Bridge Over the Language Barrier

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Wuzhou, China.

Travelling in foreign lands is a challenge, but we have some tips.

We had been warned that traveling in China would be very difficult. We were told that few people spoke English, that road signs were indecipherable, and that the food was laden with meat.

As a couple of bicycling vegetarians speaking almost no Chinese, we were apprehensive. And stepping off the boat in Guangzhou (Canton) we felt like we were on another planet. With so few Westerners around we were an exotic novelty. People stared at us. They tried to talk with us. When they realized that we didn’t speak their language they wrote it down. The alien Chinese characters were no help at all.

Once we wrote a line back, in English, and we went back and forth a few times. Later someone translated what had been written.

(Chinese) Why did you come to China?
(English) I don’t understand!
(Chinese) I can’t understand you.
(English) Do you speak English?
(Chinese) Can you write Chinese?
(English) Can we camp here?

Amidst chuckles, the “conversation” got stuck there, so we pulled out our tent. To the delight of those watching, we erected our dome and climbed in. Before long the entire village, from kids to grandparents, had come by to watch, touch the tent fabric, and squeeze our inflatable sleeping pads. They were quizzical when Tooker played a few tunes on the harmonica. Since it was May Day, the national worker’s holiday, he tried The Internationale. They didn’t seem to recognize it.

We were humbled trying to say a few words in Chinese. The Chinese language is an especially difficult barrier to overcome. Not only are the words completely different from what we’re used to, but there are often six or more different singsong tones that affect the meaning of the word. So a word like “ma” has different meanings, depending on the tone. Surprisingly, one of the meanings actually is “mother”!

We managed to mime out our requests. Occasionally we would bump into a Chinese person who spoke some English. We would have them write down useful phrases that we could show others, for example: what we wanted to eat.

The written request usually did the trick, though our note requesting rice or noodles with vegetables – no meat, pork, or chicken – wasn’t as straightforward as one might expect. It would usually take five minutes for the cook in an outdoor restaurant to figure it out, after having passed it around to half a dozen people for consideration. By then, a crowd of around 100 people would have assembled to scrutinize our every move.

We would sit at a table eating with our chopsticks, while our nearby bikes would be invisible to us due to the crush of spectators. First we were bothered at the lack of privacy, but we soon came to appreciate it. Tooker would make faces at the kids amidst shrieks of glee, or hide under his bandana. Once a young girl pinched her nostrils together to illustrate that our noses stuck out, whereas theirs were flat on their faces.

But the most universal and appreciated gesture surely was the simple smile. In an instant, prejudice and paranoia dissolved as smiles were exchanged. Without a word, a smile communicated goodwill.

After hearing “hello” shouted hundreds of times a day at us, we tired of greeting everyone we met. But in a crowd of a hundred there was often someone who spoke more than a few words of English.

One day, while riding, a young man sidled up to us on his bicycle. When we told him we were heading towards Rongxian he joined us for the 20 km journey – even though it was pouring rain much of the way.

Wu How You was a very enthusiastic English student, often exclaiming “of course!” in response to a question. He invited us to speak to his classmates – 200 in all. For two hours in a large auditorium we spoke s-l-o-w-l-y and answered questions. We began by blowing up a small Earth ball, and talked about how humans and animals around the globe share common resources of air, water and soil. Pollution knows no borders.

We talked about Canada, home of Dr. Norman Bethune, a great hero to the Chinese people, and about the Canadian customs of skating and drinking beer.

They asked us intriguing questions:

– where did the idea of “tipping” come from?
– why do some Canadian men work at home?
– what is education like in Canada?
– how are youth in China different from youth in Canada?
– have we seen “Titanic”?

For an instant we silently bemoaned the Hollywoodization of Chinese culture. Then we spoke of the relevance of the Titanic lesson. It was believed that the boat could never sink, so they didn’t bother to provide enough lifeboats. Similarly, some think that the Earth can take any amount of bashing. Of course that is ludicrous. Precautions are necessary.

We encouraged them to stick with their bicycles, and not abandon them for cars. We highlighted international concern for some endeavors that both Canada and China are involved in, such as the massive annual Canadian slaughter of more than five hundred thousand seals. The students were shocked to hear that the seals are clubbed for their penises which are used in Chinese traditional medicines to allegedly enhance men’s ‘strength’. The same fate awaits Canada’s great bear population as they’re gutted for their gall bladders prized for traditional medicines, even though alternative plant-based medicines are readily available.

We told them we were ashamed of Canada’s support for the massive Three Gorges Project whereby the mighty Yangtze River in central China is being dammed for electric power generation. One young woman dutifully rose to tell us that she believed that the Three Gorges Dam would be good for China.

It was an unforgettable cross-cultural experience. One of the teachers later arranged for us to speak to students in the next city on our itinerary.

As it turned out, our anxiety about travelling in China evaporated within days of our arrival. We discovered that with patience and a sense of humour, newfound Chinese friends would appear out of nowhere. With smiles and a bit of chutzpah we could build a bridge over the language barrier and enrich each other with our differences, our similarities, and our mutually fascinating cultures.