The Chinese have a few expressions that Benjamin and I have adopted to answer the outgoing souls who try to converse with us. Benjamin favors, 'it's like asking a blind man for directions', and I'm partial to this one: 'it's like climbing a tree to catch fish'.
Of course, we don't actually say
these phrases to our would-be Chinese friends. We can't speak Mandarin and they can't speak English. Instead, we open up our Lonely Planet and point to the expressions written in Chinese. This is how we're getting by, as mutes with a guidebook as our only means of communication.
It's not like we haven't tried to learn Mandarin, the offical language of China. They call it Putonghua, meaning 'common speach'. An ironic name, if you ask me... Mandarin is a tough language to learn. It's based on pictographs, and although an educated Chinese knows 6 - 8,000 characters (I've read there are up to 56,000 in total), I have only mastered recognition of one. And if you're wondering why I am learning the characters, it's because that is our sole way of coummincation. I copy Chinese words, in Chinese characters, from the guidebook on slips of paper and hand them to people instead of speaking. I feel like one of those deaf people who come into a cafe with a stack of cards that say, "I am deaf. Please donate money." He passes them out in silence and usually walks away empty handed. Luckily for us, our slips of paper work. They have gotten us to the train station, obtained train tickets for us, they've ordered us food, asked for 'left luggage'.
So why don't we just speak
to people? Learning new languages is part of the challenge and fun of travel... Let me explain:
While there is
a system for writing Chinese words with the Roman alphabet for Westerners to understand, called Pinyin, most Chinese don't really use or understand it. It's primarily used on maps and for names of people and places in our guidebook, and would help us speak Chinese words if only the phonetics matched up with the letters, but the pronunciations are all off. An 'e' sounds like 'uh' and the letters 'zh' sound like the letter 'j', plus there are all sorts of sounds that aren't 'normal' for vowel combinations... and on top of it all, there are 5 tones in the Chinese language, subtleties in the pronunciation and emphasis placed on sounds that affect the meaning of the word. It's a complicated system and each time we've tried to figure out how to say a simple word, no-one ever recognizes it.
In India, we didn't need to learn a new language. Most everyone spoke English well or well enough to get by. Our first morning in Kolkata, I asked the waiter how to say 'thank you' in his language. He looked at me expressionless and replied, "thank you," in English. And that was that. We had no reason to learn Hindi, so we got lazy and stopped bothering to learn. But here in China, things are different. Outside of the big cities and the more touristed places, not a soul speaks English. Lonely Planet recommends a phrase book for this reason, but we didn't read that sentence until we were already here, stuck in our hotel room frantically giving ourselves a crash course in Pinyin (to no avail).
It was our first evening in Luoyang that we realized we could be in some serious trouble. When we arrived there in the morning, we somehow managed to get ourselves on a tour bus without problem. All we had to say was, "Shaolin," and we were escorted to a bus next door to the train station. Simple. We didn't necessarily want a tour
bus, and in fact we didn't even know it was
a tour bus until the second stop, but we made it to Shaolin and back. No problem.
We returned to Luoyang in the evening. It was dark and raining. Wandering around the streets, a little tired and hungry -- looking for a hotel we picked from the guidebook -- we were 'rescued' by a gang wearing blue blazers, the staff from another hotel who were out prowling the streets for people to fill their rooms. They spoke to us in Chinese. We replied in English. They continued in Chinese. It happens like that... people will keep speaking to you in Chinese as if suddenly, by a stroke of luck or miracle, you will comprehend. They had a brochure with a price written on it. The place was close. I suggested to Benjamin that we go check it out and with no actual words exchanged, the next thing we knew, we were in a nice, clean room and out of the rain. Easy.
We had shelter. So we went out to look for food. There was a restaurant next door to the hotel. Convenient. We were beckoned in by a smiling man out front -- he was all too happy for us to come and dine in that little hole in the wall. I figured they must have a picture menu if they wanted the forigners in. But no, we were handed a menu in Chinese and the waitress was impatient to take our order.
"English?" I said meekly, with a smile. She stared at me with a blank look on her face. "I guess not..." I said to Benjamin, "now what?"
With her standing there, we didn't have time to confer, to come up with a plan on how to handle the situation. It was a first for us; the language barrier had never really
gotten in the way of anything until this moment. We were helpless.
The waitress said something that sounded like 'chicken' and pointed to something on the menu, something written in Chinese. I wasn't sure if she actually said 'chicken' or something in Chinese that only sounded like 'chicken' -- or maybe she was calling me
a chicken (she was a bit surly). Having no other options, I said, "yes, we'll have that."
I figured we would deal with whatever showed up on our table when the time came. She brought back something that was chicken, all of it: bones, organs, and who knows what. Meanwhile, the table next to us had a plate of green beans and pork delivered to their table, so we pointed to that and gestured that we would like one too. The girl was frustrated with us, though, so she sent her father over and this resulted in yet another dish that Benjamin ordered by pointing to something in our guidebook. In actuality, none of this happened as easy as it sounds written here, so we weren't really sure what all we'd ordered until it was all there on the table.
While we ate, the annoyed waitress walked by our table and spit on the floor in front of us. Maybe she didn't like us or maybe it meant nothing. Everyone in China spits on the floor, even in a restaurant. When we finished our enormous meal, we were overcharged -- we were first given one price, and then another... all done with a calculator as language was a no-go. Without the benefit of language, it's hard to argue over the price, so we paid. We left, glad to have the whole awkward experience over with and shy about entering the premesis of another restaurant. Our next two meals came wrapped in cellophane and cardboard, eaten in the confines of our hotel room. A pitiful image, I know. But thank God for instant noodles and bread... Nevertheless, we knew we had to come up with a plan or else we'd starve when instant noodles became unbearable.
And that's when I got the pen out and began my English-Chinese translations by copying Chinese characters for words we couldn't prounounce successfully onto paper. Although the food section of our Lonely Planet was meager, it was enought to get us by. And we never would have gotten train tickets the next day without our little slips of paper with our destination and date written in Chinese. I made 5 of those, options in case our first train wasn't available... and good thing, too, as we used 4 of them before getting the tickets.
We are now eating fine and moving forward. We have mastered the language of China in our own way. And now that I'm getting familiar with writing the characters, I'm in search of a caligraphy class... one with an English speaking teacher I hope.