Learning the language in China

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  • Kenza Wilks with his dragon boat racing team (Photograph supplied)

    Kenza Wilks with his dragon boat racing team (Photograph supplied)

  • Kenza Wilks enjoying his time in China (Photograph supplied)

    Kenza Wilks enjoying his time in China (Photograph supplied)


The Chinese have a phrase bu dong zhuang dong, meaning to pretend to understand when you don’t.

Nineteen-year-old Bermudian Kenza Wilks admits he did a lot of that when he first moved to Beijing in September.

Once, he accidentally asked a cab driver if he had a nose, when he was really looking for a pen.

“He looked at me weirdly,” Mr Wilks said. “Then he pointed at his nose and said of course I have a nose. That was quite amusing. Eventually we got it sorted out.”

Mr Wilks is in China on a Confucius scholarship, studying Chinese language and literature, and the teachings of Confucius, at Tsinghua University, the top university in China.

“When I was offered the scholarship, I decided it seemed like a great opportunity,” Mr Wilks said. “I thought I could develop my Chinese language skills so they’d be useful in the future.”

Once in China, he quickly found his three years of Mandarin in high school at Dulwich College in London, were not enough to get him around real-world China.

“It has been a trial by fire,” he said.

But most people he has met have been warm and patient and he is doing well.

He recently passed with distinction his HSK 4 and HSKK (Intermediate) level Chinese qualifications. For that, he had to learn 1,200 Chinese characters.

“I had to study quite a lot,” he said. “It is quite intense at my university. We have classes every morning from 8am to 12pm but there won’t be a day that goes by that I won’t use Chinese outside of the classroom.”

To practice the language, he loves going to the Silk Street Pearl Market in the city.

“It’s quite famous,” he said. “There are five floors and people are selling designer brands. One reason I go there is that all the people want to speak to you, because they want to sell you their product.”

In his spare time, he takes part in dragon boat racing.

A dragon boat is similar to a canoe but instead there are ten people rowing it,” he said. “Our international dragon boat team recently ranked as the top team in Beijing at the Beijing Capital Universities Dragon Boat Festival and we have upcoming races in Dali, Hangzhou and other cities across China.”

He also finds time to run his own business Code Blue Consulting, started last year. Code Blue offers advisory services to companies interested in entering the Chinese market.

“Code Blue was recently hired by a Sierra Leone-based start-up called Exodus Trust sourcing medical equipment, solar panels and sustainable farming materials for remote villages,” he said.

“We have been tasked with finding new Asian business opportunities as well as negotiating product supply lines using my experience in e-commerce on sites like Alibaba as well as my Chinese language skills.”

Another part of his operation utilises his passion for public speaking and debating. Last year, he was ranked the top debater out of 460 competitors at the World Schools Debating Championship in Bali, Indonesia.

“That work ranges from working with schools, national associations, and business professionals,” he said. “We offer clinics, keynote speeches and seminars.”

This year, Mr Wilks was hired to help the Indian national debate team. In January, he travelled to the country to run workshops and select team members, and in April he returned to help train those selected.

He said debate is something he was “profoundly” passionate about. While in China, he is also enjoying travelling.

“I enjoy visiting the cultural sites in Beijing such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven,” he said. “The subway system is fairly intuitive, and reports the stops in English, which was helpful when I first came out.

“We have an app called WeChat that allows you to pay in all the stores using your phone. You can hire an Uber driver or book a plane or train ticket with it. It is quite helpful.”

And his base in Beijing is allowing him to explore other parts of Asia. Since last September, he has been to India, Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea.

“I couldn’t have done that if I was any farther away,” he said. “Even within China, I think the variation across cities is fascinating.”

One of his most interesting trips in China was a 32-hour train ride from Beijing to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.

“A lot of people there look Arabic and speak a different dialect,” he said. “A lot of them are immigrants from the Stans, such as Kazakhstan, along the borders.

“It was a fascinating place to go and, as we travelled, the landscape changed so much from forest to fields to desert.”

However, one of the bad things about living in China is the pollution.

“Some days it gets quite bad and you need to wear a mask,” he said. “But this year pollution has been significantly lower because the Government has been putting in a number of initiatives to lower it. Right now the pollution level is comparable to London.”

But the cost of living is quite cheap, which is great for a student like himself.

“As a foreigner, you do stand out in a crowd sometimes,” he said. “One woman gave me her baby to take a photo with. That was a bit weird.

“In the smaller cities, there are a lot of people who have never seen a foreigner before. When you do see another foreigner you both give a nod. There is this immediate understanding that we are in this together, exploring China. That is quite nice.”

He left Bermuda for boarding school in England when he was 7, after attending Warwick Academy and Somersfield Academy.

Next year, he plans to return to England to study politics, philosophy and economics at King’s College London.

“I haven’t entirely decided what I want to do but there are lots of potential avenues to go into,” he said.

“I think it is one that maps quite well a lot of my interests such as debate and public speaking.”

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Published May 31, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated May 31, 2018 at 7:53 am)

Learning the language in China

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