Tuesday, August 7, 2018

How To Communicate Without Knowing The Language

There are many things I’ve done in my life I didn’t want to do. I was forced to participate in activities that had me feeling brain dead and bored. I was not allowed to skip school activities that made everyone yawn and antsy. I wrote articles about topics unrelated to my field and had nothing to do with me. Yet, I woke up each morning for these situations and still participated. I found out that some of the activities were interesting and helpful. I made friends and gained community recognition. And all these situations have made me a better person.

On my eleventh day in Beijing, China, I found myself unwillingly participating in Children’s Day. Unhappy and tired, assuming the heat was going to boil me alive and being surrounded by my host sister, Dora’s, classmates, teachers, and classmates’ parents who didn’t speak English brought on more negative emotions than I thought I could handle at one time.

Waking up at 7am to get ready for school brought back some unwanted childhood memories. Growing up in a small community in Northeast Wisconsin, I awoke at 6am every morning and got on a bus at quarter to seven. The bus picked me up from my grandmother’s house because I lived a mile-in-a-half away from the border. My grandmother greeted my sister and me at 6:30am and started a small group conversation with all her grandchildren (five of us). This was a normal routine for nearly ten years.

Even when I lived in the Fox Cities and was walking distance from an elementary school, I was instead driven to a Parochial School on the other side of town. I have little to no memories of my time in Parochial School, but many of my teachers recognize me when I visit my old Lutheran Church. The stories my teachers tell me are amusing. Even though I’m not a religious person, I still find myself walking into churches every once in a while to see how things have changed over the years.

Helping Dora wake up in the morning was as difficult as it was for my mom to wake me up for school. No matter how early I went to bed, I found myself exhausted in the morning and slightly irritated after being disturbed before the sun came up. No one should have to be awake before the sun rises!

Dora isn’t like me, though. Instead of going to bed early, she stayed up later every night depending on what we were doing. Sometimes we watched TV or played UNO, colored, ran around in the courtyard, or visited Lu Lu, my host family’s dog, on the roof of the apartment complex. There was no limit to the number of things Dora would make excuses to stay up later than she was supposed to. Considering Dora was only five at the time (now six), staying up until 10 or 11pm at night to wake up at 7:30am seemed like a short amount of time to sleep even though she was getting almost nine hours of sleep a night.

Like most mornings, Dora’s dad would carry her half-asleep self into the kitchen to eat breakfast. Rice porridge was the day’s delicacy as it was every morning. Luckily, I had time the day before to buy some chocolate bars to help spruce up the flavor of the rice porridge. I’ve never seen Dora wake up so fast!

By 7:45am, Dora, her dad, and I had eaten, brushed our teeth, changed our clothes, packed lunches and snacks, and got into a taxi to start the drive to school. Dora’s International Elementary School is in another district. The family home is in Fengtai District and the school is in Haidian District, just north. The drive is long considering we only lived three miles away. An average commute in the morning was around fifteen to twenty minutes each day.

Dora happily dragged me into her school to show me off to all her classmates, friends, and teachers. It started to become real for me as the same four questions were asked of me. What is my name? Where am I from? How old am I? Do I have a boyfriend?

Besides this, none of the children, besides Dora’s friend Debra, could speak English well enough to hold a conversation. The Chinese teachers were as clueless as the children and the parents couldn’t help either. I was going to be alone on this trip and if I needed something translated, I was going to need to rely on Dora, who excitedly told me to “not worry so much”. I wish it was that easy!

The situation became more awkward when no one could believe that I was twenty-three-years-old. I guess I still was smaller and looked younger than my real age. I thought since many Asians looked younger and were skinnier, that I would fit in better than what I do in America. I’ve always been petite and underweight, but to be told that I was even small for Asian standards made me feel a bit self-conscious about my body.

This feeling didn’t last long. Even with the language barrier more prevalent than ever, I stopped myself from getting upset. There was nothing I could do to change the situation. If I needed to ask something, I could use Microsoft Translate on my phone or utilize Dora who happily assisted me whenever I needed it. I told myself that I didn’t travel to China to be scared and unwilling to try new things. I came to China to learn about the culture and language, and to teach. And that was what I was going to continue doing.

Being chauffeured around Beijing to visit a new Chinese company that created eco-friendly makeup, products, and supplies for foreign companies was the highlight of my day. Though a bit boring for kindergarten students, I found the products to be a step-into-the-future. Without having a translator available in the presentation, I figured out what was being said by watching the videos and the presenter’s body language.

Chinese people don’t verbalize their thoughts into actions like Americans do. Their hands were not moving, and neither were their bodies. I figured out their body language by watching their facial expressions, which did change when they spoke about their company’s products. The videos were the most helpful and the pictures told me everything I needed to know.

Pictures are a universal way to communicate. This may sound weird at first, but it’s the truth. When we learn another language, we don’t just learn from a book or a teacher. My Chinese lessons are done with a book, CDs, and an app that teaches Chinese through pictures.

If someone was speaking to me in Spanish and then held up a picture of a train, I would be able to assume that the person was looking for direction to the train station or something similar. When I was working with Dora, I had picture books and coloring books to help her visualize new vocabulary. Pictures are useful in teaching and as many students are visual learners, pictures could make the difference between a child becoming fluent and a child only knowing the basics.

This was the first half of my eleventh day in Beijing, China. Do you know another language? How did you learn the language? Were pictures part of the learning process? Leave your answers below and please share this post with friends and family.   

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