My time learning Mandarin, teaching English and working with Gemserv

Day one in China. Don’t understand a lot of what people are saying, as they seem to be speaking a different language. Not even Chinese! I arrive at the check out with my food shop and ask the assistant for…I’ve forgotten the word for bag, I think it’s ‘bao’ and then to make it a noun, add a ‘zi’. My brain does the quick processing, and I ask for a ‘baozi’. The assistant looks at me, confused, asking where the bag is. I’m pointing behind her, repeating ‘baozi’…I would like one of your ‘baozi’. Eventually, she hands me a bag. I later find out, I’ve been insistent that she gives me one of her steamed dumplings. Off to a good start!

Kunming is home to about 7m people, but deemed a relatively small city in China, in one of the poorest, but prettiest provinces. This is where my boyfriend, Rob, and I set up base. We taught English to children of all ages, mainly at the weekend, but also in public primary schools. Standing in front of 60-70 children who have never seen a foreigner before, whose English is almost indecipherable, trying to keep them excited, but under control…well, this is why I’m not a teacher!

We also studied a lot. About 8 hours a day, 2 of which were with Chinese teachers. Luckily, that paid off as we both passed challenging exams. According to the exam level, yes, I am fluent. However, it doesn’t feel that way when everyone is speaking fast, using slang and dialect (a different language to my ‘Queen’s English’ version of Mandarin).

Mandarin comprises of characters, pinyin (the alphabet version to tell you how to say it), and tones. So, you can’t just remember a word based on the alphabet, you must also memorise the tone, how it changes when added to other tones, and the character. Some of the characters look really similar, and some of the words, if using the incorrect tone, will give a completely different meaning. For example, bao is indeed a bag, but when added to zi, it’s a dumpling. Dai (+zi) is also a bag, but can also mean to wear, to bring, to carry, to raise children, or an ethnic minority name. Qing wen can mean either ‘excuse me, can I ask you a question?’, or ‘please kiss me’. It all comes down to the tone.

Having a goal to learn a language can be time – life – consuming. However, I had a great opportunity to put my head up from the study desk regularly while in China, to do some work for Gemserv. This is where I learned the power of personal ownership. I agreed a due date with the manager and worked to deliver to the deadline. I was very aware of the damage to personal reputation if I delivered late or to a lower quality. Owning the output motivated me to work harder, delivering against tighter timescales and to a higher quality.

Having this opportunity to maintain a relationship with Gemserv while I was away was brilliant as I could keep my brain engaged with non-Chinese related things and keep up to date with market developments. Also, taking personal responsibility for delivering the output was very motivating.

Feeling ownership for outputs, working flexible hours, and having the opportunity to work at home – these are my top three benefits which changed my relationship with work toward it actually not feeling like working, but more like another hobby which I have to dedicate time to.

Taking personal responsibility and ownership of outputs starts from the first time an output is considered, i.e. it’s about agreeing achievable due dates upfront, producing quality outputs, and working around personal productivity levels (we all know that time of the day when we’re just on a go-slow that no amount of coffee can shift yet we’re under self-inflicted pressure to power through to deliver an output which we should have started earlier).

Aiming for personal ownership in our own lives can make us all feel more in control of our working lives, work-life balance, and make us all more productive, delivering more, higher quality outputs. It’s a win-win.


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