Travel To Grow

Understanding The World Through Travel

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May '10

Communicating with Strangers in China

Everyone knows that trying to communicate with people of another language can be a little difficult, but with a little patience, and by doing a few descriptive actions you can usually get your point across…

This is not the case in China.

Trying to communicate with strangers here in China is something special… and can introduce a whole new level of frustration you may not have known was possible 😀

It’s definitely a powerful lesson in patience.

A Country Without Charades

I consider myself to be pretty damn good at charades. Anytime I’ve played with the family back home I do pretty well, people guess my actions quite quickly because I really get into them and make them obvious. It makes sense that if you… for example… want to buy something that you don’t know the name of… that a few descriptive actions would be able to help you find it.

Unfortunately the majority of Chinese people are really bad at charades and most attempts usually result in blank stares or confused expressions.

Even simple to model things such as doing a wiping face action when you want a ‘napkin’ can get you strange offers of water or gum or merely a “I don’t understand”

Last week when I was trying to buy dish soap I approached one of the super market staff and said “Sorry I don’t speak Chinese but I would like to buy…” Then did the actions for washing the dishes and emphasized pouring loads of soap on it while saying “this thing” pointing to the imaginary soap bottle. I was brought to cutlery, dish scrubbers, and laundry detergent before they figured out I wanted the dish soap.

The lady was very friendly and helpful though!

I Don’t Understand… No Really…. I Really Don’t

All of us foreigners have been in a situation where a Chinese person has been trying to tell us something, and we tell them “we don’t understand” (In Chinese) and instead of finding a new way to say it or demonstrate it they just keep saying it over and over… They’ll say it slower… they’ll say it louder, they’ll say each word really really carefully… and no matter how many times you tell them you don’t understand they won’t change their method.

The other day on the bus a Chinese man was trying to ask my friend Darian if he would open the window. Darian doesn’t speak a word of Chinese except “ting bu dong” meaning I don’t understand. The man asked Darian literally 6 times to open the window and after every time Darian would say “ting bu dong” not once did he point at the window or do any sort of motion to open it which would have been so easy to understand.

There has been countless times when people have been asking us something that is very simple to act-out but will make no effort to help us understand but to repeat the phrase in Chinese over and over.

The Banana Conversation

Next is an excerpt from my daily life that I want to share due to how funny it is now and how extremely frustrating it was at the time.

The conversation is all stuff I know how to say really well in Chinese because it’s quite easy… and I confirmed after that I was saying everything properly… but that apparently didn’t help.

* Devin is looking for the meat market but can’t find it, but he knows it’s close by… he walks up to a man at a fruit stand to ask for directions in Chinese*

Devin: “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, I want to buy some beef, or some chicken, or some pork… but im not sure where to go”

Man: “What!?”

Devin: “I’d like to buy some beef or some chicken or some pork, do you know where the market is?”

Man: “Oh here… here’s some bananas”

Devin: “no…. no…. I don’t want bananas… I want to buy meat… meat…. meat….”

Man: “What kind of fruit do you want? Look I have lots of fruit here”

Devin: “………………………………………….”

*Devin decides it’s okay to look like an idiot just to insure he helps this man understand him*

Devin: “No… not fruit… I want to buy beef, beef, beef like:”

*devin goes MOOOOOOO and looks like a cow*

Devin:“Or i want pork, pork, pork”

*devin pulls up his nose and oinks like a pig*

Devin:“Or I want chicken, chicken, chicken”

*Devin bocks like a chicken and flaps his wings*

Devin:“Where? Where? Where? Can I buy? Where Can I go?


Devin: “………………………………………………..”

Man: “Here…. here’s some bananas”

I almost flipped out.

Like honestly… I clearly acted out every animal, and said everything 3 times… If I wanted the damn bananas I would POINT to them!!!!

Oh China.

Just Weird

Other times when you communicate with Chinese people, you just get some weird results. For example… While shopping I’ll ask the cashier ‘how their day was’ or say ‘how about this beautiful weather?’ In Chinese and they will just laugh at me and say “haha how about this weather” or “haha the foreigner wants to know how my day was.” Then they will just hand me my groceries without answering the question.

Asking directions is also an impossible task. Even when the people understand you they will often just point at what seems like a random direction and ramble really fast about something. We’ll often find out after more searching that what we were looking for was not even close to where they pointed.

Overall when you open your mouth to say something in Chinese to a stranger you never know what to expect, and sometimes it can be quite discouraging to bother talking to strangers at all… and other times it’s just really entertaining.

Generation Differences

One thing I’ve really noticed is how I get extremely better results when I talk to younger strangers rather than older ones. After my banana conversation with the fruit stand owner I asked a young 20 or so year old woman the same questions and she immediately pointed me in the right direction. The strange blocks in communication like lack of charade interpreting abilities definitely grow depending on the age of the person. The most helpful strangers I’ve ever met in China have always been around the ages of 15-25 who will usually go out of their way to try to understand and help me. The troubles in communication with older people is definitely just how we were brought up in such different worlds, while the younger generation has grown up in a more western kind of culture.

A Growth Experience

After spending so long communicating in China, my friends and I have agreed that once we return back to our respective countries we will have no problem being the happiest, and friendliest person ever when it comes to communicating with strangers. We will definitely have a ‘Zen’ level of patience after surviving our attempts at communicating in China.

Or… at the very least… our charades skill will be through the roof!

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