Language barrier

20 Jul

I’ve been wanting to write for a little while about some of the experiences that have arisen from being in a country where so few people speak English and where I don’t speak the local language.  It’s an ironic thing, actually, because China is just so POPULATED.  It’s amazing to feel the sheer numbers, and it’s even more bazaar when there seems to be fewer people in a place than you might expect.  Rush hour in the metro station on line 1, the most frequented line, is just utter chaos.  Walking on the streets takes skill; the sidewalks are always under construction, you must watch every step to make sure you don’t trip, and you must walk quickly to keep up with the flow of traffic around you – of pedestrians.  And, Chinese people know how to get from point A to point B, and hesitation on your part just means an opening for them to squeeze past and get there a little faster than you.   Cars don’t hesitate; if you’re in the way, you just have to move – end of story.  It’s not uncommon to see cars driving on the sidewalks out of frustration – it’s where they all park anyway.  However, the streets look different after 9 p.m. and before 9 a.m.  Not so many people are bustling about, and I get a chance to walk slowly and observe things.  But, even during the more crowded times, my ever-present language barrier doesn’t keep me from seeing things, from observing the emotions that are more visible than internal and that are revealed by those who aren’t concerned with being watched.

Of course, people are people everywhere.  People here want the same basic things as people back home.  Some like to go to the grocery store and buy frozen dinners and most like to go out to eat and shop.  Parents want to be proud of their children.  Teenagers want to stand out and get noticed, and grandparents seem to want nothing else than to get to the store and back safely and to dote on their grandchildren.  The same surprises, angers, warmth, laughter, and intimacy bubbles forth from those same daily life situations that make us all the same at the end of the day.  But, these things are visible.  They belong in a world where a person doesn’t have to speak at all to get by, to witness life’s little dramas and paradoxes.

It’s the more verbal, intellectual things that I begin to miss sometimes.  I wish I could hear the sentiments behind the expressions I see.

Restaurants are a wonderful example.  Tonight, I went to dinner at an Italian Buffet.  I used a fork and knife, spoke to the waitress in English, and sat in a room filled almost exclusively with Western clients.  This was a rare experience.  My typical meals requires me to use chopsticks – something I’m really good at now – and to order in Mandarin.  In smaller, more local places, individual waiters will sometimes refuse to serve me, asking their managers to do it instead.  It’s not that they don’t like me, it’s just that they’re afraid of losing face by angering me or messing up my order due to the language barrier.  Perhaps a past experience with a foreigner tainted their view of serving other foreigners.  At many restaurants, I simply have to point to something on a menu (no pictures, no English translation) and just hopes it tastes good.  I can look up the characters for vegetables and tofu, so by ordering them, I’m usually sure to avoid animal cartilage and organs, which I just haven’t grown accustomed to yet.

The grocery store is also confusing at times.  There is a huge supermarket here that is like a 4-story Walmart, and it’s across the street from where I live.  At first, I looked blankly at the cashier each time I checked out and she asked me something in Mandarin.  It didn’t matter much because the total cost is always posted in English and Mandarin, so I was able to pay and leave without understanding a word.  After a while, I realized that one of the questions asked each time is whether I want a bag – and important question because that store charges for bags.

There are some instances, however, where I’m glad I can’t understand.  People, I know, talk about me right in front of me – not necessarily rudely or maliciously – but because they can because they know I don’t comprehend.  I’m sure my size provokes a few comments; I’m much taller and slightly thicker than most (though by no means all) women here (I think the average size is a 2).  Besides that, I’m just an oddity; many people really just don’t know what to make of foreigners, and a whole range of reactions express that.  Literally everything I do is odd to most people here, just because I’m so different.  It sometimes feels like being a celebrity.

Even though I’m learning enough Mandarin to order food more efficiently and to understand some basic questions frequently asked of me, I will most likely never be able to converse freely here.  While that is a shame in some respects, it does make this experience all the more interesting – and challenging.  Those who can speak English and volunteer help are always appreciated.  They certainly don’t HAVE to help; I’ve seen enough of people not being open and friendly to non-English speakers to realize that the people here wouldn’t be out of the ordinary if they treated me less kindly for not assimilating more quickly.  Perhaps they do have personal problems and express them, but since I can’t understand anyway…

My favorite example of the language barrier thus far was the other night at a very good dumpling place just around the corner from my apartment, near the vegetable market.  I practiced some basic ordering phrases in my phrasebook,and marked the pages for things like “pork” and “mushrooms” to show the cashier as a plan B.  I even picked out a few tasty-looking dishes being eaten by other customers to point to as a last resort.  All three failed, however, for one of two reasons.  First, the woman probably spoke only Cantonese, a problem I run in to from time to time here, especially with older locals.  Second, it sometimes happens that even when I’m saying something coherent, my listener can’t understand because he or she is predisposed to not understand.  It’s either fear or inexperience, or my accent, but it happens often.  For whatever reason, my attempts were failing and the woman eventually picked out some dishes for me (she picked well, by the way).  After all of that frustration on her part and confusion on mine, as I’m paying and about to sit and wait for my food, a Chinese businessman behind me says, in perfect English: “So, you are trying to learn some Mandarin?  Very good for you!”


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