So there we were: I was sketching an amorphous menagerie – a sheep, a cow, and a chicken – along with a simple carrot, all on small pad of paper, while Dan offered a few charades and barnyard audio cues – a chicken dance, a moo, and a hearty “baaah” – to help bring the animal farm to life. (Thankfully, charading a carrot was beyond Dan’s abilities.)
Had the Chinese wine we consumed turned on us?
No, we were in Xi'an, China (of Terra Cotta Warriors fame) and were attempting – by brute force of our limited communication skills – to determine what lurked inside some street stall steamed buns we had in our sights. After encountering mounds of mystery mutton in Central Asia, we were hesitant to leave street food snack purchases in China to chance.
Unfortunately, we weren’t carrying our English-Mandarin dictionary with us at the time. Our enthusiastic but insufficient attempts to communicate yielded only blank stares from the Chinese street vendors. Nary a sound. Well, maybe a grunt, but nothing that lent much hope to finding out what was in those buns.
The vendors weren’t rude. We just couldn’t understand them and they had no idea what to do with our Pictionary-meets-charades approach to getting our point across. To them, we might as well have been from another planet.
Welcome to China.
After successfully managing to communicate in Central Asia with our basic Russian skills, China presented us with an exceptional challenge. We can’t read Chinese characters and the Mandarin Chinese language is tonal. As a result, virtually all of our pronunciation attempts yielded blank stares from those unaccustomed to having their language butchered by foreigners.
Lesson 1: “Train Station”
Earlier in the week, one of our taxi drivers had given us a fifteen minute language lesson focused solely on how to pronounce the words for “train station.” No language lesson had ever known such torture.
Our lesson concluded; we knew how to say train station in Mandarin. Very useful.
Confident in our newfound language skills, we both tried it out the next time we hailed a taxi. The response: more of those increasingly familiar blank stares. Talk about humbling. We couldn't even get “train station” right.
Lesson 2: “Rice”
Fast forward to a dinner experience at a local Chinese restaurant. You know, the kind of restaurant where the menus thankfully have pictures. In the land of communication, we were taking a stroll down Easy Street…until the street dead-ended when we tried to order rice without a picture and without knowing the Chinese word for it.
Rice!? This should be easy. China is full of rice. So what did we do?
Of course, we did rice charades. We said “r-i-i-ce,” as if slowing down our pronunciation might help. We said it louder. This was communication-breakdown theater of the absurd.
I resorted to drawing rice kernels.
We hung around until a plate of rice emerged from the kitchen. We swarmed the waitress – pointing and nodding excessively – as if her plate of rice somehow concealed the Holy Grail. Even then, there was doubt as to what we wanted.
Lesson 3: “We Are Vegetarian”
Hole-in-the-wall food joints are our specialty, but figuring out what to order in them can be challenging, especially when fragments from across the animal kingdom dangle from the ceiling and English (or Czech, Russian, French, Estonian, Spanish) is nowhere to be found. Our mantra after leaving Central Asia became “mystery vegetables are better than mystery meat.”
Numerous eating experiences of ours throughout China witnessed whole restaurant crews gathering 'round for group translation hour. When all else failed, we would turn to the back of our guidebook and point to the Mandarin character translation of “We are vegetarian.” Always a culinary adventure, usually with remarkably tasty results.
Lasting Advice: Point, Shoot and See What Comes
So, how do you manage language challenges and avoid a complete breakdown while traveling in China?
We adjusted to our reality fairly quickly and began to rely upon a travel-wise artillery of guidebooks, maps with Chinese characters, dictionaries, point-and-shoot tactics, and exaggerated body language. Think of it as another creative exercise to wake up new regions of your brain.
So before your next visit to China, brush up on your Pictionary skills, practice your charades, don't leave home without your multilingual maps and guidebooks – and most importantly – don't forget to laugh.