I’m nearing the end of our Christmas trip and just started posting about how we started it. Let me interrupt this series of posts about Germany, China, Hong Kong, and France with my contribution to the fabulous Blogger Stammtisch. Laurel chose this month’s topic: language.
I wrote about how I think language can change your perceived/actual personality before. For example, I tend to curse more in English because it doesn’t feel as bad as in German and I tend to be a lot more mute/smiley/boring in Italian because of a lack of words. I haven’t practiced French in forever, so I thought it was pretty much non-existent…. Until we landed in Paris after spending a good week in China. It was amazing to walk off the plane and be able to understand a series of funny ads while walking to the next terminal, being able to buy a baguette jambon fromage, and pay for it without the need for crazy hand gestures. Even arguing with the French EasyJet lady about our carry-on was made possible by our rudimentary knowledge of French. Aaah! You have no idea how good that felt after being in China for just a week and a half and not being able to do communicate properly.
I speak no Chinese except for ni hao (hello) and xie xie (thank you). Chinese is so difficult to pronounce that barely any Chinese will understand me even if I memorize certain road names or places. All the signs and ads are in Chinese. Ordering in a restaurant becomes an adventure because you never know if the rice noodles you ordered will be served with a heaping helping of fish eggs which you detest or pieces of chicken or pork which you love. However, Marco and I were able to find that with a little bit of preparation, there are ways of getting around and making the most of our trip despite our lack of Chinese. So, here’s my guide to surviving and enjoying a trip to China if you don’t speak Chinese:
Communicating in China When You Don’t Speak Chinese
1. Foreign Languages
Don’t assume that the Chinese you meet on the street, in the store, or in your hotel speak English or any other foreign language. They might, but our experience in the 12-million-metropolis Guangzhou is that they don’t. A funny reminder of how little value is put on English are the sometimes hilarious translations of store and restaurant names as well as directions and explanations. The “village of gruel” looked liked a beautiful flower shop gearing up for the Chinese New Year… Warm tips, anyone?
2. Family, Friends, Tour Guides, Locals
We were lucky because we were visiting family and friends who have lived in China for a while. They all speak some Chinese and some speak it even really, really well. With their help, we were able to order in restaurants exactly what we wanted, get cabs to places we wanted to visit, and so much more. If you have no local family or friends, you might want to consider a tour guide for certain trips. Years ago on a trip to Beijing we hired a lady for an excursion to the Great Wall of China and she organized everything from the small van, the tickets, the restaurant, to the wheel chair for somebody in our group. This time Marco and I took a cab to the Guangdong Science Center by ourselves, were stranded after the cabbie didn’t show up to pick us back up, and only managed to call another cab thanks to the help of a Chinese gate lady. The kindness of strangers! She couldn’t have known that the cab she got us would break down on the highway… Unfortunately Marco couldn’t tell the cabbie that his engine would cool down faster if he has listened and turned the engine back on wile standing still.
3. Business Cards, Printed Addresses
If you are visiting China, you probably don’t have a car. And if you don’t speak Chinese, you probably don’t want to rent one either since most GPS systems and road signs are in Chinese. This means that outside of the big cities, cabbies are your best friends. How to communicate with them? I’m not bad with languages, but they usually were not able to make out the addresses I managed to memorize and stabber to them. My tip: get business cards from stores you want to visit, go online and find the addresses of sights and print them and show those to your cabbie.
4. Text Messages
Another way to make your cabbie understand where you want to go is to have your local Chinese-speaking friend send you a text message in Chinese characters. It worked great for us this time around. However, this tip assumes that you have a local Chinese-speaking friend…
Most of us have cameras or camera phones with us when we travel. Use those to show your cabbie pictures of addresses you found online, if you don’t want to carry around printouts and business cards or gather text messages.
This year I got my first Android smart phone ever and put various apps to good use while in China. I found for example the “Guangzhou Taxi Helper” which let me pull up various stores and restaurants in a format that allowed the cabbie to understand where I wanted to go. You might be able to find similar apps for other big cities in China. Another idea regarding apps would be to download a simple English-Chinese dictionary and use it in restaurants and while shopping.
7. Raw Memorizations or Printout of a Few Important Words
Eating out in China is delicious! It’s also an adventure. The Chinese eat so many more parts of animals than we do in most Western countries, that it’s not rare to find yourself with a plate of chicken feet in front of you. If there are certain things you cannot eat because of allergies or because of moral convictions or because you just detest the taste (i.e., peanuts, meat, fish, etc.), have a Chinese that speaks English translate “no peanuts” for you, write it down in Chinese, and bring it to the restaurant with you. Showing this to your waiter might be the only way to guarantee exclusion of anything from what you are ordering. Believe me, the pictures on the menus are helpful, but they’re not all that clear. Very few restaurants have translated menus and sometimes the translation is not that helpful anyways 🙂 Fried salted water? Yummy!
Your typical one through ten finger counting will not work in China. They use specific hand gestures that have nothing to do with the number of exposed digits. Six for example kind of looks like the hand gesture we use to portray making a phone call – just pointed upwards. However, you can use the calculator on your cell phone, because while the Chinese alphabet is nothing like ours, they do use our numbers.
9. Yes vs. No
In Chinese culture it is considered rude to answer with a flat out “no”. Therefore, you must interpret a shy “yes” as a possible “no”.
10. Act It Out
If you are in a restaurant and want to order chicken, flap your wings and make sounds like a chicken. You might end up with duck, but oh well. In the Guangdong Science Center we were looking for a restaurant. We couldn’t find any signs, so we went with the universal sign language of rubbing our bellies, pointing to our mouths, and making “mjam” sounds 🙂
Of course all of these tips require a little more preparation than what you are comfortable with if you are used to winging it. But believe me, it is well worth the effort!
Do you have other tips for communicating in China when you don’t speak Chinese? Let me know in the comments!
And head over to read some of the other posts about “language”:
© 2012, Country Skipper. All rights reserved.