China First Hand

1 February 2006

Communication Isolation

Filed under: Language,Personal — china1sthand @ 10:24 am

Native English speakers get quite complacent. I am one. I don’t think we appreciate the feeling of having no shared language to communicate. All my first impressions of China I experienced without speaking.

Without verbal communication the natural alternative is mime. What would you think are the easiest things to communicate non-verbally? Numbers, perhaps? In China these have completely different hand signals beyond 5. Also, ‘two’ in China is an offensive sign to us. Where we might mistakenly swear then flip round so as not to be rude, the Chinese actually do it the other way! The Chinese are all being rude to me! Oh thank goodness, they’re not. The ‘victory’ sign that we use for two has a different purpose here. We use hand movements without thinking, but using them in this country just draws blank stares. I started to doubt whether even my facial expressions were understood.

Fluent speakers don’t help the language beginner: Life is too busy to simplify your words for the benefit of a stranger. I sympathise with refugees who stay indoors because there are other people to do their errands. Where is the motivation to keep trying a language when it’s not helping you communicate? I was scared to go out. I was scared in case someone spoke to me. They could say anything: ‘Have you got the time?’ to ‘Don’t go there – its dangerous!’ but I wouldn’t ever know. I had to learn to be comfortable in this almost complete ignorance. I also had to overcome something that few English speakers will ever experience: Utter embarrassment at being the idiot that can’t understand.

After a while I realised that actually, the Chinese don’t talk to strangers anyway. Where in central London I would constantly be murmuring apologies when knocking someone in a crowd, and request ‘excuse me’ while getting out of a full tube, this does not happen in China. Maybe it is less friendly – but it’s also a comfort that at least in silence I can hide my stupidity.



  1. […] As I can’t read or speak Chinese, I struggle to buy anything that I can’t easily identify – this includes chemicals for unblocking loos!  I was thoroughly embarrassed to have to call my friend to inform her of my foul accident and ask her to buy some bleach.  That evening, her parents knocked on the door.  I don’t think I need emphasise the foul stench that wafted from the bathroom whenever you open the door!  Oh no, they’ve only come to help me – but no one else should witness the gut-wrenching mess I’ve made! – maybe they’re just looking at the washing machine – but that’s in the same room you can’t go in there! – and they don’t understand anything I’m saying, so they’re gonna just go straight in there because it’s right next to them by the front door please don’t!!  As I was madly waving my arms around and stuttering refusals in pale-faced shock, they paused in wonder for a moment, then her father marched into another room and her mother handed me a box of hot dinner.  Those crazy English. […]

    Pingback by Toilet Humour or You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till Its Gone « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  2. […] I remember on my first trip to China I sat in a park, and some old ladies joined me on the seat. They seemed interested in this pale-skinned, probably quite bemused-looking young woman staring at the morning tai chi. They found it absolutely hilarious that I couldn’t speak Chinese. These ladies signalled things such as numbers to me, but I couldn’t understand beyond 5! They were wonderfully happy women and I really enjoyed entertaining them. They were genuinely trying to communicate, and I felt we had become friends. […]

    Pingback by Generations Apart « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

  3. […] I’ve adapted now. I can read the people. I am confident I can communicate where necessary. Perhaps more importantly, I realise how little language we need. I have learnt a lot in this first week: from books, my surroundings and informative TV. I have used the underground and even ascertained how the local internet café works. I doubt I’ll remember any details. All I know is it took several days to get there. I believe the official term is: Culture Shock. […]

    Pingback by Adapted « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 7:58 pm | Reply

  4. […] As with any skill, the best way to learn a language is through practice.  Perhaps you get this practice when you submerse yourself in native speech?  The problem with a beginner is, who will speak to you in simple terms?  Even if you can string your side together, you’ve got no chance understanding the reply! […]

    Pingback by Learning To Talk « China First Hand — 21 September 2006 @ 12:41 am | Reply

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