China Volunteering

Learning Mandarin at Omeida Chinese Academy

We are currently in Yangshuo (阳朔), China learning Mandarin at Omeida Chinese Academy. Tarick and I are both enjoying learning the language, and the setting here in the scenic countryside of China cannot be beat! It’s fun to be back in school, surrounded by interesting people and the great outdoors. There are many opportunities to get to know Chinese students who are studying English at the neighboring Omeida English College. To give you a sense of what our lives are like here, we’ll take you through a typical day in the life.

7am Wake up!

Our dorm room overlooks a primary school, so we are usually awoken by the sound of children scurrying off to school.

Our dorm room
The view from our room of the primary school next door. These kids have impressive ping pong talents.

7:30 am Eat breakfast.

A typical breakfast is chang fen (肠粉, 5 RMB= 75 cents), a steamed sheet of rice noodles custom ordered to include egg, vegetables, and/or meat, drenched in sauce and sesame seeds. The name of the dish translates to “intestine noodles” due to its twisty shape, but rest assured it contains no actual intestines.

Breakfast chang fen… my favorite!
Morning on the streets of Yangshuo near our school

8am Tea or Coffee

Our student lounge has a free supply of coffee and green tea, so we head there to get our daily caffeine fix! Each student even has a mug with their name tag on it. Over our morning beverages, we study new vocabulary or finish up our homework assignments. We sometimes share a couple mangoes, which are in season and absolutely delicious. Many of the students learning Chinese are polyglots, so the lounge is usually humming with people speaking different languages (most commonly French and Spanish). We were surprised to find out that we weren’t the oldest people here! In fact, our age (early 30s) is about the average.

Mangoes cost around 15 cents each and could not be more delicious!

9:25am Class Time

Our daily class schedule consists of three 45 minutes classes, with short breaks in between. Our teacher, Vicky, is great at getting us to speak in Chinese despite our very limited vocabulary. She’s always enthusiastic and prepared with fun activities to help us learn. The classes for beginners like us focus on practical topics that help you function in China as a traveler or resident. For example, we’ve done units about ordering at restaurants, sightseeing, buying train tickets, and getting directions. After we leave Omeida, we’ll be travelling in China for a couple weeks, so we are sure to apply everything we learn. To test our knowledge, we have a test every two weeks with listening, reading, and writing.

Tarick and our classmate Siobhain acting out a scenario about sightseeing in Beijing
Vicky with her list of new words for us to learn
Geography lesson

12pm Lunch

We eat lunch at our school’s canteen with students from the neighboring English School. Meals are an easy way to meet other students, and we usually spend some portion of the meal trying to name the different ingredients in both languages or teaching each other new phrases. The meal is family style, with each table sharing six dishes. The dishes change every day, but there is always one all-meat dish, a couple vegetarian ones, and a couple that are somewhere in the middle (i.e. vegetables sprinkled with meat). A crowd favorite is “tomato-egg”.

A typical lunch spread
It’s always easy to make friends over food

12:30pm Meet with our Language Partners

At some point during the day, we spend time with our Language Partners. Language Partners are students from the English School, who we meet up with for one hour to help each other improve our language skills, learn about each other’s cultures, and just hang out. The school pre-arranges the partnership, and we keep the same language partners for two weeks. Our first language partners, Daphne and Jimmy, took us on walks around town and out to eat. We spoke mostly in English, because we had such a limited Chinese vocabulary. With our current Language Partners, Mina and Kailan, we usually hang out in one of the student lounges and work through “scenarios” in English or Chinese to practice each other’s languages. For example, we practice ordering at a restaurant or buying produce with them, and they practice interviewing for a job with us.

Guilin Romance Park with our first language partners, Daphne and Jimmy
Out to dinner with Daphne and Jimmy, trying the Yangshuo-famous “Beer Fish” (pijiu yu, 啤酒鱼)
Practicing Chinese with Mina and Kailan

1:30pm Study/Free Time

We go back to our dorm room or the student lounge to do our homework, study new vocabulary, and catch up on anything else we need to do. Homework usually includes writing exercises and practicing characters. Sometimes we have a creative activity like making our own menu and listening to a song in Chinese.  

Typical homework assignments
Rainy walk home from school (a very common occurrence)
An afternoon bike ride with Rebecca, during her visit

5pm Volunteering (One-on-One English Conversation)

Every evening we spend an hour speaking one-on-one, exclusively in English, with a student from the English School. Many of the Chinese students are quite strong in English, but they don’t have many opportunities to practice with a native English speaker. This activity is considered “volunteering”, but we actually receive free accommodations in exchange for doing this every day. The conversations are usually quite enjoyable, because we get to meet more students this way, and we learn a ton about Chinese culture in the process. Most students are about our age, and there’s lots to talk about. At first, we were worried that it would be hard to keep a conversation going, but that is only occasionally an issue, like when the student is more shy or not very confident. The students are from all over China, but most of them live in Shenzhen (深圳), a city of 12 million right next door to Hong Kong. Many of the students are away from their partners and young children, learning English at Omeida to improve their job prospects and increase their salaries.

One-on-one conversation with two students. They gave me a copy of Le Petit Prince in Chinese!
One-on-one conversation with a student from the English School

6pm Dinner

On most weekdays, we eat at the school’s canteen, so it’s similar to lunch. Occasionally, we go out to eat. Our favorite spot is a place down the street, which has great vegetarian dumplings. (I became a vegetarian again back in March, and good dumplings can be hard to find!)

Taking a break from the canteen to enjoy egg & chive dumplings (jiaozi, 饺子) along with some pijou (beer)

6:30pm Evening activities/free time

After dinner, we usually wander around the neighborhood. The evening streets bustle with families pushing strollers, older women dancing in large groups, people buying produce out of the backs of pick up trucks, shirtless men playing Chinese Checkers, and people slurping up bowls of mifan (noodles) or hot pot. The evenings are warm and humid, so it’s not uncommon for us to enjoy this walk over ice cream!

One day a week, we have a group activity in the evening — for example, once we made tie dye (zaran, 扎染), and another week we visited a tea shop. There is also a “Social Night” at the English School once a week, with varying activities such as trivia night. Every once in a while we take a hike to one of the nearby hills that towers over the town.

Making zaran, tie dye famous in Yunnan and easily distinguished by it’s beautiful blue color
Antonio with his handkerchief
The view from an easy hike in Yangshuo park
Badminton is a popular sport here
Dragonfruits for sale
Riddle Night at the English School
Trivia night at the English School
Enjoying ice cream on super-touristy West Street (xi jie, 西街)
I love dancing with the ladies in the park

11pm Sleep

We try not to forget all the new words we’ve learned as we rest up for the next day!


    1. You had better believe that I told language partner Daphne about your Daphne within minutes of meeting her.

    1. Just wait a few years and you can send Landry to summer camp here! So many kiddos running around campus this month.

  1. This is so cool! And I’m certain you’ve already learned more than I ever did during my 4 years of Mandarin in high school!!

  2. I’ve been to Yangshuo a few times over the years, and went there for a week last August. The surroundings there are stunning, and are definitely one the nicest locations to learn Mandarin. I also wrote about my week in Yangshuo on my blog Chongqinglife if you wish to check it out.

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