By LTL Chinese Student Michael Maris.
Since acquiring my Chinese motorcycle license in June this year, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some rewarding and genuinely life-changing experiences. The chances are that if you are reading this article, you are either a student of languages or you at least plan to be. The notion, therefore, of exploring other cultures – their practices, habits, and living spaces – is probably one that naturally appeals to you. If this can be described as adventure of the linguistic kind, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that its road-based bedfellow is the humble motorcycle, which for the last hundred or so years has catapulted the petrol-head and the horizon-chaser around the world at sometimes breakneck speed, often to the delightful cacophonous burble of a two or four stroke engine. Two wheels can take you where no other vehicle can, and do so whilst exposing you in the most immersive terms possible to your surroundings. Like learning a language, they take a very long time to master; like living in a foreign country, they can be both intimidating and intensely exciting; and like achieving fluency while abroad, they grant you a very privileged access to unique and uncommon experiences. What’s more, as I’ve discovered, motorcycle enthusiasts form tight-knit communities in every international destination and are some of the most welcoming people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. The notion of a common interest, a shared appreciation of and for what bikes enable riders to do, is something that transcends even the most obstinate of linguistic barriers, and lays a solid foundation for friendship and camaraderie even in the unlikeliest of far-flung places.
My license has enabled me to ride dirt-bikes in the mountains a few hundred kilometres north of Beijing in a group consisting of four Lao Wai and twelve Beijingers, skimming along the brows of mountains and over plains that lope towards Outer Mongolia . It allowed me to (legally) purchase a cheap but convenient Chinese dual-sport and avoid the subway by riding it to school, as well as being the catalyst for conversation with many locals as they gazed open-mouthed at a foreigner, yes, a foreigner riding a motorcycle in their city. It was the cause of what is and will continue to be a deep and enduring friendship with a Chengde gentleman by the name of Li Hou Zi, with whom I ended up living and whose riding friends warmly welcomed me into their community as we sped through the twisty mountain roads on sports bikes. Possessing the license naturalized the decision to travel to visually and culturally spectacular Yunnan province, which borders with South-East Asia, and ride 2500 kilometres over two weeks accompanied by a Kunming local, who taught me all sorts of local phrases in his musical dialect. We reached freezing highland vistas at 4500 metres above sea level, visited ancient Tibetanesqe lamissaries, and traced the Mekong river as it spilled and twisted its way down to the fertile wetlands of the lower country. And I even rode off-road over the Cao Yuan (Grasslands) which border Inner Mongolia, and crossed over into that country whilst part of a convoy of fifteen 4x4s, six motorcycles and two ATVs, in a dramatic and euphoric expedition which saw us tracing the countours of the rolling hills for which the area is famous. During all of this time, without exception, the company I was in spoke nothing but Chinese. This not only allowed me to experience firsthand the non-classroom and undiluted side of the language, but also encouraged and substantially developed my spoken Mandarin. And, most importantly for anyone considering whether coming to China to study is a worthwhile investment, not a single moment of my adventures could have been possible without speaking Chinese.
As a student who recently finished an MA in some rather obscure if not deeply fascinating dead languages, I am very well aware of the sometimes overly ‘academicy’ nature of linguistic study. The long days wrestling with your brain as you struggle to remember something only recently covered: the frustration of endless vocab lists, grammar memos, underlined headings and highlighted phrases. Let alone the courage required, unknown to anyone who hasn’t studied a modern language, to just open your mouth and use your knowledge in those many densely-packed social occasions, when you know that even the slightest slip causes sense to tumble to the ground in an embarrassed heap. Yep, learning any modern tongue isn’t easy, but Chinese perhaps rightly deserves its reputation as being one of the more difficult. I have been studying a hair over six months and there have been some tough moments. A large proportion occurred when the walls of the classroom seemed to be my horizon, and when the language seemed only to exist between the pages of the text book. But my point here is this. Mandarin is spoken by one and a half billion people, and whilst it is easy to lose sight of its incredible applicability and utility whilst in the classroom, it is a ticket to life experiences. It is a language which furnishes the Lao Wai speaker with opportunity, and immediately grants you the status as an ‘object of interest’ to the majority of the local population. It enables you to travel in a simply massive country, swathes of which are unavailable to most foreigners because their inability to understand what people are saying leaves them dependent on a network of guides, hotel-arranged excursions and travel books. It makes you the master or mistress of your own decisions, to step off the beaten path of tourism by genuinely conversing with locals over a beer and some lamb skewers, to know that you are capable of organizing your own transport and independently visiting a place of interest or a particularly well-known local restaurant. So what, it might be asked, is the relevance of this to getting a bike license?
Hopefully I have given some implicit sense that learning Chinese, and riding in China, are a perfect complement. The one enables and indeed greatly enhances the other. There is lots of information available on the LTL website about the structure of the course, the homestay opportunities (which, I would suggest, are absolutely invaluable), and the overwhelmingly positive feedback given by current and former students (which I would of course echo resoundingly). But China is, as with every great travelling experience, what you make of it, and I would venture to say that time spent outside the classroom is as indispensable as time spent within it. The most valuable moments here are always those which you didn’t expect; engaging with the bosses of local small restaurants , watching the Chinese at home during celebrations of festival days, wandering through the park and seeing how people behave in their free time here. If understanding the language hugely accentuates that whole experience, I’m sure you can imagine just how much it helps when you are way from the city centres, where the more traditional elements of Chinese culture still flourish, and where you get to see the ebb and flow of life that remains impregnable to the non-Chinese speaker. Riding a motorcycle with the ability to converse in Mandarin allows you to go on cultural safari, reaching parts of the country that very few foreigners have been or can get to. The language works as the first and most necessary stepping stone on the intricate surface of Chinese culture while enabling you to access the deeper parts of it. Riding bikes and learning Chinese serve equally well as metaphors for one another. Both connote adventure, new experiences and places most people have never been. Both represent a foray into the unknown, and a long and sometimes difficult road to some of life’s great moments. There are times when you’re off balance and stressed, but it is the hard bits that act as the real catalysts for progression. And the rewards are superabundant, rich and exciting. If doing the driving qualification licenses you to ride bikes to interesting places, then learning to speak Chinese is a license to engage with and better understand the country and its people while doing so.