I’ve decided that it’s totally possible to get by without talking at all, and in fact may be preferable to trying to speak. When I try to initiate a transaction and say Hello in Mandarin, people assume that I can speak at least some, if not fluent, and they will speak back in Mandarin, to which I usually have to give up with a shrug and say in English that I don’t know what they are saying. Then we revert to pointing and gestures. If I start off that way, then there is no ambiguity, and we can immediately begin with gestures and pointing, and I can even surprise them with a word or two. Sometimes the notepad and pen will come out, sometimes the phone will come out to translate something, but generally, things go pretty well.
You can’t start off fluent; there’s a long period of learning and during that period there will be many times when you won’t have the right words. In those cases, you need a safety net you can fall back on, and you need to be so comfortable with that safety net that it gives you the courage to try new things and say stuff for the first time. Learning to do quick gesturing and creative communication is a skill that needs to be practiced. When ordering something, you can’t just say you want a drink; you have to say what kind, whether you want it hot or cold, what flavor, what size. Each of those things will be asked of you, and you need to be able to figure out what they are asking based on the context and other subtle clues, and then figure out how to answer quickly. Today I ordered a drink and was asked if I wanted hot or cold by the woman pointing at the freezer and the tea pot. It’s a game and a skill that is useful in any country, so learning it and being comfortable wherever you are is a critical first step to being happy in an unfamiliar place.
Once you have mastered this skill, you have the courage to go out and try new tasks. You can also start learning words slowly. Maybe one day learn the sizes of drinks. Then another day figure out iced or hot. You can build up a vocabulary slowly without needing to know everything at once.
The other advantage is that it gives you the awareness of the surroundings to pick up on a lot more of the culture. You can watch how people think and watch other people interact and mimic it. You have to trust people to give you something close to what you want, and flexible enough to appreciate what they gave you, even if it wasn’t exactly what you had tried to communicate. I tried to order three buns for breakfast the other day, but I don’t know the words for the different kinds of buns, and I wanted to branch out. I said ‘three buns. you choose.’ It wasn’t until later that I understood that they had tried to ask me if I wanted three of one kind or three different kinds of buns. I wasn’t able to answer and they just made the decision for me, and I was ok with that. Sometimes you get something completely different, and that can be a good thing.
Over the past couple months I’ve gotten much better at the nonverbal communication game. I act like I belong and get much fewer stares. I have the confidence of being better at the game to go anywhere and do anything, and it means I’m in a position to start learning the language. Two months is a long time to get to this point, and I wish I had done it sooner. There’s no point in being embarrassed or ashamed that I can’t speak all the words I need. It’s not like I’ll see these people again anyway.
Bob Baddeley is a software/hardware engineer from the USA. In 2012 he was chosen for a Chinese hardware startup accelerator to work on his product, the Portable Electronic Scoreboard. His articles can be found on his blog www.engineerinshenzhen.com.