One of the more interesting aspects of being in China for nearly two weeks was in being completely shut out from most conversation. Very few people spoke any English at all. And why should they? I was visiting their country. It was my problem to not speak their language. Thank goodness for my sister’s Chinese fluency, I don’t know how anyone could travel in China without having a fluent guide. For this reason, there were tour groups (both international and domestic tourists) in matching hats everywhere, often affiliated with cruise ships. If you ask me for my own unique definition of hell, it would involve matching hats, organized tour groups on tight schedules, being ferried on and off coach buses, and cruise ships. Not my style at all. So kudos to my ever-patient sister for being an awesome guide and translator and allowing me to see China without having to take part in my own greatest nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, if your only choices are “see China in a tour group” or “don’t see China” I’d go for the former, I just felt fortunate to be able to see China with the flexibility and planning oversight unique to being in a duo with a fluent Chinese speaker involved. Even if I felt like an idiot most of the time just sitting smiling while she had long conversations with the locals.
The younger generations are mostly learning English in school, and it was they who were most bold: especially in the more off-the-beaten-path parts of China, it was not unusual to be the only Caucasians around for miles and for young Chinese people to walk up to us and say “Hello.” If we said anything back, or even smiled in their direction, it caused fits of giggling. The young ones who did speak some English were, in these circumstances, incredibly likely to ask if they could have their photograph taken with us, as though we were some strange foreigners (which we were) but I admit it made me feel sort of like an exotic zoo animal. Our rule of thumb became to say yes to the photo requests from young (University-aged) girls practicing their English, but as two young females we decided that some of the requests for photos from older guys were just a little bit creepy.
Being immersed in this enormous vat of humanity with whom I could not communicate, I became slightly obsessed with learning some rudimentary Chinese. It’s a remarkably difficult language to learn, since the spoken and written languages are essentially independent, and the spoken language is tonal. I got as far as “hello” and “thank you” with the spoken word, and no farther. But I did start to recognize a few of the characters that appeared on many signs, like the names of the cities we visited, the cardinal directions, just simple things. My first character was this one:
China is, of course, the People’s Republic of China, the currency is called the People’s money, and our first hotel in Shanghai was in People’s square. So this one was everywhere, and it was useful for me to remember. After seeing some Bronze-age inscriptions at the Shanghai Museum I became obsessed with understanding how modern Chinese characters evolved from early Pictographs, and I found a few great books to bring home with me. So I can casually indulge in this fascination over the course of the next few months, as I reflect on my trip.
Since I’ve been back in my own bed, my dreams have mostly been set back in China. Clearly there was a lot to see and process, and my brain is still working hard on it. But with the language difference, comes the inevitable funny translations, so I’ll leave you today with one of my favorite giggle-inducers. Hey, I’m sure if I tried to translate something into Chinese the results would be equally hilarious.