Speaking in Chinese

Zoe MillerNovember 3, 2016The WordAwesome Moments

Thirteen hours is an excessive amount of time on a plane. Long plane rides are sort of how I imagine purgatory.

On China Air they provide a little map on the video screen in front of you, so you can see how far you’ve gone and how far you have to go. That helped a little.

I realized that I was just a single being, a node, circling half the earth. I watched the tiny plane graphic chase the daylight as the planet rotated. It was noon when we left and would be one o’clock in the afternoon when we arrived. Somewhere over the polar ice sheets, I transcended entirely and reached enlightenment. Unfortunately, the feeling was gone a few hours later. We descended and I came back to cruel reality, barfing into a paper bag while an instrumental version of Adele’s “Someone Like You” played over the speakers. I was in China.

China! The Beijing airport was white and bright and enormous. Jet lag hit me pretty hard and I did not care for the fluorescent, overhead lights, or the bright, midday sun. A skinny boy with a protruding Adam’s apple stood beside me, while tall European families loomed behind. As we shuffled towards immigration, my classmate called out to tell me that I left my headphones on the plane. There wasn’t time to go all the way back through security for my beautiful, brand new headphones, though the woman at information told my teacher and me, in Chinese, that they would be kept in the lost and found as long as we returned within six months.

We hopped on the plane from Beijing to Xian and I sat next to a man whose English was limited.

“You must be very good at Chinese to have come here with your school,” he said.

Oh God, was I good at Chinese? I had been awake too long. Speaking anything but English seemed like an impossibility.

“Not really, um, I. I’ve been awake for a really long time. I’m sorry.”

He looked at me, critically I thought, and went back to playing a game with a buxom cartoon protagonist on his iPod. I was asleep as soon as the plane took off.

When we arrived our group took up residence for three weeks on a college campus in Xian. On my first day, I thought I lost my phone and was briefly adopted by local college students who tried to help me find it. I took classes, wandered around the campus, and sometimes ventured into the city. An English major I met in a café asked me what I thought of Xian. She was trying to practice speaking English, while I was supposed to be practicing speaking Chinese.

“I like it,” I replied in Chinese, using a stronger word for “like” then I meant.

The young woman laughed. “Why?” she asked. “The environment is horrible.”

It was. I felt like I was being smothered by a blanket wherever and whenever I tried to go for a jog. It was a beautiful city in a lot of ways, but I saw the ugliness she was talking about; and even though I enjoyed my time there, I had mostly said I liked it to be polite. I thought she would be offended if I said I didn’t like it. Communication can be tricky sometimes.

We left Xian and flew to Guilin, a remote and strange area, then on to Yaolin. This was a tiny town reached by boat and sandwiched between overwhelming close mountains. A woman with a deformed face looked at us as we entered the little town. At night vendors sold ginger sugar and flying, remote-controlled toys.

Being a westerner in China was like being a little child. I could communicate, sort of, but barely understood what was going on around me. Learning to speak a language and function in a foreign culture is like slowly acquiring a set of tools. I looked up the word for orange so I could buy one; that was a tool. I could say, “I don’t want that” and “take-out.” Those were tools, too. I made a list of Chinese curse-words, just in case I needed to cuss someone out. I learned to barter when I went shopping. I stopped being surprised when Chinese people took photos of my group (obvious foreigners) as we walked by.

A whole month of having to think hard whenever you open your mouth makes you rethink interaction entirely. Coming back to the U.S., I marveled at how easy it was to ask people for directions. All my life I lived in one culture and took it for granted. When I went to China, I realized that the language I spoke, the food I considered “normal”, the social conventions I followed each day, were not givens elsewhere. The experience of being “foreign” was challenging at times, but also a refreshing shift in perspective.

After our stay in China was at its end, my headphones were miraculously waiting for me in the lost and found at the Beijing airport. Feeling victorious I went to buy a ceramic cup in the airport shop to use up my leftover Chinese money.

“Can I help you?” said one woman, in English, at the counter.

“How much does this cost?” I said, in Chinese, holding up the cup.

The woman’s coworker leaned over to her and whispered in Mandarin, “She speaks Chinese.”

She sounded so shocked I almost started laughing. I bought my cup and left.

I’m not fluent in Chinese; I’m not even particularly good at it. But it didn’t matter because these women understood me. And I exceeded their expectations of the normal American tourist. I needed no translation.

After spending time in China, that’s what stood out to me the most. I could understand what people said to me, in Chinese, and make myself understood, in Chinese. Being understood was the rewarding part. It was amazing! Nothing on that whole trip made me happier than that simple act of communication.

Zoe Miller is a senior at Saint Ann’s School. She lives in Brooklyn and has written for KidSpirit Online throughout high school.