My Photo Diary from Five Days Speaking Only Chinese on Mandarin Retreat Summer Camp

In this guest post, blogger and Mandarin Retreat volunteer Lingo Geek publishes his photo diary from five days spent speaking only Chinese on a recent summer camp

It’s been a rare privilege to have been a Volunteer Organiser with the Mandarin Retreat team since its conception in the early summer of 2022. The organisation provides a UK-based Chinese immersion experience, bringing together Mandarin learners and native speakers for a week of fun cultural activities. Fast approaching its first Birthday, and having successfully planned and delivered seven successful weekend events, (attracting guests from all over the world) in August 2023 Mandarin Retreat set its sights on a week-long summer camp extravaganza.

Below is my diary of the event.

August 28th, 2023: Day 1, Ice-breaking

By mid-morning, anticipation of the Summer Camp reached fever-pitch! Final preparations were made and a barrage of messages exchanged back and forth throughout the morning confirming pickup times. In the afternoon, as guests were collected from various locations around Leeds and Manchester, the Mandarin instantly flowed as each new passenger made their introductions and discussed the 路线 (itinerary) for that evening as well as the week ahead.

Conversation soon turned to the stunning scenery as we motored along the North Wales Expressway that hugs the coastline heading west towards Conwy. Once there we headed south into the magnificent Welsh countryside towards our 住处(accommodation). Located on a hilltop overlooking the charming village of Rowen, a cosy Youth Hostel Association property was to be our home for the duration of the Summer Camp.

With everyone assembled it was time for a selection of 破冰游戏 (icebreaker activities) accompanied by 小酌 (drinks with snacks). We played multiple rounds of 二十个问题 (20 questions) 真假画游戏 (2 truths and a lie) where all questions and guesses had to be spoken in Mandarin. During these, it emerged that one guest could play the 二胡 (a Chinese 2-stringed instrument also known as a ‘spike fiddle’)!

I handed out information booklets and offered guests translations of each of the game rules to make activities more accessible for beginners (the booklet also included a blurb about the local sights and helpful phrases to use during the retreat). Before the first night came to an end, arrangements were outlined for Day 2 including a hike to a 瀑布 (waterfall), 做豆腐的课 (making tofu class) and 书法课 (calligraphy class)!

August 29th, 2023: Day 2, Tofu Tuesday

As the morning mist lifted revealing a clear view of the stunning valley below us, we helped ourselves to 早饭(breakfast) from a choice of 可颂 (croissants),谷物 (cereal),多士 (toast) with 黄油 (butter) or 果酱(jam) and 水果(fruit) before heading out on our first excursion of the week.

After a short diversion to take in the zipline and tyre swing at the local 公园(park), the group started 去徒步(hiking) along a small tributary of the River Conwy towards the exquisite Fairy Falls 瀑布(waterfall). Having warned the group 小心! (Be careful!) that the smooth rocks around the falls were incredibly slippery, I naturally decided to demonstrate this by falling on my 屁股(backside)!!

We returned from our hike with the sound of the roaring falls still echoing in our heads. After a light lunch it was time for a tofu-making masterclass led by Mandarin Retreat co-founder, Karl Baker. Everyone had a chance to participate as hundreds of soybeans had to be poured into the top of a machine. Once water was added, it emitted a steady stream of tofu mix from a spout on one side while soy milk splurged out of the opposite side – both requiring skilful catchers!

Next, a calligraphy class overseen by one of our Mandarin Retreat Chinese teachers. This was my second attempt at calligraphy, and I’d love to say that I showed improvement but as I looked round the table at the other guests concentrated on holding their brushes in the correct way and adjusting the amount of pressure applied on each stroke of the brush, my attempts paled in comparison. The instruction from our teacher was easy to understand from a combination of gesturing and simple commands in Chinese on how to hold the brush and position one’s arm for the maximum effect.

The evening meal was freshly made tofu with rice and a spicy minced beef sauce. As hot plates of the mix emerge from the kitchen, the smell made the mouths water of even the staunchest critics of tofu (me included!). The talk round the dinner table was minimal as tiredness had kicked in, however, I was inspired to start a conversation quizzing everyone on their favourite seasons and the reason for their choice. This enabled me to use a few crafted sentences that I had practiced with my exchange partners and on Anki in the weeks leading up to the Summer Camp!

August 30th, 2023: Day 3, Paper Cutting & Tai Chi

Wednesday’s excursion took us to the picturesque coastal centre of Conwy with its castle, first built by King Edward I during his conquest of Wales in 1287, that dominates the town. The order of the day was group photos but we also found enough time to check out Britain’s smallest house and take a walk round the amazing castle and its many towers – the top of which provided breath-taking views of the harbour, river Conwy, and the valley behind. As we walked, conversation moved through topics such as history, the names of different shops. We were fortunate to have balmy summer temperatures and bright sunshine all day.

After returning to the accommodation for lunch and a brief rest, it was time for a Chinese Paper-Cutting class lead by one of our native-speaker guests. This art form is believed to have been used in festivals in China since the 6th Century AD. This was my personal favourite – maybe because my calligraphy and Tai Chi moves were terrible – it is truly amazing what one can achieve with a pencil, pair of scissors and a plain piece of red paper! Our host gave as the story behind the Chinese astrological signs that each of us was cutting out which led to animated discussions about who was which sign. Do you know what your Chinese Star Sign is?

As the late afternoon sun beat down, it was out to the garden for our Tai Chi class. Our teacher is also a black belt in karate (so no answering back!) and took us expertly through various manoeuvres. Again, simple instructions were backed up with visual gestures and everyone was able to follow our teacher’s every move. Although I do not find it an easy activity to master, it was very relaxing and enjoyable – the fact that we could look out over unparalleled views while doing it was also a bonus! Sitting down to a sumptuous authentic, homemade Chicken Chow Mein for our evening meal topped off an epic day. Conversation revolved around the day’s events and looking forward to the next day’s visit to the beach

August 31st, 2023: Day 4, Rain Day & Dumplings

The next morning brought pouring rain which made the planned post-breakfast trip to Conwy Morfa Beach impossible. However, the rain did little to dampen the mood. We had discovered during our conversations the previous evening, that one of our native speaker friends had an outfit with her that was an example of clothing worn by wealthy ladies of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). So it was that after breakfast, we sat and watched in awe as the outfit was put on giving us the Chinese name for each part of the costume and how a contemporary lady of the court would have her maids dress her. It was so popular that 3 other guests also asked to have the outfit put on them for a photo opportunity!

Following a light lunch, the next activity involved a set of cards – each one with a different Chinese character component printed on it. In teams of 2 or 3, the aim was to combine components to build as many characters as possible. We then had to write that character in a 2-character phrase. This was by far the most challenging activity for me, I can recognise characters in a sentence and understand them, but I had never paid attention to the individual components. Thankfully each team consisted of a Chinese learner and a native speaker, so help was at hand! Although difficult, everyone took to the task well and it was an opportunity to further increase our already growing vocabulary.

Once the cards had been cleared away and new character combinations reinforced, it was time to make 饺子!We were invited to participate in rolling the dough into balls; using the rolling pin to then flatten the dough balls into flat, round ‘pockets’. We filled the pockets with stuffing mix before they were taken for steaming. Before we knew it, hungry guests were being served delicious, steaming dumplings which tasted so much better knowing that we had made them ourselves!

In the evening there was an optional ‘Tutor Q&A time’ in English for anyone who wished to quiz our Chinese teachers on any aspect of learning. It also gave learners the opportunity to review any new vocabulary from the day or discuss learning methods. For those worn out from activities or the intense concentration of listening and speaking so much Mandarin it was also a chance to rest the mind. I quizzed our teachers on how to put some of my new vocabulary into sentences – for example, I picked up the word 眩晕 meaning ‘dizzy’ which they helped me to put into the sentence 荡秋千后我很眩晕 After I swing on a swing, I get very dizzy.

September 1st, 2023: Day 5, Farewells at Flint Castle

As we drove away from our accommodation for the last time on our way to Flint, there was a chance to reflect on the previous days and talk about our favourite activities, new friendships forged and the vocabulary we’d learned. 路太窄了! (The road is too narrow!), 给我一个线索 (give me a clue), 我确定一定以及肯定 (I’m 100% sure) were just a small selection of new sentences added to my Anki Decks!

Basking in the hot summer sun we pulled up to Flint Castle for our final outing. Perched on the west bank of the River Dee, a short drive from Chester on the border of Wales, the castle ruins provide stunning views across the river and of the surrounding area. After a walk around the ruins and a slow stroll along the foreshore, we sat down to a rich picnic of sandwiches, olives, pitta bread with hummus, crisps and fruit.

Before we knew it, the time had come to bid farewell to everyone and leave North Wales in the rear-view mirror as we all started to make our way home. As the event came to an end, the Summer Camp WhatsApp group was inundated with photos allowing me to relive such an amazing and truly unique experience.

*If you’d like to take part in an immersive Chinese retreat visit Mandarin Retreat for more details.

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