The Meanderthals

What language barrier?

“Hello, can I help me?” asked the smiling, well-intended, albeit language-challenged young woman at the Vietnam Airlines office in Chengdu, China.

“Why, yes, you can,” was my answer, and away we went to change our flights from Beijing to Hanoi without a hitch.

All the fuss about the language barrier in China turns out to have been highly overrated. Yeah, most people we have encountered have had limited English ability. But as we remind ourselves every day, we’re in China, not Chinatown, so we’re going to have to adapt.

There’s been enough English in hotels, on the streets and in signs that we haven’t taken a wrong turn and wound up in Tibet or wound up eating monkey knuckle soup. At least we don’t think so.

But stumbling around China has reminded us of the importance of being flexible, of always having a ready smile on hand and of the need for a good sense of humor.

It’s not just the language that has loomed in our way as we’ve meandered about China.

There are cultural norms (like the taxi driver who freaked us out by moving to the right lane of a three-lane road in downtown Chengdu to take a left turn. I pictured a broadside in the making, but not to worry. It’s the way of traffic patterns here.) and the fact that people yelling at us constantly doesn’t mean they’re angry. People just yell here. All the time.

I get the idea from this sign over a urinal, but...

I get the idea from this sign over a urinal, but…

So we’ve accumulated some tricks and tools to get by.

Most important is a smartphone app (thanks to my brilliant brother in law, Jonathan, for the suggestion) that translates key words in English to Chinese. “Toilet,” “bus,” and “station” top the list of most frequently used words. “Spicy” either doesn’t seem to translate correctly or doesn’t resonate with the people working in food stalls and restaurants where we’ve eaten. So far we’ve had spicier, better-tasting Chinese in Phnom Penh than throughout Sichuan.

We’ve also developed an effective vocabulary of gestures, grimaces and hand signals to get our points across, at times looking like we’re deploying sign language while suffering the aftereffects of a crystal meth binge.

Our inventive genes have been relentlessly pressed into service. Last night I spent some time standing in the hallway of our hotel, blow-drying underwear and socks that refused to dry in the cold, damp Kunming weather.

We respond with big smiles and torrents of English whenever someone speaks to us in Chinese, and it seems to uphold our end of the conversation to the other person’s satisfaction. Occasionally more drastic measures are required. Yesterday morning an elderly woman stood in the aisle of the train outside our cabin, transfixed by the enormity of my suitcase and yammering away in Chinese while pointing at me. She finally stopped when I showed her a video of the roast-chicken-caught-by-guy-on-unicycle act at Bangkok’s Flying Chicken restaurant on my phone. I know, I know…go figure.

There have been loads of belly laughs along the way.

Hair dryer in hallway great for drying socks and underwear.

Hair dryer in hallway great for drying socks and underwear.

While we were on a boat tour of Leshan’s amazing giant Buddha statue with a bunch of other people, a sweet man from Inner Mongolia (emphasis on Inner, he emphasized emphatically) asked us in English where we were from.

“USA,” I said.

“Oh, Amexican,” he replied with a knowing grin.

A couple days ago, longing for some spiciness in what has turned out to be a steady stream of disappointingly bland food, Gabi concocted a whirlwind series of hand signals that to her means “please bring spicy sauce” but apparently confused the hell out of the waitress.

She disappeared, and a moment late brought two soup spoons to our table.

Nothing dried in this barred window against the rainy, grey skies of Kunming.

Nothing dried in this barred window against the rainy, grey skies of Kunming.

Our newly discovered communication tools aren’t always necessary.

Last night we waited on a street corner for 15 minutes for an available taxi. We jumped into a cab that had dropped a fare off near us and I showed him the name of a restaurant we fancied displayed in Chinese on my phone.


The guy laughed, said something in Chinese and, using his own hand signals, made the universal sign for walking.

And then drove us the 300 yards to our destination.



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