Linguistically challenged in China

February 2009

If there’s one thing I really can’t stand its being in another country and unable to communicate with people or read signs. With a trip to China planned for the near future I signed up for Mandarin classes in September 2008. I realised that in fifteen weeks I wasn’t going to learn enough but some, I reasoned, was better than nothing. I found Mandarin relatively easy at first; no cases or tenses to worry about. Of course the tones were a problem and I still have difficulties identifying 2nd tone and my 4th tone isn’t harsh enough but at least when I read pinyin I can have a stab at pronouncing it. Chinese characters take a very long time to learn and there was no way I could learn enough to be useful in the short time available. I understand that about 1700 are necessary to read a newspaper. Nevertheless I set out for China in February with an MP3 player full of useful phrases and a small vocabulary of useful words and phrases. As I would be travelling by train I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to read the names of the stations but mostly they were written in pinyin as well as Chinese characters and in any case the attendants came and told you when to get off well before the station.

My first stop was Hong Kong, where the language was not of course a problem as everything was in English and Cantonese. Then I took the train to mainland China. Everything was going smoothly, we arrived in Shenzhen, walked across to the Hong Kong exit control and then to China immigration, but once let loose on the other side and looking for the long distance train station, I was immediately confronted with the inadequacy of my Chinese. Finding the station was not a problem but the screens were all in Chinese, not a letter of pinyin anywhere and I couldn’t recognise the number of my train or the names of any cities. Instinct told me that this was not the right place, and that these were local trains. Looking for further signs my attention was drawn to a huge wooden indicator board, a wall of Chinese characters. Outside, some smaller signs were hanging above doorways further along the street and eventually I found the one for the long distance train station, the pinyin in small letters. Then I had to find the ticket office and although a map in the foyer looked promising the ticket office did not appear to be where indicated. I followed people upstairs to the security point but I still didn’t have a ticket so I approached a person in uniform and in my best Mandarin said excuse me, but having got her attention I couldn’t remember the word for ticket and in any case the local language was Cantonese not Mandarin. Anyway with the aid of mime I managed to get across what I wanted and was sent back downstairs again. So I went out to the street again and investigated the signs above doorways further along until I found the ticket office.

From then on, things were pretty straightforward, the train numbers were clearly indicated in the waiting room and the destinations were shown in pinyin as well as Chinese characters. The ticket was a bit confusing as it was not clear which number was the car number and which the bunk number. A young Chinese girl with fair English was more than helpful and insisted on taking me to the right car. On the train itself people were as friendly as it was possible to be when communication is limited. My efforts at Mandarin were mostly greeted with I don’t understand.

In general we found that people whose work was in any way connected with the tourist industry had some English, so in hotels and at tourist sites language was not a problem. Most signs were bilingual, with English being the other language. In Yangshuo, a small town overrun with back-packers and the service industries they attract, a couple of young waitresses engaged us in conversation, practiced their English, laughed at my Mandarin, corrected my pronunciation and applauded when my efforts met with their approval. In another place a waitress unable to make us understand resorted to writing it down, which seems a natural thing to do considering that Cantonese and Japanese speakers share the same script and consequently would be able to understand the written word, but of course the same doesn’t apply to Europeans, and was of no help whatsoever to us.

The biggest problem we had was with taxis. When we arrived at Xian station there was a huge taxi rank but at each car we approached the drivers tried to avoid making eye contact and if that failed merely waved us away. Unfortunately I did not have the name of the hotel in Chinese but it was a very large hotel in the middle of town opposite a major tourist attraction from which it took its name. Eventually a taxi driver approached us and with the aid of a map and some miming we managed to explain where we wanted to go. We thought this was an isolated incident but it wasn’t. We encountered similar problems in Beijing even though I had the name of the hotel in Chinese. I discussed this problem with the hotel reception who wrote the name of our destination down for us, but taxi drivers would look at it and shake their heads and wave us away. We learned that once we had flagged down a car we had to get in before telling the driver where we wanted to go. My son would then sit in the front seat with a map and compass and direct the driver. By contrast, the Beijing metro system is a joy to use. The trains are frequent and the signage bilingual. There is even an announcement in English at each station.

In the short time I was there I became used to the characters and could even recognise some, mainly place names and I felt that they were beginning to lose their mystery. Although I shall probably never return to China I am not going to be defeated by the language and have resolved to learn some 200 characters by the end of the year. I know about 20 now, so watch my progress here!

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