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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?

Communicating in China: Funny Translations

Communicating in China: Funny Translations

Communicating in China: The Village of Gruel

Communicating in China: Funny Translations

Communicating in China: Funny Translations

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.

Communicating in China: Stranded on the Highway

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.

Communicating in China: Parking Directions

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…

5. Pictures

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.

Communicating in China: Using Your Camera Phone

Communicating in China: Using Your Camera Phone

6. Apps

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!

Communicating in China: Chinese Menu

Communicating in China: Menu With Pictures

Communicating in China: Funny Translations

Communicating in China: Funny Translations

8. Numbers

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”:
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16 Comments

  • Laurel says:

    Sounds like such an adventure. I had no idea that it would be so hard to find English speaking people in hotels and restaurants. Great tips for how to get around, I like that you have to be a little more creative to communicate. When I lived in S. Korea I always carried my address written by a local friend to show taxi drivers. It was very helpful.
    Laurel recently posted..Learning a Language by Reading Celebrity Magazines

    • Sabrina says:

      The good old handwritten address. We’ve done that before in China too 🙂 It might be different in the really big, expensive hotels in China – the small ones we’ve seen: no chance. And that was in a huge city. You can only imagine in the countryside! So, is South Korea like China in regards to people speaking no foreign languages? For some reason, I would have imagines a little more English there.

  • Denise says:

    Very interesting article!
    Even if you don’t have a local friend, you can research things upfront on the internet…like how to say ‘I am allergic to…’. Language sections in Guidebooks also usually cover such things like the phrase above, and the Chinese character for chicken…so you don’t have to flap your hands and make chicken sounds all day long 🙂
    Denise recently posted..Slow Travel Sri Lanka: Natalie Lyall-Grant on travelling slowly and connecting with locals

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks! A guidebook would be a good tip to add to the list. I had one for the first few tips, but then it sort of got left behind as our local friends became more fluent in Chinese. I guess I should find it again for the few solo trips Marco and I venture out for 🙂

  • Frau Dietz says:

    Brilliant post with lots of fab tips. Travelling somewhere where the written characters as well as the spoken word is totally alien is always an adventure and a half! When I travelled across Central Asia a couple of years ago, a friend gave me Point At It
    which I have to say I never took with me due to limited packing space, but it really made me giggle. And jokes aside, I can imagine it would actually be incredibly useful! Great photos, too: I do love English menu translations 🙂
    Frau Dietz recently posted..An Ongoing Battle…

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks! Point At It is a great idea. I wonder if they have an app for that, so that you wouldn’t have to carry an actual book… The translations are great, aren’t they? I wonder what fried salty water would be in reality. I can at least imagine what burned shrimp would be 🙂

  • R. Sherman says:

    Great tips. I’ve wanted to go to Far East Asia, but haven’t had the guts, because of the problems you describe. Perhaps Japan and Korea would be better, or maybe Taiwan.

    Cheers.
    R. Sherman recently posted..A Continuing Discussion

    • Sabrina says:

      Thanks! It is somewhat more difficult, but I think with more preparation than usual, it can still be a great trip. And there are many trips that are offered through agencies that include guides for every step of the way that would eliminate the problems of individual travel altogether.

  • Andrew says:

    The “point at it” books are pretty cool for a lot of basic things. There is also the idea of Point and Grunt, which works most times. There is a fair amount of universal body language that can be used, though like you mention, not ALL of it is universal.
    I recognize a half dozen Chinese characters from a project I did at work many years ago to allow asian characters into an application we worked on. Though none are particularly helpful in daily life.

    There is a scene in Lost in Translation that I love. He takes a menu with pictures on it. 6 pictures all identical with different prices and points at one saying two to order. I’ve never been to Japan, but in Hong Kong I loved that all the menus seem to come with pictures. Even if I don’t know what the pictures actually depict.
    Andrew recently posted..Indie Travel Challenge – Week 1 : Planning

    • Sabrina says:

      Love the pictures too. They help a lot even if you can’t always tell what exactly is in it. I started overordering in many small Chinese restuarants in order to have a few dishes that were actually what I really wanted. Luckily food is very cheap for the most part, so while it still felt wasteful not to eat everything I always got something I liked 🙂

      Hong Kong is fun, isn’t it? And English is much more common there. It was such a nice change of pace!

  • Ok, so tip #10 is hilarious. Desperate times, desperate measures :).

    • Sabrina says:

      Haha! One thing you can be sure about… I w-i-l-l get food when I am hungry 🙂 No matter where, no matter the language 🙂

  • Suzy says:

    Ha! Your photos are some classic lost in translation moments. I like the tip, for any language it would work, of printing out addresses or texting a friend in the language-know for help with cabbies. I found even in New York City it was a good thing I had my hotel address printed out for the cab driver. The man had no idea where I was saying I wanted to go.
    Suzy recently posted..Vicksburg, Mississippi Wishes You Were Here

    • Sabrina says:

      They are lost in translation, aren’t they? 🙂 And you’re right, printing the address of your hotel can’t hurt even if you speak the language. I sometimes actually take printouts of the location on google maps or something like that with me. I’m in love with my new Android phone though now, and since that has Google maps on it, I might save myself a few printouts…

  • Kit Whelan says:

    Ah, the good ol’ flap your wings like a chicken trick. Classic!
    I really don’t know how we managed without smartphones. If I couldn’t show my cabbie a picture of the address, I’m sure I would have ended up lost more than once! And I haven’t even been to China yet 🙂
    Kit Whelan recently posted..Essential Gear: Compression Packs

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