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Sunday, July 22, 2007


Getting the message across

Many years ago my sister-in-law arrived in Australia and none of the family could speak English. Many migrants to Australia find themselves in this situation. I wonder how we, the rest of us, treat them. I suspect we mostly ignore them. It's too hard for us, so why bother. Ever try to walk in their shoes? I guess that's what I'm doing now.

I'm told that in China's larger cities more people speak English but in the smaller provinces they have less need to do so. On top of this the schools concentrate on teaching reading and writing. Speaking and listening are less easily examined so are taught less. An English teacher in Nanning told me that many students are fluent with reading and writing but can hardly speak. And, as I've written in relation to other countries, if your teacher is not a native speaker you may be learning bad pronunciation right from the start. When you do speak to a native speaker they may not understand you. Unless you are committed you might give up, thinking that it is just too hard.

From country to country people seem to handle this situation differently. Here in China I find I have to take the initiative to get people to acknowledge me. Otherwise they often pretend I'm not there. It's quite different from Vietnam. In Vietnam if you look like you might be half interested in buying something, or even if you don't, they use whatever techniques they have, even grunts, to get you to buy. Here it's common that they ignore you. Yesterday I stood in the internet cafe for about ten minutes before they accepted I wasn't going to go away and they had to deal with me. I felt like walking away but if I did where would I be? I don't know where there's another cafe. Even after they started to do something it took at least half an hour before they set me up. Now we've broken the ice I trust it'll be easier when I go back for my second visit. But after that I'll move onto another city and perhaps the process will start over again.

There appear to be cultural differences in relation to body language. In Australia we like to make eye contact with the person we speak with. When I was leaving Nanning I went to the bus station. It was huge. Way bigger than an airport in many Australian country towns. For that matter bigger than some international airports in some Southeast Asian countries. I needed help. I did not have a clue which gate to go through or which bus to get on. My ticket was printed in Chinese. There was one person in front of me at the information booth. When they'd been served I stood at the counter waiting for the person to stop doing what they were doing and make eye contact—to me a sign that she was ready to deal with me. Before that happened someone else barged in and put his request in Chinese. I thought I was at the head of the queue but I found myself pushed down one.

Eventually I was able to ask 'Do you speak English?' I showed my ticket. There were two people behind the counter. All they could do was jabber on in Chinese and point, none of which meant anything to me.

After they realized we were getting nowhere, one went off and in time came back with another young woman who said, 'How may I help you?'

Hooray! Someone I can talk to. She pointed out that my bus didn't leave for an hour but that if I wanted she could get me on a bus that was about to leave. I did, she did and off I went. The service was great. She was extremely helpful—once I found a person who could understand me.

I was the only westerner on the bus. The hostess seemed to have learned off a few sentences. She would walk back to my seat from time to time and say something like, 'Please fasten your safety belt.' And, when we made a comfort stop, 'If you need to wash your hands, please make the best use of the time available.' I suspect if I'd asked her any questions she would have been lost.

This is the situation in some of the hotels. If I am lucky enough to get someone who can speak a little English they have a cheat sheet under the counter which lists the standard answers to standard questions. Ask a non standard question and she may or may not be able to answer. Try asking for a towel for example.

Taking the initiative here has become a basic survival technique for me, especially if I want to eat. Menus are all in Chinese, even in the hotel. I wanted some chicken last night. The only way to get my message across was to squawk and flap my arms. It worked. Sometimes it pays to have been a children's storyteller.

Next time you have the opportunity to help someone who doesn't speak English (or whatever is your home language), I hope you'll remember to be patient and think of me in Wuzhou squawking and flapping my arms.

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