Hacking China – Language Barriers

Point It

Originally uploaded by meganinmunich.

The more I learned about Changchun, the more I was confronted with how comfortable it had become in Munich. That sinking feeling of doubt, shyness and reluctance to be embarrassed resurfaced a bit, reminding me of actually how challenging it was at times just to be in Germany and walk into a store and try and find what I needed.

Early on in my first trial stay in Germany, Oliver had called me from work. Needing a very special screw for some project of his, he sent me on a treasure hunt to a highly specialized screw store in the center of town, armed only with a few words on a piece of paper. Of course no one spoke English and I didn’t speak a word of German at the time. Using my mobile connection to Oliver as a pocket translator – and a lot of pantomime and nervous flushing – the right one was finally located, purchased and delivered to him at work. In all, it took half a day to buy a screw, albeit a special one. It was so exhausting that afterwards I had to take a nap. Life became so much easier once I’d learned the language.

China, I quickly realized would mean a lot of days like that at the beginning. The smallest tasks would require a huge amount of effort and a lot of help – more so than before. Again I would be going into a country not speaking a word of the language, except that this time we would both be foreign, both clueless. Learning the language would be a priority but Chinese was going to be a lot harder than German to wrap my tongue around. Remembering how much I leaned on Oliver at the beginning (and still do in certain cases), this was also something to consider. It took a while to get my feeling of independence back and this wasn’t something I was willing to let go of so easily a second time. By the time we got to the hotel in Changchun, I’d begun making a list of things I could use to get around language barriers and make myself understood without having to ask for help.

In my head I began to construct an idea for series of ‘Point It’ style flash cards with labeled images and common phrases. Whenever a situation popped up where I wished I had something like that, I wrote down the words I lacked. Quickly a list took shape and grew. I decided that by the time I returned to Changchun it would be armed with tools to hack the language barrier until I managed to learn enough Chinese to get by.

In the meantime, as driving is only allowed for those with a Chinese drivers license, the only way to get around was by taxi. Once outside the protective walls of the hotel, no one spoke English. For us the only way to communicate to the taxi driver where we wanted to go was by pointing on a map, showing him a business card, or by first having the (somewhat) English-speaking concierge to write down instructions for us in Chinese. We opted for the third option quite often, collecting everything we had written for us in a Moleskin notebook together with an English translation.

As for learning the language, it was clear early on that it was vital to do so in order to live in Changchun. For one, very few people in Changchun spoke English and learning the language would also be the best way to quickly integrate into the culture. The company would pay for language lessons for both of us, although I would be in the best position to take advantage of it. The amount budgeted for the lessons seemed to be very little until I learned that it almost equaled a year’s salary for the average worker in that region. It seemed like little consolation that everyone was assuring me that it would be in fact easier to learn than German, but then I visited the VW “German Village” and saw all the housewives holding functional conversations with their cleaning ladies and not one of them has been in China for more than a year and a half.

If they could do it, I didn’t see any reason why i couldn’t manage again.


2 responses to “Hacking China – Language Barriers

  1. I know you can do it, no doubt in my mind at all.

  2. I have this book, and it really covers it all. Sorry to hear you won’t be moving to China, but I’m sure throughout your expat life you’ll find many more uses for it!

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