Arriving in China for the first time without having ever studied the language is a bit like being shot out of the womb. You can’t speak or read signs, so you’re forced to point and use body language to interact with this strange, new world.
The first time I hailed a taxi in Beijing, I must have reeked of that fresh off the boat smell because the driver immediately began peppering me with questions. He didn’t speak English, and I only understood three Chinese expressions, ni hao (你好, hello) xie xie (谢谢, thank you) and dui (对, correct).
When we came to a red light, he drew the letters U-S-A on the steering wheel and raised his hand, extending his fingers horizontally so his palm was flat like a duck bill. He moved his hand toward me, making a “whiiissshhh” sound as it cut through the air.
I shrugged my shoulders, confused.
He scribbled the letters U-S-A on the steering wheel a little faster and pointed at me.
“Oh, dui, dui, dui,” I said. I am from the US.
He raised his hand and made the “whiiissshhh” sound again, only this time he lowered it to the dashboard, where he wrote two Chinese characters, 中国 (zhong guo). “China, China” he shouted, pounding his fist on the dashboard.
“Dui, dui, dui,” I said, nodding my head. I had flown to China on a plane.
The driver turned his attention back to the road, and I tried not to make eye contact the rest of the way, hoping to avoid a third round of charades.
After two years in Beijing and one year of language lessons with a tutor, the main Chinese dialect, Mandarin, sounds a lot less foreign, and simple tasks have become a little easier. I speak enough Chinese to buy train tickets or wire money home to the US. I recognize the characters for entrance (入口）and exit (出口), which are helpful to know in case of a fire.
Still, mistakes are frequent. At the 7-Eleven, I ask for triple-A batteries and the clerk hands me condoms. I tell my teacher that I like to eat duck but because I leave out a character it becomes “I like to eat teeth.” And buying food at a restaurant with no English translations or pictures on their menu is always an adventure.
Soon after he arrived in China, an American friend of mine named Mike went to a grocery store to buy lamb meat. The meats in the deli were labeled in Chinese, with no English translations. As Mike circled the deli looking for lamb, a few employees came over to help.
Mike tried to describe what he wanted, but only one of the men acted like he understood. “He put his fists on his head, made El Toro horns and pawed the ground,” Mike said. Wrong animal.
“That’s when I shook my head and started bleating like a sheep.” The man laughed and picked up a slab of lamb.
In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, there was a push by the Chinese government to get taxi drivers to learn English. “Nearly 90,000 taxi drivers in Beijing are working hard on their English, thus they will be able to communicate with foreigners in the near future,” according to an August 2007 report on the Beijing Olympics website. “Some of them may even be able to chat with foreigners about the NBA star Yao Ming, or Beijing snacks.”
Many drivers did learn a few simple English phrases, but when the Games ended they threw away their language guides, according to my friends who lived here at the time.
I can’t say I blame them. It’s much easier to point and bleat like a sheep than to learn a new language.