Trains. Recently I was on a 24 hour train, something I used to do all the time. Trains are a great environment for practicing your Chinese. I can’t think of a better place to practice Chinese or learn about the “real China”.
All of China on a Train
Usually, it’s hard to meet and talk to people outside of the classroom. But on a train, it’s much easier. You’ll meet people from all over China who generally want to chat. They’ll speak in accents you’ve never heard before. At first it might take a while for you to understand anything they’re saying, but don’t give up. Chinese people are proud of their language, happy to see people learn it, and even happier to teach you a phrase or two (always bring a notebook to write things down).
Don’t drink the 白酒(baijiu) (I’ve found this to be a good general rule of thumb).
Don’t talk politics. (Don’t do it on a train, don’t do it at the dinner table.) Sometimes, conversations can get political without you saying a word. You might feel uncomfortable talking about some issues. But even if you do like talking politics, I’d advise against it: I’ve found that people who talk about politics to a foreigner they’ve just met don’t want to hear your worldview!
Trains are getting faster
The main story of China in the 21st century is economic development. China’s trains are one of many areas you can see improvements. Faster, better train lines are popping up everywhere. Journeys that used to take 30+ hours now last a fraction of the time. While that’s good news for someone who wants to get somewhere quickly, it’s not great news for those looking to use trains as language corners. Shorter train rides might mean less people chatting. I hope the newer trains continue to provide the same dynamic environment as before.
Did you have any interesting conversations on a train in China? Know of an better place to practice Chinese?