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Communication Breakdown: or, Why You Should Learn A Few Words Before Going Abroad

March 21st, 2013 by Dexter

After a cramped but enjoyable overnight train journey from Hong Kong, my friend and I exited the train and found ourselves in the centre of the Centre Kingdom: Beijing. We were on the first leg of our Chinese adventure, and our spirits couldn't have been higher.

First things first, we needed to book a ticket for the next leg of our journey, from Beijing to Guilin. The ticket booking system in China is wonderfully arcane, and requires a significant amount of pre-planning to navigate successfully. But we were prepared. The friends we stayed with in Hong Kong had given us a cheat sheet scrawled with Mandarin, informing any reader that Sorry, We Don't Speak Chinese, But Could We Possibly Have A Train Ticket To Guilin, Please?

But... where's the ticket office? The signs were unhelpful. We see a passing policeman, and ask him.

Blank stare. We gesture to our tickets. He frowns, and points us in the direction of the exit. Outside, things didn't go much better. The signs outside were equally opaque, and the officials just as brusque. Tears form in my friend's eyes: this is turning scary. We walk around the huge terminal, looking for any indication of where we can buy tickets.

In the end we turn on each other. We bicker, annoyed and scared, each saying it's the other's fault. Five minutes in China and we were already out of our depth.

Thankfully, a passing local who spoke fantastic English came to our rescue and asked if we needed assistance. He kindly pointed us in the direction of the ticket office (in the underground part of the station) and gave us a glimmer of hope.

Aha, an English-speaking ticket counter. Perfect. With nerves forming, we join the queue and wait for ten or so minutes until it's our turn. We show the woman behind the desk our cheat-sheet and stare at her, expectantly. She frowns at it, then lets loose a chuckle, and then calls a colleague over to take a look. Our hopes plummet. She hands it back, saying, in broken English, "sorry, don't understand".

So much for that. We say Guilin (pronouncing it, we later discovered, incorrectly: gwhy-lin instead of gway-lin) over and over again, but to no avail. More tears come. God, what a mess.

Now, Chinese isn't like English in any way, not like some European languages, which at least share similar grammar, word roots and alphabet. Chinese and English are almost as mutually exclusive as languages get. Stupidly, foolishly, we deigned to not learn any words at all, beyond ni hao and xie xie. Worst. Mistake. Ever.

In the end we abandoned that plan and, defeated, took a taxi to our hostel. We went to Guilin via plane in the end, and missed out on what could have been an awesome train trip through the Chinese countryside. In short, we took the easy way out because we were linguistically complacent.

For the rest of the trip we fared a bit better, making a point to learn a few phrases and words and to use them whenever possible. Our experience benefited considerably, and we ended up having a great time.

Moral of the story: Hiring a tutor and learning a few words (or even many words) of the language spoken in your travel destination will enhance your experience no end.

Categories: Travelling, Mandarin