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Climbing a Tree to Catch Fish
Surviving in China without the benefit of language...

For a period of time, Benjamin and I survived in China as mutes with a guidebook as our only means of communication. Somewhere, buried deep in the pages of the profuse book, we located a few colorful maxims and adopted them to answer the questions of outgoing souls who braved a conversation with us. Benjamin favored, 'It's like asking a blind man for directions', but I was partial to this one: 'It's like climbing a tree to catch fish'. In short, our conversation could go nowhere because we couldn't speak Mandarin and our would-be conversationalists didn't speak English, thus making our newfound expressions all the more meaningful. Instead, we opened up our Lonely Planet and pointed to the expressions written in Chinese. Eventually, I came to learn that a more creative crutch was in order, lest we starve to death for an inability to order food.

It's not like we didn't try to learn Mandarin, the official language of China. They call it Putonghua, meaning 'common speech'. An ironic name, if you ask me, because Mandarin is anything but ordinary, with 5 tones and a range of sounds that slurp, swish, growl, and gush. Furthermore, the written language is based on pictographs that look nothing like the object or concept they are meant to convey. It's a bit like looking at the constellations in the night sky and trying to make out how a certain arrangement of four stars is supposed to look like a virginal beauty carrying two pails of water in her hands and a loaf of bread on her head while leading a flock of sheep. An educated Chinese knows between 6,000 and 8,000 characters (and I read somewhere that there may be 56,000 characters in total - I don't think anyone actually knows for sure because they are so damned hard to make sense of). After two months in China, I only mastered the recognition of one, and for this, thankfully, I never wandered into the men's room by accident.

There is a system, called Pinyin, in which Chinese words are written with Roman letters for the benefit of Western pronunciation. Pinyin is primarily used in phrasebooks, on maps, or for names of people and places and it might have helped us speak Chinese if only the phonetics matched up with the letters, but the pronunciation is all off. Among a zillion other nonsensical adaptations, an 'e' sounds like 'uh' and the letters 'zh' sound like the letter 'j'. I ask: why not make a letter 'e' sound like a letter 'e' - Pinyin uses the letter 'i' to sound like an 'e'. And why bother with letter combinations if the sound of a 'j' is all that's required - why not just use a letter 'j' in the first place? Sure, there are sounds that don't map directly from Chinese to the Roman alphabet, but certainly a less complicated system, one that doesn't require a bachelor's degree to understand, must be possible. Add to this a complex scheme of diacritical marks to denote emphasis and tone and you've got a headache in the making.

In many parts of the world, it's possible to show up with nothing more than the basic understanding that having set foot in a foreign country, a foreign language must exist. But most people, even in the far-flung corners of the globe, speak English... for better or worse, there is often no need to learn a new tongue. In India, for example, almost everyone speaks English well or well enough to get by. One morning in Kolkata, I asked my waiter how to say 'thank you' in his language. He looked at me with a bored expression and replied, "Thank you," in English. And that was that. But in China, things are different. Outside of the big cities and the more touristed places, not a soul speaks English. Lonely Planet recommends a phrase book for this reason, but I didn't read that piece of advice until I was already in China, stuck in a hotel room frantically engaged in a crash course of Pinyin, which was futile. Every time I thought I mastered a simple word, like 'bathroom', no one would ever recognize it. A drink would show up on my table or my shoes would be shined because I'd inadvertently made some such request.

It was our first evening in Luoyang, during our first week in China, that Benjamin and I realized we could be in some serious trouble. It's not like we hadn't been warned. Chinese-American friends in Beijing laughed at us when we told them we had train tickets to Luoyang the next day. We were headed there to visit the Shaolin Temple, a few hours away from this bleak town. "I can tell you right now," Quincy said through snorts and chuckles, "no one within a 100-mile radius of Luoyang speaks any English." And then to further rub it in, he asked us for the 10 th time, "Seriously? You don't speak any Chinese?" He then proceeded to joke with his friends: "Hey guys, did you hear about this one?" and on and on it went. You'd think we were headed to Mars the way he was carrying on.

We arrived in Luoyang in the wee hours of the morning and managed to get ourselves on a mini-bus to Shaolin without problem. All we had to say was, "Shaolin," and we were escorted onto a tour bus next door to the train station. We didn't necessarily want a tour bus, and in fact we didn't even know it was a tour bus until after a megaphone was put to use (mind you, this is a mini-bus with no more than 10 passengers) and we'd made several mysterious stops during which the entire group of passengers would disembark for 45 minutes, disappear into the halls of some odd temple, none of which were Shaolin, and return with bagfuls of glossy photo books and bracelets made with prayer beads.

At the first of such stops, Benjamin and I consulted with the only other Westerners aboard, a confused German couple; we were all trying to figure out what was going on. We approached the bus driver with a map in hand, "Excuse me, but we are supposed to go to Shaolin. Why did we pass it 10 miles ago?" He smiled and also pointed at the map, as if that would clear everything up. It was all he could do - we had no common language. So we waited to see what would happen. Eventually the passengers returned to the mini-bus and we were on the road again and once more we stopped at a temple that was not Shaolin. It was then that we had our 'Aha!' moment: the megaphone, the seemingly random stops, the excited Chinese man with a mountain of souvenirs... but of course, we were on a tour. If there had only been a colored flag to follow and matching baseball hats to wear, it would have saved the Germans, the bus driver, and us a lot of grief.

We returned to Luoyang in the evening under the cover of darkness and rainy skies. Wandering around the streets, tired and hungry, we were accosted by a friendly gang wearing blue blazers, the staff from a hotel who were out prowling the streets, looking for people to fill their rooms. They spoke to us in Chinese. We replied in English. They continued in Chinese. We continued in English. It happens like that... people will keep speaking to you in Chinese as if suddenly, by a stroke of weird luck or a miracle of biblical proportions, you will comprehend. They had a brochure with a price written on it. The place was close and the rain was coming down in buckets. I suggested to Benjamin that we go check it out and with no real words exchanged, we found ourselves in a nice, clean room and out of the nasty weather. Easy. I thought of Quincy's hysterics the night before. Who needs English? I guffawed. Here we are in Luoyang, there and back from Shaolin, with a roof over our heads to boot... all without issue, save for our blunder regarding the tour group we didn't know we'd joined.

We had shelter, so we went out to look for food and paused in front of a restaurant next door to the hotel. It looked like a hole in the wall, with trash and cigarette ash on the floor, dingy tiled walls and fluorescent lighting, but it was convenient and we hadn't eaten all day. Outside, a cheerful old man beckoned us with his hand to come inside. I figured the place must have a picture menu if they wanted foreigners to come in. Once seated, we were approached by a waitress who briskly handed us a menu and then planted herself next to our table with order pad in hand, pen poised ready to write. I noticed this order-taking technique throughout our travels in China. You are never given time to peruse the menu, which is usually so extensive, it weighs 3 pounds and has the appearance of a long-winded manifesto.

I quickly flipped through the menu looking for the pictures and coming to the last page, 10 minutes later, I realized there were no pictures or any English words for that matter. By this time, the waitress was tapping her pen on the order pad, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, sighing in disgust at the amount of her time we were wasting. "English?" I asked her meekly with a faltering smile. She stared at me with a blank look on her face. "I guess not..." I muttered under my breath.

"What do we do now?" I asked Benjamin out of the corner of my mouth. I don't know why I was attempting digression. It's not like she could understand me, and it was readily apparent that we had no clue what we were looking at: all those lines of Chinese characters looked more foreign than I'd imagined they could.

Perhaps the ease of traveling to Shaolin and obtaining a hotel room had given me a false sense of confidence. Before we left our hotel in search of food, Benjamin raised the question of how we would order dinner in a town where no English is spoken. We couldn't use the guidebook: the food section had a paltry and strange selection of fare, things like 'Sunburned Eel Guts' and 'Salted Goat Brains' - nothing ordinary, like 'Sweet and Sour Chicken' or 'Egg Drop Soup' (Benjamin and I determined it was a ruse to lure travelers into making an additional purchase of the company's phrase book). I dismissed his concern with a wave of my hand. "We'll figure it out," I told him hastily as if he'd asked me to remind him how to put a sock on his foot. But now that I was sitting there, in the dismal surroundings of the crappy restaurant, with a massive Chinese-only menu and an impatient waitress breathing down my neck, I realized my self-assurance was foolish. With the waitress standing there, we didn't have time to confer, to come up with a plan on how to handle the situation. We were at a loss for words.

Suddenly, the waitress said something that sounded like 'chicken' and pointed to some squiggles on the menu. I wasn't sure if she actually said 'chicken' or something in Chinese that only sounded like 'chicken' - or maybe she was calling me a chicken. She was a bit surly and given the way I was feeling, she wouldn't have been too far off the mark. Having no other option, I told her, "Yes, we'll have that." I figured we would deal with whatever showed up on our table when the time came, which was only a matter of minutes.

She brought something back that was, indeed, chicken - all of it: bones, organs, and crested head - the glassy chicken's eye was half open and staring at me like a schoolyard bully, daring me to eat a piece. Meanwhile, a more attractive looking plate of green beans and pork was delivered to the table next to us. We pointed to it and gestured that we would like one too. Our waitress was frustrated with us, though, so she sent her father over to deal with our request. This resulted in the ordering of yet more food. We weren't really sure how much we'd ordered until it was all there on the table. And once it arrived, we weren't exactly sure what everything was.

While we nibbled tentatively on our dinner, the annoyed waitress walked by our table and spit on the floor next to us. Maybe she did it because she didn't like us or maybe it meant nothing. Everyone in China spits on the floor, even in restaurants. Hell, she probably spit on our chicken head back in the kitchen, maybe even licked it for good measure - no matter; there was no way I was putting that chicken head anywhere near my mouth.

When we finished our enormous meal, the sulky waitress overcharged us - we were first given one price, and then another... all done with a calculator. It was as if upon further thought of all the trouble we'd caused her, she decided to add a tip to our bill, nearly doubling the cost. Without the benefit of language, it's hard to argue over the price, so we paid and advised the waitress not to spend it all in one place (sometimes the language barrier can be fun). We left the restaurant, glad to have the whole uncomfortable experience over with. In the few, short minutes it took us to get back to our hotel, Benjamin and I discussed our fear of entering the premises of another restaurant - I felt better knowing I was not experiencing this new phobia, 'Chin-dinia', alone.

Our next two meals came packaged in cellophane and cardboard, eaten in the confines and safety of our hotel room. Breakfast was a yellow lump of bread and dinner was a container of instant noodles that we purchased from the small convenience store across from the restaurant. A pitiful image, I know. But thank God for pre-packaged 'food'... Nevertheless, we knew we had to come up with a plan or else we'd starve when the taste of instant noodles became unbearable or when our clothing no longer fit because our bodies were bloated like Macy's parade balloons from too much salt consumption.

Inspired by the fear of malnutrition and other travel disasters, I got the pen and paper out and began to produce what Benjamin and I dubbed 'survival cards': slips of paper with Chinese characters copied from the guidebook for things like 'Help me, I'm starving', 'Hold the chicken head', and 'Call a doctor - there's a bone stuck in my throat'. Although the food section of our guidebook was meager, it was enough to get us started with our own, homemade menu (and the menu grew on the occasion that we ran into other travelers with a phrase book or found restaurants with an English language menu). We would show the 'survival cards' to people instead of actually speaking. I felt like one of those deaf people who come into cafes with a stack of cards that read, "I am deaf. Please donate money." The deaf man passes his cards out in silence and usually walks away empty handed. Luckily for us, our slips of paper worked. We never would have gotten to the train station without a card that read, simply, 'train station', and we wouldn't have been able to purchase train tickets without a stack of survival cards to communicate our desired destination, class, and date of travel written in Chinese. Incidentally, I made 5 of those - options in the event that our first choice wasn't available... and good thing, too, as we used 4 of them before getting tickets. Funny how non-English speaking Chinese all know how to say the word, "No," in English.

Of course, as our days in China grew into weeks and months, we relied less and less on our survival cards and even picked up a few Mandarin words that we could clearly articulate: the all-important word for 'beer' (piju), which sounds like 'pee-jieu'; and pleasantries like 'hello' (xin chao), which sounds like 'sin chow'. But the mainstay of our Chinese vocabulary, a phrase we used on a daily basis, was 'Wo budong', which means, "I don't understand."


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© 2005, Cheryn Flanagan