I eat most of my meals in the cafeteria on the university campus where I live (and when I teach, at the other campus). Sometimes, I recognise the food and can say what I want in Chinese; when I don’t, I just point and say 这个 zhège (this one). I often take some Tupperware with me and get the staff to put the food in there. Then, I go back to my room to eat it.
Many of the staff recognise me, and usually know I want rice, and also the food on top of (as opposed to next to) the rice. Actually, I don’t really care where it is but they always ask. There is a young guy who works in the cafeteria on the campus where I live, and who will usually say ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’. I don’t know if he can say much else, but whenever he sees me – even if he is serving someone else – he will stop and say hello to me.
When I teach, usually I’ll say hello (in Chinese) to the cleaning staff who are working next to my classroom. They are responsible for the maintenance of the rooms, so if there is a problem (if the blinds are broken, for instance), I need to report it to them. Both the cafeteria staff and cleaning staff are past the shock of hearing me speak Chinese, even if it is very basic Chinese. On the odd occasion I use Chinese in class (I discourage it, but sometimes if they do not understand a word or phrase in English, I will look in the dictionary for the Chinese equivalent) the students are usually amazed.
This semester I have been trying to learn Chinese to take the Chinese proficiency exams HSK. There are six levels – 1 is the most basic, 6 is the most advanced. You do not have to take the previous one before you take the later one. I have not yet taken any. I was planning to take level 3 – lower intermediate, I guess you could say, where you need to know 300 Chinese words – before the end of the semester. If I’m staying another year, there is less immediacy to do this. More realistic, I think, is if I try the HSK level 2 exam at the end of the semester, and then aim for HSK 3 in December. I think that is perhaps more manageable and achievable.