Surviving China Without Speaking Chinese

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China without Chinese

Playing Advanced Charades

Communicating in China Without Speaking Chinese

Pointing to the inside of an empty rice bowl doesn't get you more rice. It gets you another empty rice bowl. Trying to communicate that your food is cold and you'd like it hot just gets you lots of confused looks from restaurant staff. But somehow you manage to understand when your cab driver tells you he doesn't have change and you'll need to have the exact amount. Going to China without speaking a  word of Chinese is where the long hours of playing charades as a kid paid off. While communicating with one another with our hands and feet and pointing and gesturing didn't always work out, it was the best we could do.

However, the difficulties that my friends and I experienced on our trip were not only due to our lack of skills regarding the Chinese language but also to our different cultures and expectations as to how a conversation should go. (I know I'm generalizing here, but bear with me - my experience actually confirmed this theory originally developed by Hall (1976).) As an Austrian, I come from a very low-context culture, meaning that we say what we want, when we want it and to whom we want it from, leaving little or nothing to be interpreted. China, on the other hand, is a high-context culture - meaning that they leave a lot up for interpretation, would generally not tell anyone "no" directly as this would mean "losing face" and it's generally harder to receive a so-called straight answer. So.

The Bad...

Finding our way around China was a serious challenge for us - foreigners who don't speak Chinese. We had no access to a lot of the websites we are used to; everything, literally everything is in Chinese and prepare yourself for this: hardly anyone speaks English (let yourself be surprised by the occasional Chinese who actually does). This can at times be incredibly frustrating. Like when you tell them four times "No meat." and they smile and nod and still bring you your food with meat in it. Or when you're lost and desperately trying to get directions from someone, anyone, but nobody can help you and people end up giving you wrong directions just so they give you something. Or when you just can't get a straight answer from someone that you really need - something particularly frustrating, again considering my cultural background!

The Good...

But then again, other times it leads to the most beautiful encounters. Where a smile or a badly pronounced "Xie xie" (Thank you) gets you further than a thousand words would have. What I learned on that trip, is that sometimes, you don't need to know all the words. You don't even need to know any words, really. Just try, with hand and foot and a friendly face and somehow, you'll get to where you need to go. It might take you a little longer. You might also take a few detours. But through all that you'll probably end up seeing places you never even expected to see, places sometimes much better and more beautiful than what you were actually looking for.


If you're interested in particularly the cultural differences between China and Western countries (particularly Germany), I 100% recommend these infographics by Yang Liu, a Chinese living in Germany - based on what I experienced with my Chinese classmates as well as in China, I agree with all of them ;) The ones that I relate to most closely are probably these about "complexity of self-expression" and dealing with problems:

Complexity of Self-Expression/ Uncertainty Avoidance Germany vs. China

Complexity of Self-Expression/ Uncertainty Avoidance Germany vs. China

Dealing with Problems Germany vs. China

Dealing with Problems Germany vs. China

What are your experiences communicating in countries where you don't speak the language? Share your experiences, tips and tricks on how to connect with people speaking another language!

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