happy to put my endorsement behind this school - based on my personal experience with them. I'm sure it's not the best story, but it is an honest story. :)

And DiggySmalls, so sorry for not replying sooner... I didn't even think to check the article comments. As for your school, only by website - not in person. But I'm no authority on the contrasts of language acquisition methods and teaching structures. And I didn't share my thoughts to discredit other schools in any way, but only to share what was going through my mind as to why I chose Keats. As for the dialect, I'm not focused on learning it, but I really enjoy hearing it around town! It seems to have more of an abrasive vibe to it, a certain tonal honesty. But yeah, it totally throws me off sometimes! I'm listening for what little Mandarin I know, and it takes me a little while to realize I'm hearing some KunmingHua, ha!

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