Learning Spanish abroad: rewarding and inexpensive

There is no better way to learn a foreign language than to throw yourself into a foreign culture and completely immerse yourself–unless it happens to be the Czech language you’re trying to learn. And then no amount of immersion will ever make you fluent in this crazy, difficult language.

My language problems aside, immersion is not only a great way to learn a foreign language, but also a great way to discover local customs while doing so.

For those of you interested in learning Spanish in such a manner, you might want to pop on over to the LA Times and check out an Elliott Hester article exploring the joys (and challenges) of immersion learning.

The great thing about learning Spanish, he tells us, is that there are a slew of wonderful places to do so at a fraction of the cost of your local Berlitz. Take, for example, Antigua, Guatemala. Hester reveals that “a week of private, four-hour classes” costs just $100. Throw in $75 for room and board with a local family, and you’ve got a whole lot more than just an opportunity to learn Español.

Me gustó!

Speaking in tongues; dubbing the Simpsons around the globe

One of the more enjoyable aspects of travel is coming across a version of the Simpsons dubbed in the local language.

Most of you reading this website are probably accustomed to the original American English voices of Homer, Bart, and the rest of the crew. Others around the world, however, have grown up hearing an entirely different voice when Chief Wiggums says something stupid or Homer screws up, doh!

The strange experience of hearing the Homer you know so well speak with a different voice in a different language is one of the many wonderful disconnects that make travel so rich and rewarding.

Below is a collection of various languages in which America’s greatest export can be heard around the globe. I just hope I got them all right, doh!



Learn a Foreign Language Online with a Real Native Speaker

One of the very best ways to learn a foreign language is by conversing with a native speaker. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find a native speaker when you are still at home getting ready for your trip abroad.

Sure, you can pay a fortune and visit your local Berlitz, but now there is a better way to practice conversation with a local expert.

FluencyNow.com is a cool new site that hooks students up with native speakers on the other side of the globe. If you have a pair of microphone enabled headphones and a high speed internet connection you are good to go. Simply book a time for a session, await confirmation, and then chat away at the appointed time.

50-minute sessions cost only $30–a whole lot cheaper than Berlitz and a whole lot more practical. And who knows, perhaps your native speaker will want to meet you in person and show you around when you finally arrive in their country.

(via Budget Travel)

A Canadian in Beijing: Reverse Culture Shock

(This will be my last blog for this travel series. See the end of this blog for where to read my blogs in the future.)

I have been back in Canada for just a few days and the music touring has launched in full force. Only two full days at home after three months away is not enough to recover and balance the reverse culture shock – a legitimate phenomenon that I can personally attest to – and even though I am ultimately responsible for deciding my fate, I’m currently shaking my head at my scheduling insanity.

I’m writing this from the Vancouver International airport where I am waiting for our transfer flight to Castlegar, BC where we will be performing at a Peace & Justice Festival called “On Our Way Home Reunion.” We will only be there for less than twelve hours, however, because we are expected in Illinois the next day at the National Women’s Music Festival and no connecting flights would get us there in time. That means that we have to drive all night back to Vancouver (about six hours directly following our performance) in order catch a morning flight to Chicago. This flight will then transfer to Bloomington, IN where we will arrive tomorrow at approximately three p.m. central time to be picked up and driven to Normal, IL. We perform tomorrow night and then drive back to Toronto on Sunday (about 11 hours) and then back to my home in the country on Monday (5 hours).

I am the one who approves or declines performance offers. The main problem is that I do this at least six months in advance of the actual travel time and I often imagine myself capable of anything when it’s so far away! So, here I am wondering what poison I was smoking when I decided that this was a good idea.

I am already exhausted from the twelve-hour, China-Canada jet lag not to mention the emotional adjustment to leaving Beijing and returning to my life here in Canada. Top that off with an early morning of five a.m. to catch my first flight out of Toronto and I’m wondering how we will ever make it back to Vancouver tonight without copious amounts of caffeine and some serious injections of good humour?

And people ask us how we stay healthy on the road…

My answer is usually “by staying home.”

On the flight over here from Ontario, I opened the in-flight magazine and flipped directly to a picture of the entrance to the Forbidden City and Chairman Mao’s face (top image). My heart nearly stopped when it fell open to that picture. That image feels so far away and here it was, staring at me from the pages of a magazine, smooth under my fingertips.

Just outside the bathrooms in this spacious waiting area in the Vancouver Domestic Airport (I actually miss the squatters!) are the computers that list the flights. I was walking briskly towards relief and then almost tripped over the friction that suddenly gripped my sneakers to the carpet and stopped me dead in my tracks. It was as though my feet read the screen before I did.

Beijing flight. 12:30pm. Air Canada #29.

My stomach, already heavy from the food I’m not used to – french fries and salad and a veggie burger that had too much relish and mustard on it were all squishing in my now non-western stomach – felt like it was going to lose my whole lunch. I’ve been feeling that way for the past two days, actually. I was convinced that it was the kind of wheat that I’ve been eating and I vowed to avoid wheat today. My burger was without the bun, but the nausea persists. And then, just the sight of the word “Beijing” and I felt sure I was going to wretch.

On the plane, I could hear a couple a few rows up speaking Mandarin and I was craving that perfect moment to interrupt, to pass them by and say something – anything – to have just to have another conversation in this beautiful language. I have felt like part of my ears have been plugged since I arrived home because all I can hear is English and French. Where’s the song of Mandarin? Where’s that language that has become like a friend, like music lilting through my head, like the perfect companion for my brain as it’s constantly challenging me, pushing me, waking me up and forcing me to think. There’s something so dull about English and French. Hearing just these languages (and mostly English) just awakes more of the despair at being separated from Mandarin.

For instance, as I was speaking French with my friend from Quebec two nights ago, I felt more and more sad. The words in Mandarin kept coming to me first and I had to translate them into the French words. It just feels like Mandarin is trying to come out and I was keeping it locked up inside, against its will but for its own good, of course.

Because no one understands here.

What a stupid thing to think while sitting in Vancouver, BC! Of all the cities to write that sentence in, this is not one of them. There is a huge Chinese population here…

Only, they’re not sitting across from me in this little café, or sitting beside me on the plane, or standing behind the counters at the cafes waiting for my order. At least, not on this particular path that I’m on towards Castlegar in the interior of this province (here’s a picture of the tiny plane we took to get there) and the festivals that will fill my weekend with music and other challenges.

I’m clearly flipping between stability and complete meltdown here. Half of my sentences are crying out and the other half are quietly comforting. The overall truth is somewhere in the middle. On the outside, I’m going to be fine. Maybe a little tired, but fine. On the inside, I’m going to be sad. Maybe a little happy too, but sad.

There is such loss and such gain. I have returned to my amazing life: my loved ones, my home, my music, the stage, my band… and I have lost my beloved China (until I return) and Mandarin (until I build more contacts here to keep it alive in my mouth until I return to China) and, last but not least, contact with the loved ones that I had to leave there.

To all of my friends in China: I miss you already. Save me a su baozi for my return.

And to my stomach: get it together. You’re home and you’d better start digesting this food! Head down, and forge ahead.

Keep it down.

And to my overall self: reverse the reverse culture shock. There is no choice in the matter. Eventually, you must arrive home.

Wo lai le 我来了。I have arrived.

It’s okay.


This blog will soon be located in its chronological order at a new location on Gadling entitled “On The Road.

I will continue to blog for Gadling about my North American travel adventures (and beyond), so keep checking the www.gadling.com site and just clicking on my name for new blogs. If there’s a new series, I’ll let you know via my own site‘s main news page, which is also the front page.

Thanks so much for reading this blog and for being so encouraging… and for reminding me that people far away cared enough to check in. I loved writing it and I’m thrilled that I’ll continue to blog for Gadling as I coast from coast to coast in between longterm adventures like this one in China. And, besides, I’ll be back in China before too long.

Of this, I am sure.

A Canadian in Beijing: Vegan Mandarin Language Survival Guide

When I first arrived in China, I wrote a post entitled: “Vegan in China, Part 1.” It was pretty negative all around. Why? Because I was hungry! About half-way through my trip, I followed that post up with a piece about the presence of an active vegetarian and vegan society here in Beijing. I would consider that my “Vegan in China, Part 2” post, although it wasn’t titled as such. This, then, should be considered my “Part 3” post, as it’s now at a point where I’m posting to help the next traveller get through these food dilemmas rather than posting in the hopes that someone will help me!!

I’m on third base and I’m heading home.

(to my own kitchen! I can’t wait to do some full-scale cooking again!)

Because I have experienced the trials of getting my language skills to the point where I can successfully feed myself, this post includes the explanation of some necessary short phrases in Mandarin for a person who fits this description:

  • non-Chinese speaking
  • vegetarian or vegan
  • who is in a restaurant
  • that isn’t necessarily vegetarian
  • and staring at a menu
  • that isn’t written in English
  • and is nearly faint with hunger

Good luck!

The following sentences I have found to be very useful. I have written them out in both “pinyin” (their sounds) along with the tones (the numbers in brackets) for those who have some knowledge of Chinese pronunciation. They are followed by the actual characters and then the translation, all of which is set off in the boxes below.

Under each box, I have explained how to actually say these sentences. This isn’t official and I’m not a linguist (let’s state the obvious right off the top!) but these are common English words or close approximations which can help an English speaker find these sounds without much difficulty. At least, here’s hoping!

So, let’s start off with the basic greeting and ice breaker. This is good to say when the waiter or waitress approaches your table and looks at you expectantly. It’s both a greeting and a comment, and it’s very casual and so it will probably make them laugh or smile if they’re not completely overworked and miserable to begin with!

Pronunciation Approximation: Knee-how, woe doe kuai euh seuh le

Here “kuai” is like the sound of “kw” put with the word “eye,” also known as one of the casual words for the currency here in China. Also, “euh” is like the vowel sound of the word “wood” in English. Just take off the “w” and the “d” and that’s your sound. If that doesn’t work for you and you speak any French, then this sound is also the sound of the French letter “e.” Another tip is the tail end of the German word “adieu” but with the German pronunciation! Finally, these three words “euh seuh le” all rhyme. I left “le” as it stands in its pinyin form because almost everyone pronounces that one correctly on first sight!

Other options include: “Wo hen e” 我很饿! or “wo feichang e” 我非常饿! = “I’m very hungry” and “I’m extremely hungry,” respectively. Pronunciation Approximation: “woe hun euh” or “woe fay-chong euh.”

Next, we’ll move to the crux of the issue. You’ve just expressed that you’re really hungry but this isn’t going to be easy. This is a great place to also put the opening “I am a vegetarian” statement (see image that starts this blog.) It can either follow #2 or precede #2. The word “but” is “danshi” and can easily be removed at anytime. It’s just a filler here.

Pronunciation Approximation: Dan sheuh, woe e dee-are roe yeh boo cheuh

Here the “e” is just as it looks. It sounds just like the letter “e” in English as though you’re naming the letter in the alphabet.

Next, you need to acknowledge the fact that you’ve no idea what’s happening on the menu that has been set before you and you need the server’s help. I can teach you how to say “I don’t understand this” or “I can’t read Chinese,” but that’s just boring. Why not enlist their assistance in the process? You can wave your hand at the menu and/or close it altogether. Most people assume that foreigners can’t read Chinese anyway, and so I think it’s unnecessary to state the obvious if this is the case.

The following is a casual and friendly way to request their help ordering. Since they already know that you’re not a meat eater, they will now (ideally) only suggest vegetarian options! Feel free to repeat the statement above (#2) to reinforce your point.

Pronunciation Approximation: Knee gay woe tway gee-anne gee geuh bah

Don’t forget that “gee” is not a hard “g” but a soft “g.” This is the fifties word of “darn,” for more context! Also, If you’re still having trouble with that “euh” sound then here is another tip: this “geuh” is the beginning of “good” without the “d” at the end of it.

Now, here’s yet another point of clarity. Sometimes the server will respond to your request for their suggestions (above) with yet more questions about what you’re interested in, i.e. what flavours you’d like, whether you can eat hot foods, etc. If you don’t speak Chinese, this will all be fired at you with questioning eyes and it will only be responded to in return by your questioning eyes of complete confusion. Generally, if you don’t know what has been said to you, keep the doors open! This comment, below, encourages them to be more assertive in their suggestions to you and gets you closer to food.

Pronunciation Approximation: Jeuh yao may yo roe doe keuh yee

Here, “yao” rhymes with “mao,” as in the Chairman!

Now, much vegetarian food here in China contains eggs. In fact, it’s been really hard to find soups without egg in them, for example. Dumplings are often made with eggs, as well, even if they’re not described as such on the menu. So, if you’re vegan and you don’t want your vegetable soup to arrive with egg floating in it, then this next sentence is really vital.

Pronunciation Approximation: Woe yeh boo cheuh gee dan

Next, here is another phrase that is useful for the vegans out there! Now, it’s not exactly a lie. Technically, if you’ve been a vegan for a while then your body will stop producing lactase, the enzyme necessary to breakdown lactose which is found in milk products. Thus, eating lactose will result in a great big stomach ache and some might identify this response as a typical allergic reaction! (What’s more, lots of people are lactose intolerant these days and so it’s not so rare for restaurants to hear, even in China.)

I do find this explanation works a hell of a lot better than expressing that you choose to simply not consume dairy products. In the bubble tea line-up, you’ll be sure to get a few odd stares when you just say that you don’t drink milk. An allergy makes everyone more vigilant about protecting you and their livelihood. In fact, sometimes I even use the allergy angle in English-speaking countries…

Pronunciation Approximation: Woe dway knee-oh nigh jeuh pin goa min

By “nigh” I mean the word that rhymes with “eye!” I know it’s not a very common word, but it’s still in the dictionary! Also, “goa” is just like “boa,” as in the snake!

Finally, this is your last resort. When there’s no way to get any food because you have not been understood in the least and everyone looks lost and frustrated, saying the following phrase while also cupping your hands in a small bowl and simultaneously pointing to something white (or pointing at the bowls on someone else’s table!) will surely get you some white rice. Afterall, this is a staple food here!

Pronunciation Approximation: Gay woe e wawn bye fun

Here “wawn” rhymes with “yawn” and don’t forget that the “e” is just like the sound of the English letter “e” when you’re naming it off in the alphabet.


Alright, here lies the end of this quick-vegetarian-or-vegan-language-survival-in-a-restaurant lesson!

And, as I said in my last post, if all else fails then there are always “su baozi” (pronounced: sue bao zeuh). See this post for more information on this tasty restaurant replacement food!

But mostly, the possibilities are here and China has shown me that there is even more for me to eat in a restaurant (besides salad!) than in a typical North American restaurant. I have completely changed my tune from the Part 1 post; there’s so much out there for me to eat! My body is happy.

My official stance on the issue is this:

The visiting vegan or vegetarian should have no trouble in Beijing.

Oh, I guess you could also just print this off! Then, you can just show the server these phrases and the only reason for opening your mouth can be to put food inside it!