Chinese Language Learning – How to be more confident speaking Mandarin in real life situations?

My girlfriend is Chinese and I’m quite serious about her so for the last year I’ve been learning mandarin in order to be able to communicate with her family (who mostly do not speak English). I would say I’m currently a solid HSK 3 level (passing mock exams with a near perfect score) and I’m fairly proud of the progress I’ve made. Most of this so far has been solo study but a few months ago I got a tutor who teaches me for 2 x 1 hour sessions per week (my gf doesn’t particularly enjoy practicing with me which I understand given my extremely low level). I’m taking my studies quite seriously and I want to eventually be at a strong conversational level.

I’m currently visiting my girlfriend’s family in her hometown in China. This is the first time I have really been thrown into real life Mandarin situations and honestly I am finding it quite daunting. I am comfortable in a lot of day to day situations like ordering in a restaurant, purchasing things in a store, very basic chit chat with a taxi driver etc. however speaking with a large group of family members at for example a family gathering is massively out of my comfort zone.

Firstly, most topics I just simply don’t have the vocabulary to understand what is being said so I don’t even follow what topic is being discussed. There is also a sprinkling of local dialect here and there which just throws me off further. Even in the rare times that I do follow, I feel like I’m really only just ‘getting the gist’ of what’s being said and I really don’t understand the semantics of the conversation enough to chime in and contribute, even if its just a few words. So typically I will just say silent so as to not either make myself look like a fool or offend anyone.

As a ‘remedy’ my girlfriend will sometimes throw me into the deep end by perhaps turning the conversation towards me and asking me a question in front of a bunch of other people. But in these situations I feel incredibly awkward and uncomfortable as I just can’t express myself well enough or I will make a mistake and people can’t really understand what I’m trying to say.

My girlfriend is getting frustrated that I’m being too shy / quiet when being around her family, which is true of course. From my perspective I’m in damage control mode rather than conversation mode. I feel like I just don’t follow what’s happening around me enough to make any contributions without being rude and butting in with something ridiculously out of place. I feel there is a combination of my girlfriend overestimating my mandarin level, alongside a general lack of confidence in myself.

I’m sure its going to take many years of consistent study before I am “comfortable” in situations like this, however I’m sure plenty of people in this sub have gone through similar struggles. Other than obviously just continuously improving my language level, does anyone have any tips on how to navigate this?

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