China: Pictionary to the Rescue

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Last Updated on April 22, 2024 by Audrey Scott

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.)

Pictionary - Xi'an
Drawing charades to find out what's inside the dumplings.

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.

Communication Breakdown

Spitting Sign - Xi'an
Clear communication? Please spit in trashcans.

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.

Didn’t work.

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”

Vegetarian Chinese Food
Vegetarian concoction in China.

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.

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

12 thoughts on “China: Pictionary to the Rescue”

  1. um, that drawing at the top. is that a cow, or a cat with spots? I think you better stick to the charades 🙂
    That was quite a funny story considering how well you managed to communicate in Central Asia with a little knowledge of Russian. I was always thinking that Prague/Bratislava was an easy transistion given that th cultures really are not all that different. What was the difference between communicating while in China and in south-east Asia? Just that more people spoke english?

  2. dan and audrey,
    still catching up on your earlier writings and photography while monitoring your new adventures. i’ll eventually read every word and see every pic— your travels have been a wonderful vicarious journey for me–your writing is descriptive, perceptive and often hilarious. my world sense has expanded greatly thanks to your sharing of your finely attuned anthropological sensibilities.
    today i will be eating chinese take-out and think of you. i think i know what’s in it..?..a voracious carnivore myself, seems i would quickly become a vegetarian were i to travel where you have.
    i can’t thank you enough for sharing all the details—language, food, transport, customs, technology– that transcend postcard/travel book reviews. the image of that naked little boy running onshore along your boat is seared in my brain and i often reflect on it since viewing. then i love all the pictures of the children you meet…are the eyes a window to a soul ?
    sorry if i gush, but you are my heroes for doing what you do–i fancied myself a National Geographic photographer right outa college but life got in the way of that. so semi-yearly treks to western european cities have had to suffice.
    your energy seems boundless. you are truly ambassadors for our country and i look forward to the day when my wife and i can have you over for dinner and we can share a botle of the finest chinese wine.

    frank regan

    p.s. yep, dan, tim is my brother and i have sisters too-judi, mariclare, erin and megan. tim remembers jeff fondly. they survived catholic school together.

  3. At first I thought it was a cat on a army tank and I couldn’t figure out why you would want to draw that. The vegetarian section turned me on. Ok, no frying kitties. Now that sort of makes sense.
    I admire you for sticking to your vegetarian guns (or rather guts) while on the road in so many unusual places, I always just resort to eating whatever I see (and everything) when I’m traveling abroad. Good for you, I’m sure it makes for interesting experiences!

  4. Brian: It was intended to be a dog in a frying pan. Good thing I didn’t attempt to draw it. If I did, you’d have to spend the first of your 20 questions on “Animal, vegetable or mineral?”

    Regarding the difference in communication between Southeast Asia and China, let me first preface my comment with this: we believe that the onus is on us as travelers to find a way to communicate when we are visiting someone else’s country. In other words, it’s primarily our problem that we couldn’t speak the vendors’ language, not the other way around.

    That said, it was generally easier to communicate in Southeast Asia for a number of reasons. The first reason is the prevalence of English as a 2nd language and tourist lingua franca. All things being equal, the amount of English spoken throughout China (at least the regions we visited) was consistently and surprisingly little, particularly when we compare it to other places we’ve been.

    We suspect there’s a second, more deep-seated reason based on culture and history. Some cultures seem to be more apt to find answers where there are none. Allow me to explain.

    Conversations with Chinese friends and long-term expat friends in China indicated that there seems to be a lack of situational creativity on the part of many Chinese people who have had little exposure to the outside world and whose education has consisted primarily of rote learning – especially outside of urban areas and areas of tourist and foreigner traffic. We believe this sort of thing is common in societies where, until recently, all that was known was command-and-control and rules.

    Let’s take the rice example. When a foreigner in a restaurant motions with cupped hands next to a pile of saucy vegetables, that *might* signal a need. In many cases outside of China, the staff might not initially understand that we wanted rice, but our experience found that the wait staff would often faciliate the transaction by picking up a napkin, or a fork or some hot sauce…until finally, the need for rice is understood (often with a few laughs and some jokes thrown in).

    In situations like this in China, we’d often get blank stares with very little middle ground, and a whiff of a sometimes not-so-faint hope that we and our requests would simply disappear.

    You know from experience in Prague (and likely Bratislava) that when people who know only “rules” and “I do what I’m told” are faced with a situation for which there is no rule or no box to check, the attitude that often prevails is “there is no solution” (a.k.a. neni mozne, or not possible).

  5. Frank: Your comments not only flatter us, but they describe what we are attempting to do in ways that we are not able to ourselves. Thank you. If someone asked us “Why do you do what you do, the way you do?” I think we might point them to your comment. All the points that you touched on and all that your comment signifies (the connection between us, what we experience, and our readers) is pretty much what this journey of ours is all about.

    That Cambodian kid. It mesmerizes us, too – and makes us laugh. I watched that clip over and over again, in fits of laughter every time:

    We’ve found that kids in general are about innocence and spirit. This makes them a joy to photograph. Kids are also ice-breakers and usually offer a path into the hearts of their parents. When we see kids smiling everywhere, we have to wonder whether they know something that the rest of us do not.

    From our experience – yes – the eyes are indeed a window on the soul. The eyes aren’t the whole story, but they certainly do seem to tell most of it. For many people we meet, their eyes also tell a story of transition, from fear or distrust to allowing us a brief look at who they really are and what their lives are really like. That human feature transcends cultures.

    Thanks again for a wonderful comment. I’m certain that my response doesn’t do it justice. Know that we appreciate it very much and we’ll be reflecting on it for some time to come.

    We look forward to taking you up on the offer of dinner and Chinese wine on our next visit to Scranton.

    p.s. “survived catholic school together”…still laughing

  6. Suz: It was supposed to be a dog in a frying pan. Back to the drawing board, I guess.. The actual drawing from the first transaction is here.
    Not much clarity there either, I’m afraid!

    We are not vegetarians, but our lean towards the veg segment of the food pyramid is a result of having been subjected to too many plates of mystery meat – gristle, tendons, fat, etc. Central Asia in particular comes to mind.

    So unless the meat really looks delicious, we usually press for details or opt for safety in vegetables. In other words, if we can’t identify, we must clarify.

  7. I immediately recognized the point of the picture, although I have to admit that I thought it was a cat. Must have been the many, many times my Muscovite Russian teacher warned us not to eat the street food in Moscow by meowing.

    I wonder if I recognize it because of my dread of eating Meat That Shall Not Be Named. I’m not kidding that the first time I went abroad, the very first word I looked up to try to memorize was “brains” and somehow I had it in my head that I would be tripping over plated brains all the way through Europe. Too much Indiana Jones, perhaps?

    I drove my grad school Chinese roommate crazy because I always demanded to know what meat was in every food at the all-too-authentic Chinese buffet in New Haven. “Why do you care? Just eat!”

    Oh, I care. And I sympathize. 🙂

  8. Nicole: OK, it’s clear that illustration is not our strong point. It’s all in the pointy ears and those two cat-like strokes beneath the nose.

    As I read your comment, it occurred to me that an image of a cat *is* more appropriate than a dog. Unlike their cousins in Southeast Asia, cats in China are prodigious. This could be interpreted any number of ways, but it looked a lot like urban animal husbandry to me.

    If we ever open a restaurant, we’ll be sure to segregate the brains from more palatable fare…and perhaps we’ll call it Voldemort Vindaloo.

  9. Yeah, that’s one primary problem when travelling to a foreign country whose people don’t speak English. I think it’s a good thing for me that I could speak and understand a little Mandarin Chinese. However, I still find the language barrier annoying especially when I’ve done my best to make the other person understand what I’m trying to convey. I might find your suggestion of bringing pictures funny, but I really think it helps. Also, practicing basic hand gestures would be good.

  10. @Reina: Yes, practicing basic hand gestures (what we call charades) is really useful in situations where there is no common spoken language. If you can draw better than I can, then hopefully you’ll have better luck with communicating through pictures.

  11. I think you’re spot on. With languages like Chinese, these tips become really helpful. Especially the “charades” bit…physical language can get you surprisingly far!

  12. @Tyler: We’ve navigated our way through a number of languages, and particularly with limited time, Mandarin seems to dictate a sort of guerrilla communication approach, including whipping out the ol’ sketch pad and charades routines.


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