As part of the Beijinger’s daily Mandarin Month series ahead of our June 25 Mandarin Mixer, we are profiling some of the capital's most fluently bilingual laowai. The star of today's installment: Dominic Johnson-Hill, creative clothing designer, entrepreneur, and TV host who rose to fame with his Plastered T-Shirts shop and his impassioned promotion of his brand in Chinese media.
Like the star of a wacky action comedy, Dominic Johnson-Hill sat in the police station’s interrogation room and played dumb. Officers peppered him with questions in Chinese for over two hours. Though his Mandarin was actaully strong enough understand most of their exasperated queries, he figured faking a few ting bu dongs would eventually frustrate the officers enough to give up and set him free.
His offense? Drunkenly climbing on top of a old-school hutong convenience store. It was 1996, before the British expat hit it big as the Creative Dictator of Plastered T-Shirts shop, or before he appeared on Chinese television to present his business in fluent, enthusiastic Mandarin.
The police proved to be a far tougher audience than any of the crowds that he would go on to wow.
In fact, they quickly grew weary of interrogating a man that didn’t seem to understand them. But as one officer drove him home, the still inebriated Johnson-Hill carelessly blew his own cover, and began giving the policeman directions to his residence in perfect Mandarin. When the cop dropped him off, he quipped: “I guess your Chinese isn’t so bad after all.”
Aside from that incident, Johnson-Hill has almost always been eager to speak in Chinese, and has found his fluency to be invaluable. Below, he tells us more about how his proficiency has lead to career breakthroughs, romance, and other adventures.
What advice would you give to a student who is struggling with their Mandarin?
My biggest successes always came from putting myself in situations where I had no choice but to speak Chinese. Travelling to far off provinces, living with Chinese families, and falling in love with Chinese girls that didn’t speak any English all made my Mandarin much better.
And then there's alcohol. It always gave me a certain level of blind braveness, so I could throw myself into situations and not care if I made mistakes. I would just speak it, and if I got it wrong I didn’t care. Then I tried to adopt that attitude whenever I was speaking. That's my advice: Just speak it, and learn by your mistakes. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, if you do people will gently correct you. Never worry about the tones, because they will come to you eventually. Just speak it, and have a blast.
What specifically prompted you to buckle down and study Mandarin seriously?
I was fortunate to arrive in China in 1993, so I was in a lot of situations where I wouldn’t see foreigners for a long time. That meant I was forced to speak Mandarin. Then I started my own business in 1995, and a lot of that business involved traveling to the north of China, where I really had to speak Chinese.
I never really buckled down and studied over books -- I was just speaking Chinese all the time. I'd practicing by writing down words that I wanted to use in a given day, and I’d always give myself a goal of three words a day, then use those words as much as possible before going to bed that night. That worked very well for me.
Also: Falling in love, two or three times, with incredible Chinese girls was definitely the turning point for my Chinese. I really wanted to communicate with them. As they say, passion is the biggest driver.
What have been the biggest benefits of Mandarin fluency?
They seem endless. I love travel, and the fact you can journey across such a populated country, sharing stories with the local people and understanding more about their lives, is incredible.
In terms of running a business, it's so important to communicate with your team and convey your thoughts. I can’t imagine not being able to speak Chinese. I was also very fortunate to have a television career here, through which I could go on different programs and promote my brand. That never would have happened if I couldn’t speak Chinese.
I could never had the close relationship I have this country without speaking the language.
Falling in love, starting a business, and becoming a TV presenter-- it opened up so many opportunities for me. It’s one of the biggest changing factors of my life.
What essential tools or materials do you recommend every student should use?
I never used an app. Never used a book. Your essential tools are all out on the street.
So: Get out, meet people, make conversation. Enjoy a meal on the street with strangers. Talk to taxi drivers. Fall in love. It’s all about speaking Chinese. So don’t be scared. Be brave, and challenge yourself. People will be very impressed, even if you can only speak a limited amount of Chinese.
Don't miss out on TBJ's free June 25 Mandarin Month event. Pre-registration is required; click here to do so, so that take advantage of free booze and other goodies:
In the mean time, follow our month-long Mandarin Month series here.
This post is brought to you by Pleco, Project Pengyou, and Ninchanese.
Photos: Mitchell Pe Masilun, Sui
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog