In China people speak Chinese. I do not speak Chinese. I speak phrases and disjointed words in Chinese, but my vocabulary is small and I am almost completely illiterate. When I try to read things I hope for pictures, English translations, or some of the small number of characters that I recognize. When I try to talk to people I rely on my minimal vocabulary, their patience and clear enunciation, and their knowledge of English (or Spanish, though this really hasn’t come up). The best case is when I’m going around with someone who can deal in both English and Chinese such as some of my American cohort or people from my lab, but even this has its pitfalls–you feel imposing to ask your unwitting translator everything you want to know and when you do ask you get a censored answer (Reality pre-filtered by the translator’s own analysis of the situation), or a distracted one. For example, sometimes I’ll ask someone what something says and my impromptu translator says “It’s not important.” This frustrates me because it doesn’t help me learn what the characters were or what the hell was going on on the sign.
I’ve encountered more situations lately where I’ve been without a translator in situations that clearly would benefit from some knowledge of Chinese. This morning a lady from the hotel in our hotel confronted me with a sheet of paper clearly asking my to fill things out. Ray and I had been asked to fill this sheet out before and he explained that we didn’t have to. I waved and spoke meaninglessly to her, mixing up the phrase “I don’t know” in chinese from bu4 zhi1 dao4 to bu4 dao1 zhi4. Essentially I had absolutely know way of conveying anything to her so I pointed in an attempt to convey “I’ll come back.” Ray came up as I was walking away and explained that we didn’t need to sign it, again. (I still don’t know what that sheet was about. Ray didn’t tell me the first time or the second time, even after I asked. So it goes with translators.)
Another example: A girl came to our lab apparently asking to talk to somebody. She asked me something and I replied with a confused look and pointing at different people in the lab and trying to mumble “i don’t know” in chinese because I don’t know how to say “I don’t understand.” She eventually got it and went about her business, but episodes like this drive home the point that even though I can sort of order food I cannot speak Chinese.
I just said that I can “sort of order food.” By that I mean that I can recognize crucial characters on menus such as meat types, rice, noodles, some fruits, and assorted words like Red and black (usually referring to peppers and indicate a tasty/spicy dish). While this is a good start I am still very intimidated and embarrassed when I go to get food at the cafeterias on campus. The cafeterias have some places where there are prepared dishes sitting out that you can point to and say Zhe4 ge4 这个(this one) and get what you want, but there are others where you can explain what you’d like them to put into a soup or dish and have them prepare it for you, and all the while there are a few people behind you waiting to get food of their own so I, at least, feel very pressured and just avoid those sorts of places (but some day I will order something there). It’s just a disappointment every time I realize that I don’t know how to describe the foods these places are serving in English (I’d say something like put some of those vegetables in that sauce with some of this… pork (it’s usually pork) and hope for the best) and certainly don’t know it in Chinese and I’m basically guessing whenever I get food in the cafeterias. Most of the time it turns out alright, though. I get food and it’s not too bad. Acquiring the food is just a bit embarrassing and disappointing.
The immediate reason I started writing this post is because I’d spent about an hour prior to this writing down phrases in Chinese, pinyin, and english relating to buying a bike because I’m sick of not having one and I’d like to be able to get one with a minimum of hand-waving. I’ve found that people are much more capable of reading my characters than they are of understanding my pronunciations (which are apparently not that bad once I know what I’m trying to say) so I wrote out several sentences and key words. “I’ll be in china until august 7 and want to rent or buy a bike.” “I want to try riding the bike. I want to know that it is a good size.” “this is loose” “This is too short” “Repair” “Oil” “Brakes.” I hope that with my thorough preparation this process will go smoothly and I will end up with a reasonably good bike. I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow.