The Blog

Chinese Whispers: The Art of Communicating as a Foreigner China

The policeman comes into our room. It's almost 10pm, and we have been at the hotel for five hours, but it is clear that there is something he needs urgently. He says a few things to us in Chinese. We give him our now well-practiced blank stares of incomprehension.

The policeman comes into our room. It's almost 10pm, and we have been at the hotel for five hours, but it is clear that there is something he needs urgently. He says a few things to us in Chinese. We give him our now well-practiced blank stares of incomprehension.

We don't speak any Chinese, he doesn't speak any English. There is no WiFi in this hotel to power a translation app. None of us really knows what to do next.

Sharpen Your Pencils

Our minds reel with the possibilities. Everything we have read on other cyclists' blogs has come back to haunt us. He wants us to go to the police station with him, now, in the dark of night, for who-knows-what purpose. He wants us to leave the hotel and find another one, having decided foreigners can't stay in this one after all. He wants us to leave town, now, by bus, and to stop travelling by bike altogether.

The policemen, luckily, remains a little more level-headed than we do. Through gestures, he gets us to produce a pen and a piece of paper. Then, he begins to draw. He doodles a clock with an arrow and some sunshine. It takes a few minutes, but finally we realise he wants to know what time we are leaving tomorrow. Stephen writes a 9 on the sketch pad.

Then he draws a bus, with a question mark. Stephen attempts to draw a bicycle in response, but fails badly. We resort to the universal pedal-your-hands-in-the-air-like-they're-feet gesture and, having stored our bikes in his office earlier, he understands.

Then he points back to the arrow he has drawn, re-draws it and adds a question mark. Where are you going? We mangle the name of our next town as we try to pronounce it, but he nods with comprehension. Then the kindly policeman puts down our paper, returns our pen to us, thanks us, and leaves the room.

We sigh with relief. We are not in trouble! On the contrary, we've just played a game of Pictionary with the police. Everyone wins. Hurrah.

Flashcards: Saviour Of The Universe

And so it goes in a country where we are strangers, both visually and aurally. We can't read the written language and we can't understand the spoken language; we are totally at the mercy of kind people to help us when we need food, water, transportation, and shelter.

This is the first time either of us has been so totally lost in a language. It makes even the simple transactions, like ordering a meal or getting a room for the night, into marathon games of brain-twisting charades.

We have developed a few survival techniques for such situations.

First, our deck of flashcards has been indispensable. The one that says "we do not eat meat" has ensured our humongous cyclists' appetites are usually satisfied, without infringing on our moral code.

The other two we use every day are "Do you have a room for the night?" and "Can I see the room?" These two things can be communicated with gestures in some hotels, but in others, the receptionists stare at us blankly or start to giggle, as if they could not imagine a single thing a foreigner might want at a hotel late in the evening.

Second, we try to remain patient and persistent. I am not good at this. I am so used to relying on clear, concise language to explain my ideas, that I am totally lost without it. In Europe, there was rarely a time when asking for things in English, sometimes trying 17 different ways, didn't work out. People usually understood enough for us to get by.

Outside of the major cities in China, there is rarely a comprehension of English beyond "hello".

Attempting to explain myself without words makes me want to tear my hair out, and my failures leave me feeling exhausted and useless.

Thankfully, Stephen has ways of making himself understood that I do not comprehend. It helps that most hotel receptionists are women, willing to help in whatever way they can, as long as they can stare into his beautiful blue eyes for a few minutes longer. But it goes deeper than that.

Stephen doesn't worry about language, he never has. He can talk with gestures, looks, and expressions – and more importantly, he understands when people talk to him the same way.

Third, if all else fails, we have apps. If we're online, we use Google Translate to try and share the more complex ideas and questions we have.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is woefully inaccurate. At one hotel, when Stephen asked for a room, the translated reply came back as "you are a pig you". We're pretty sure this wasn't the intended sentiment, but we'll never know – we stayed somewhere else that night.

Offline, we have a Chinese language app called Pleico, in which you can look up one word at a time. It comes in especially handy when ordering meals or looking for things like the bus station.

I Think We Need To Talk

I know what you're thinking.

We should have learned some Chinese before we came to China, right? Well, yes, ideally we would have spent a few months learning some basic Chinese. But, the nature of our trip means that we also had to learn basic phrases in 15 other languages in the last six months. That's a pretty tall order.

We have learned our most-used words and sentences during the past few weeks. We can say "we do not eat meat", Stephen can say "do you have a room?", and we have a few other useful phrases in our arsenal. But since the pronunciation, which we were never very good at in the first place, seems to change drastically from village to village, what we said last night is often not understood tonight.

The worst consequence of using Chinese phrases, is that, as soon as you fling about a little Chinese, it is assumed for ever more that you speak Chinese. It elicits long explanations, questions, and directions in a barrage of rapid-fire Chinese that no amount of study would have prepared us for.

When we fail to understand, someone always writes out what they are trying to say: in Chinese characters. This is probably an effective technique for Chinese tourists who speak a different dialect, since the written language is shared. But for us? Nope, still can't understand the language.

Instead we bumble along, getting laughed at, ignored, or just plain confusing the people we meet. Yet somehow, somehow, we have not yet gone hungry, had to sleep in the street, or been arrested.

You can join our daily adventures in China at My Five Acres.

All photos copyright Jane Mountain, 2013

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