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April 2005

We’ve been in Dalian for just over a month, and we still cannot read, write, understand or speak Chinese.  Before coming here, I was most curious to learn what it would be like to arrive in a country not knowing the language at all, as so many immigrants all over the world have done.  I wondered how they managed to do things and get around without the most vital human resource: language.  And now I know.  You rely a lot on pictures.  You point and gesture.  You smile and say yes.  You get lucky.  You make friends who help you.  And you can infer a lot by relying on past experience and the predictability of situations.

 Usually, as long as we are in our apartment, we are intelligent, competent people.  But once we leave, we become stupid.  Many a time we’ve been at a restaurant or food court, and everyone around us is eating delicious food, but we can’t order that food because the menu is a jumble of chicken scratches.  Luckily, there are usually a few pictures on the menu .  We are limited to eating those pictures.  We point, the waitress asks a bunch of questions, we smile and say yes, hoping she’s not asking, “Would you like dog meat with your noodles?”  Once, we were at one of the numerous malls here, and we found a restaurant with a giant picture of a spicy peanut chicken dish outside.  It looked good, so we went in, the waitress came to take our order, and once again we realized we were dumb.  I drug the waitress back out to the entrance just to point at that picture.  Across the street from our school, there is a KFC.  We really needed some fried chicken one day, so we went to KFC with high hopes, only to discover a whole menu in Chinese.

 In fact, our inability to buy the food we want is the biggest obstacle we face due to our illiteracy.  The grocery store is always a hit-and-miss, trial-and-error learning experience.  Zac tried to buy chocolate milk and it turned out to be coffee-flavored milk.  I bought a package that looked like dried fruit and had a picture of peaches on the front.  But they didn’t taste like dried peaches, so we took them into school and asked the Chinese teachers what it was.  It turned out to be dried sweet potatoes.  Another time, Zac bought something that looked like a fruit snack and it turned out to be sweet bean paste.  Bread is also a problem.  We buy an ordinary-looking loaf of bread, and it will end up having sweet butter, bean paste, or buttery cream inside. 

 However, most of the time the pictures do not deceive us and are quite helpful.  For example, a picture of a chicken usually means chicken flavor.  They have lots of packaged food here, so the pictures on the back help us to know if we should boil it, steam it, or microwave it.  Usually the numbers are clear, so in the jumble of Chinese, if there is a “2” we assume that we should cook it for two minutes.  We also rely a lot on familiar packaging to help us know what the product is.  Laundry detergent is packaged a certain way, as are bars of soap, all-purpose cleaner, dish-washing liquid, soy sauce, juice, tea, etc.  Sometimes the food will even be labeled with some English, like our “Highly Delicious Soy Sauce.”  How could we resist a name like that?

 In new situations, because we can’t ask what to do, we always watch other people to learn the protocol.  When we bought our first loaf of mystery bread, we didn’t know if we could just take it and they would know the price at the register, or if we needed to get a sticker put on it.  So we lurked near the bread baskets until an unwitting shopper picked up some bread and took it to be stickered.  We followed suit.  We also infer a lot based on previous experience, because, despite being half a world away, situations in China are often the same as in the states.  For example, when we go to check out of the grocery store, if the bill is Y81.90 and we pay with a Y100.00, the cashier will say a bunch of words and point at the price.  So that means she wants us to add Y2.00 to make the change easier.  Of course, we don’t have the change, but don’t know how to say that, so we just lift our arms in a helpless gesture and shake our heads.  She understands, and reluctantly makes the change.

 Often, I am surprised at how much we can do without using verbal language.  Our fruit lady smiles when we come to her stall and point at her fruit.  She always takes out her coins to show us how much we should pay.  I don’t even need to point at the sweet potatoes anymore because I just stand in front of the oven and my sweet potato man will take out one large roasted sweet potato for me.  He holds up two or three wizened fingers and I give him the coins.  We also have a fish man on our street who, on sunny days, sits at a short table with four fish bowls and numerous gold fish.  His advertising worked, and after a couple weeks Zac and I decided to buy a fish bowl and some fish from him.   We had to use quite intricate sign language to communicate that we wanted this bowl, but only two of the fish in it, the black bug-eyed fish from that bowl, and the yellow fish from this bowl (no, not the one floating upside down), and none of the fish in that bowl.  We had successfully completed the transaction and paid Y16 (about $2) when we remembered we needed fish food.  You can imagine the facial expressions and hand gestures we used to communicate that.  Another man, who had come over to watch the spectacle, helped translate our charades and we were given a small bag of fish food, for free.

 Of course, we also receive a lot of help.  The other foreign teachers who have been here longer are a wealth of information and advice.  The Chinese teachers are always happy to explain or translate something.  Our older students teach us about the culture and customs.  One of my adult students even drove us to a grocery store on the north end of town because it sold some foreign foods that he thought we would like to buy.  Our students give us their phone numbers and e-mail addresses so we can contact them if we ever need help.  The Chinese staff at the school will also assist us with anything we need, especially our apartment or visas (we now each have a Foreign Expert Certificate and residence permit).

 But sometimes, the situation is hopelessly lost in translation.  I was outside the apartment one day picking up some rocks to put in the bottom of a flower pot.  A lady who was walking her dog came by, and stared at me, so I smiled and waved.  She came over, and said a bunch of words, clearly wanting to know why a foreigner was picking up rocks and putting them in a green plastic bag outside her building.  I couldn’t explain what I was doing, so I gestured up to the third floor and tried to indicate that I lived there.  Surely she thought I was insane, and went back to walking her dog.

 My lack of Chinese is also a serious handicap with kids.  The school received a request for a foreign teacher to teach English to some kindergarten classes for one hour a week.  Apparently, I have the only schedule that can accommodate this, so they cancelled my “English Corner” class where I have an open discussion with adults for one hour, and replaced it with an hour of torture.  Now, every Wednesday morning, the 711 bus takes me to my own little perdition.  I teach three classes for 20 minutes each.  But I can’t really teach anything, because if I go outside the kids’ 30-word vocabulary, they blank out.  There are 25 squirmy kids per class, and two Chinese teachers who speak very little English.  They have flash cards for me to do with the kids, which holds their attention for about three seconds.  After that, I’m supposed to play games with them.  But how to explain the game?  I also teach little kids at our school, but that is different because the classes are really small and the Chinese teachers are very good at English and can translate everything very well.  But at the kindergarten, it is just hopeless.

 On a few occasions, Chinese has even entered our apartment and we found ourselves to be stupid on our own turf.  The first time was just after we moved in.  A lady was knocking on our door and shouting incomprehensibly.  I was afraid to open the door, but Zac said we should find out what she wanted.  When we opened the door, a middle-aged woman stood there and shouted and gestured.  We were completely confused.  She kept gesturing into our apartment and up at the ceiling.  We guessed she lived upstairs and was bothered by our music, so we turned it down, but she kept talking and gesturing.  We beckoned her in, hoping she could point to the problem.  She came in, and started gesturing toward our bedroom.  We waved her into the bedroom.  She went to the window, opened it, and took a towel off the windowsill.  Then we understood.  She lived upstairs and her laundry had fallen off the rack and onto our windowsill.  Finally, the gesturing and shouting ceased, and she left happily with her towel.

 Another time, we spent a couple of hours with Mr. Wong in our apartment.  As the maintenance man for the school, Mr. Wong fixes everything in the school and any of the teachers’ apartments.  He came to our apartment one morning to meet the man who was going to install the DSL.  But the DSL man was 2 hours late, and Mr. Wong, who speaks not a lick of English, was in our apartment.  We showed him photos from Namibia, and indicated on the map where it was.  He asked if we were from Namibia.  We said no, we were just there for two years.  We asked if he could fix the broken electrical outlet.  He said no, the guy who lived here before us broke it and it was beyond repair.  He asked what we did with the glass doors on our bookshelf.  We said we took them off and put them above our wardrobe.  He warned us to be careful with our candle, which he thought might catch the piano cloth on fire.  He complained a lot about the DSL man being so late.  We showed him photos of our families and tried to explain who everyone was.  He was impressed with our large laptop screen (we told him we got a big one for watching DVDs).  He asked how much the laptop cost and we told him.  We talked a little about ping pong.  We started to watch a DVD which was in Chinese with English subtitles, when the DSL man finally came.  After the DSL was installed, he told us to make sure we taped the wires to the wall so we wouldn’t trip and keep the box to return with the device to get our deposit back.  Then he left.  I was amazed at how much we could say without saying anything.

PS—We went to supper at Jackie’s last night and it was a repeat of the dinner at Sunny and Joan’s.  We wore slippers, toured the house, and viewed their wedding album.  They served us tea and fruit and Sunny videotaped us.  We helped fold dumplings (also videotaped), and they hid two coins in the dumplings, recreating the Spring Festival tradition for us (even though Spring Festival was last month).  For supper, we ate a jellyfish and cabbage salad, a large turkey leg, a long fish, chicken wings cooked in Coca-Cola, cucumbers dipped in chili sauce, and of course, sea shells (different ones—these were scallops).  The coins in the dumplings provided the entertainment, as everyone wanted to be the one to get a coin.  Pretending they had found one of the coins was a never-ending joke.  We ate so many dumplings, but still no one had found a coin.  We had to keep eating dumplings.  Finally, I bit into a coin, and everyone cheered and praised me, saying I would have good luck for the whole year, and took photos of me and the coin.  Everyone was quite full, yet the second coin still had not been found.  So Kerol (Jackie’s wife) cheated and stabbed all the dumplings until she found the coin, then she gave that dumpling to Zac.   They drank, although it wasn’t as much of a competition since Zac had proved last time that he had “high tolerance” (Jackie kept saying this all night).  After dinner, we sat around the table eating fresh pineapple and they tried to teach us more words in Chinese, which is endless entertainment for them.  If we actually pronounce a word correctly or remember a word five seconds after they teach it to us, they cheer and wildly praise us.  At least it’s encouraging.


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