Friday, August 10, 2018

How To Communicate With The Chinese Knowing Only English

It happened. I fulfilled one item on my bucket list! I finally traveled to another country. I was immersed in another culture. I left the comfort of home to live in a country that didn’t speak my language or understand my ways. I was left alone in a racially homogeneous country that celebrates societal conformity. Independent thought and beliefs were frowned upon and rarely displayed in public. The country I lived in was China.
First College Trip - PTK

For the first time, I branched out and journeyed off the beaten path. I didn’t tour another country as a tourist. Rather, I took a leap of faith and lived in a foreign country. I can tell you all about what makes China different from the United States of America and any other country. China is a one-of-a-kind country.

There have been countries, in the past, that was like what China is today. Communist countries were part of our world and were deemed a threat to the Allies. Americans and supporters alike feared the day of Communist control. Yet, even though China is a communist country, there is little to worry about as an expat and foreigner. The toughest changes that will occur when visiting or living in China will be culture shock and the language, Chinese.

There is a reason why I was told to learn some Chinese before I arrived. As a college student and a member of an International Club, I met several Chinese international students who told me the same thing.

“Learn some of the language before you go!”

Granted, I did seek assistance to learn some common phrases and introductions in Chinese. I didn’t want to be like most people and travel to another country without knowing the language. But there was a problem with this. Chinese is hard, not just hard but downright impossible.

Now, Chinese isn’t impossible. I’ve watched YouTube videos about people learning Chinese in a year and about some who’ve spent two to five years of their life learning the language. My problem was that I only had five months before I arrived. I was either going to have to somehow master the Chinese language faster than ever before or live with only knowing the basics. I opted to know the basics.

Though, there was one obstacle in my way. I may have known the basics, but I didn’t know the tones in Chinese. The first thing my host mom told me was that I sounded like I was from Southern China.

The Reality

Even with knowing the basics I was unprepared. This experience reminded me of my first family vacation. I was ten and my parents and sister were getting ready to experience South Dakota.

Brooke, my little sister, was more than ready to jump in the car the second the trip was announced. Her small frame danced through the house as she dreamed about all the fun things we were going to do. Brooke understood what a vacation was, even if she was only five at the time, and imagined late nights, swimming, playing, and getting away from the same old scenery.

It was about two days before we left that my dad noticed that I was acting weird. This was nothing new. I was a strange child. Growing up around more beef cattle than humans was taking its toll. At ten, I had more animal friends than human friends. I was secluded in the middle of nowhere and to pass the time in the summer, I ran around in the cow field, playing tag with two-ton animals.

Was I afraid? No.

Beef cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep, and goats were my friends. I wasn’t scared of them, even with as small as I was.

Right before I got on the plane to go to China, my dad had to remind me of our family trip. Even though I don’t remember asking this, I do remember being nervous. My dad, with a smug face, already smirking and trying to hide his laughter, said, “You better make sure they can speak English.”

Now, only around ten-million people in China can speak English. That is less than one and every one-hundred people!

What my dad said made sense, but it is also his way of picking on me. Our family trip to South Dakota was almost squashed because I didn’t want to go. Why? Because I didn’t know if people in South Dakota spoke English!

The Real Experience

I’m on my eleventh day in Beijing and my host sister, Dora, has brought me to her International Elementary School for Children’s Day. It’s over one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, no clouds in sight, and not a lick of a breeze.
Children's Day

My hair is sticking to my neck, my clothes are permanently glued to my skin, and I’m hungry from all the walking. The morning was easier; the children were indoors learning about a new Chinese company. I silently listened, or as well as I could, to the speakers enthusiastically talking about their new products and services being launched in a few weeks, all in Chinese.

Was I clueless? Yes. Did I understand? A little.

It’s not normal for Chinese people to use their body when talking. Everything is displayed either in words or by a presentation. I was alone in figuring out what was being said and what was being asked of me.

Here’s how I coped and learned how to communicate without knowing Chinese.

Do you speak English?

I secluded, or I intentionally secluded myself from the other parents because I knew they didn’t speak English. How did I communicate with them?

Actually, I didn’t learn everything I know today on how to communicate with Chinese people on this day. I learned how Chinese people interacting with each other. Altercations were normal and shouting matches on the streets, in public, were nothing to be concerned about. People just went on their way while some store owner and customer went at it.

The one thing I did learn was how to earn the trust of someone who didn’t understand me. When Dora’s classmates went to play away from the teachers and adults, I stayed in a place where I could see both the children and the teachers and parents. When the teachers and parents were done conversing with each other, I would move to where all the children were. Without saying a word, I was smiled at as everyone resumed their duties. I earned their trust without having to say a word. The teachers and parents knew I wouldn’t leave the children alone.

Where is the bathroom?

On the trip, I had a moment when I needed to use the bathroom. It was over eight hours since I had last seen a rest stop. Never had I thought I would need to squirm around to stop myself from having an accident.

The issue was that I couldn’t ask anyone where a bathroom was. I didn’t know how to ask, and I refused to embarrass myself by asking and then getting clueless looks. How did I find a bathroom? I eventually relented and followed Dora and some of her classmates. Luckily, for me, they were heading to the little ladies’ room.

Later on, I was lucky enough to meet someone who spoke English and could translate for me. My suggestion to anyone is to either use a translator app or find a friendly local who will help. Don’t wait like me. I didn’t sign up to see how long I could hold my bladder.

Pain Relief

There is a reason I keep mentioning the heat. This was the first day I got heat stroke. Without being able to communicate my discomfort, I went through my day. I was enjoying myself, watching Dora run around with her friends, making new friends with five-year-old’s, and earning the trust of teachers and parents was amazing. The heat was not.

Arriving home with Dora was the only time I felt like I would get some rest. My host mom, who could see that Dora and I were exhausted, told us to rest. I gladly took her advice and planted myself on my bed. My host mom came in moments later and asked if I was OK. Without speaking, I lifted my hand to my head. A small pill that looked suspiciously like Ibuprofen landed in my hand. As the door close behind my host mom, I knew she understood and that she was giving me some time to sleep.

Four hours later, I awoke.

Children’s Day Adventure

Even with a headache and dealing with heat stroke, I made it to the part of the day Dora couldn’t wait for—the Octonauts Play. Arriving twenty-minutes late was a normal thing as many other families followed us in. Being late was normal.

The play. I hadn’t seen a play since I was eleven-years-old. The small area echoes as the opening theme song to Octonauts blared through the room. Dora bounced on her dad’s lap, nearly jumping off his lap several times as each Octonaut entered the stage through the crowd of screaming children.

I knew what was going on, not because I understood what the actors and actresses were saying, but because every morning on the weekend was filled with watching several episodes of Octonauts. The play was in Chinese, but since the actors and actresses were moving their bodies, I understood what was being said.

Midnight Adventure

I went rollerblading in Beijing! In the middle of Beijing, between a divided highway with four lanes on each side, I rollerbladed through a courtyard separated by dancers and skaters. Without saying a word, I excitedly rushed over to a man who took care of the rollerblades and pointed. Within seconds, I was fitted into rollerblades and was tearing up the courtyard. Dora and I had a blast, ending up wiping out often, but ended our night with the largest smiles known to man plastered on our faces.

Glowing up the night with our rollerblades, my host mom laughed as she saw our skates leave the ground a few times. It was all fun and games. I didn’t need to speak to convey how I was feeling. The smile on my face said it all.


This concluded my eleventh day in Beijing, China. Dealing with heat stroke and learning how to communicate without using English were the highlights of my day. Yes, heat stroke is not much of a highlight. Beyond the pain, heat stroke is dangerous, but I learned to notice the warning signs so it wouldn’t happen again.

Yet, I successfully communicated with people who didn’t understand English. Body language is key and even though acting out something may be embarrassing, it helps others understand what it is you are trying to say. I earned the trust of parents by being myself. The best piece of advice I can give is to never stray from who you are. My experience is never going to be the same as someone else.

How will you communicate with someone who doesn’t understand English? Leave your answers in the comment section below and share this post with someone you think could learn from my experience. 

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