Thoughts on Chinese and communication in China

Finally, getting back to our days as students of Chinese in lovely Yangshuo… 🙂

We’d heard China was more challenging to visit than other parts of Asia due to language. After so many months wandering through Southeast Asia, we did find that it was different, but I definitely would not describe it as difficult or even challenging.

Rather, I’d put out two points that might contribute to this perception.

Tourism in Southeast Asia

The impact of the language barrier in China isn’t difficult, it’s that it’s so non-existent/easy in Southeast Asia.

Most places we visited – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and even Laos (Myanmar less so, but even there it was no problem to get around) – are completely geared towards Western tourists.

These countries have, for the most part, well-established service industries, which often form a valuable part of the nations’ economies, and there is a lot of incentive for people to learn English. Not just people working in hotels and restaurants, but cab drivers, store vendors, immigration officers, etc. in these countries would all have good reason to know at least some English.

Tourism in China

China, however, is a different story.

I have to imagine the experience for a Westerner traveling to China must be a lot like any non-English-speaking tourist coming to visit America (at least on the language front).

And it’s not that no Chinese know or speak English. It’s that they don’t feel the need to.

In Southeast Asia, people automatically spoke English to us. They got a kick out of it when we could say a few poorly pronounced words in their own language but anything beyond those few basic words was communicated in English.

In China, we found plenty of people who could and were willing to speak English.

But we also encountered loads of folks – and this was an experience unique to China – who would ramble on to us in Chinese regardless of the confused and bemused expressions on our faces. Especially if we did try out our few phrases and vocab words – then we were in trouble! Answers to our recently memorized questions would come back 100 times faster and harder to understand than the practice conversations we’d had with Becky in class. It was fun and funny, and usually we could figure out a way to communicate at least a bit through body language.

Getting back to my point though… My theory is that China’s economy is larger and more diverse than to be reliant on foreign tourism. What’s more, it has a markedly thriving and increasing domestic tourism industry that was much more significant than in any other country we’ve visited so far on our journey. So there is less need or incentive to cater to foreign tourists to the same extent countries like Thailand or Cambodia do.

That being said, a good portion of the people we encountered DID speak English, and on that front I imagine the similarities to visiting the United States come to an end. I have to imagine the chances of tourists receiving directions, finding out the price of a souvenir or buying bus tickets in their native language – whether it be Chinese, Russian, German, etc. – in America are slim to none. The chance that their questions, posed in hesitant, accented English, will be answered in a flurry of loud, rapidly spoken English however, is more likely. 🙂

The bottom line

It was a lot easier to get around China – at least the places we visited – using English than we had anticipated. Nonetheless, I’m still really glad we learned at least some of the basics. Many people speak at least a bit of English, and in most cases you can make yourself understood with gestures if need be. Many stores and vendors have calculators at the ready, so they can point to a price and not a word need be exchanged between the two of you.

But the interactions were so much nicer for me when I could at least say “thank you” in Chinese, if not a bit more. And not everyone will have a calculator – the simple thing that I found most useful of everything we learned at Omeida was the numbers.

So my next post will be a small collection of just some of what we learned at Omeida for anyone who wants a bit of survival Chinese. 🙂

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