I do NOT speak Chinese. They do NOT speak English. Yet, in two months I am able to get around in taxis, order food in restaurants, give instructions to my domestic help and tell the hairdresser how to do my hair. I realize the importance of knowing the language when doing business but for day to day life in China knowing the language is not nearly as important as the people you know.
Here are my tips for getting around China (or another foreign country) without speaking the language:
Tip #1: It’s not what you know; it’s who you know
Try to go to places that will always have one English-speaking member of staff around. This makes it easier to get your point across. And for times when you are too lazy to pick up your dry cleaning or order water, make sure you have a Chinese speaker on speed dial. They will be able to make the calls for you.
Tip #2: Sign Language
Somehow without saying a word my hand actions have been able to get me heard. In a taxi I’ll point towards the direction I want them to go. In the hair salon ill twirl my hair around my finger to indicate I want it curled. In the supermarket I’ll pretend to carry a bag to make them give me one. This makes me wish I played charades more as a kid!
Tip #3: In restaurants, order food off the picture menus
In China, picture menus are your best friend. Sometimes things may look normal when you read them off the menu but the dish that appears can be something funky (this fish heads and chicken feet). After seeing a picture of this dish you will have a better idea what to expect. Through this method we’ve come to learn what we like to eat and try not to be adventurous.
Tip #4: Chinese voice notes
On my first trip to China, Mr. Fabulous transferred a full list of Chinese voice notes on to my blackberry and saved it under the English translation. So, if I ever needed to get somewhere I would just play the voice note to the cabby and he would drop me at my destination. I’ve had a 99% success rate with this method. WARNING: always be sure you are playing the right voice not and your finger did not accidently scroll to another one – you will end up in the wrong place and be hit with a mammoth taxi bill when you finally arrive at your destination.
Tip #5: Invest in an i-phone
This year for my birthday Mr. Fabulous gave me an i-phone – I was least thrilled about it and complained for 3 days that it was the worst present (My blackberry works fine – I did not need another gadget). Today I am embarrassed to say, it was the most useful gift (Mr, if you are reading this please note – yes the i-phone is useful and you are more than welcome to update my technology just NOT AS A BIRTHDAY GIFT!!) Through the google translator app you can type in any phrase and have it translated within seconds. With technology like there is really no problem communicating – except of course when you don’t have service on your phone.
Tip # 6: Attend classes you’ve done back home
If you’re anything like me you would have immediately scouted for the closest gym that offers classes. I managed to find one nearby offering the class I was looking for, Body Pump. Luckily the class structure is the same all over the world so it was easy to follow along in Chinese. They also had other classes on offer, so one evening I decided to go. BIGGEST mistake! It was aerobics with chinese folk music! It was impossible to know what was supposed to be happening with the language that I was the most un-coordinated person and couldn’t get a workout. No doubt within 20minutes I walked out!
During my time in China I would love to learn Mandarin but till then I think I’m doing pretty ok.