Tuesday, May 22

White Girl in China: Watch Your Language!

Cruising on the Yellow River

I am a talkative person. And I used to think I was fairly good at getting around language barriers - I speak Spanish, so I can get by in most Latin-based language situations if I have to. I also know a bit of sign language and I took shorthand in college, which really has no relevance in the 21st century. Plus, we had a Korean exchange student stay with us for a year. All that to say, I had many frustrating - and humorous - attempts at expressing myself in a language where we don't even share the same alphabet.

On our first night, we took a boat tour of the city on the Huangpu River. I noticed the locals pointing and staring at us, but being a group of 34 white tourists on an otherwise all Chinese boat tour, that was no shock. (Much of our vacation locals either asked us to pose for pics with them or just took pictures of us being tourists, like this guy filming Tom hacky sack..)

You film my husband, I film you... :)

As a 6'2" redheaded Irish-American, Tom achieved a near-celebrity status. 


But I determined to make a new friend. Or even two. I was seated by our tour guide William, and the women around him immediately began staring and asking him questions about me. Was I married? Did I have kids? Would I take a picture with them? After about 5 minutes, William made his hasty escape from the female chat zone, and I decided to continue the conversation on my own. "What is your name?" I asked. Confusion marked their faces. My subconscious told me to speak slower and louder...doesn't that work in the movies? 

A picture really is worth 1,000 words! Especially when you don't understand them.

"What....your....NAME?" I asked with the speed of a snail. Still no response. I tried in Spanish, "Su nombre?" Nothing. I thought about using sign language but decided instead to flip open my Chinese dictionary app and show them the sign I thought I was asking for. They giggled.

Frustrated, I decided to try the Tarzan approach. S-L-O-W-L-Y I pointed to myself. "Elizabeth." Blank stares. "E-LIZ-A-BETH."  I thumped myself so hard I nearly lost my breath, and still they shook their heads. Then it dawned on me, Elizabeth probably doesn't even sound like a name to them! Most of their names were simple, two-syllable words. Tom snickered, "Honey, they probably think you're having a heart attack! Leave the poor women alone." Defeated, I waved goodbye (turns out that's a universal sign) and went upstairs.

It was humbling, not even being able to tell what kind of items a store sold from the outside. We went in one place thinking it was a coffeeshop and found a daycare center instead. Then when we actually found a Starbucks, the clerk, who spoke some English, asked me for 50 juan (pronounced ywon), which is their currency. I gave him 50 juan, and he said, "No, 50-juan."

Defensively, I replied, "I just gave you 50 juan!"

"No!" he exclaimed, clearly frustrated. "Not 50 juan, 50- juan!" and he held up 5 fingers on one hand and 1 on the other.

"Oh!" I said, laughing, "51!" and he gave me a resounding "Jess."


 To make matters worse, when I picked up our drink, the barrista called, "venti white chocolate latte!" Trying to be encouraging, I responded politely, "Thank you. And good English!" The guy looked at me, rolled his eyes and gave me a curt "Thanks" in a very American accent. Tom rolled his eyes too. But at least I didn't give that guy my Tarzan impression.

(To catch up on China posts, click here)


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