Language Barriers

In the beginning of Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw says that English dialects are so varied that an Englishman cannot open his mouth in public without another Englishman instantly hating him. He might have been writing about China in 2006, but instead of disliking the speaker, the listeners are at a total loss to understand him. It’s not just a lao wei problem, most Chinese movies and TV stations are also subtitled in Chinese because residents can’t understand each other.

Fresca and I wandered in to a Qingdao street market as part of our ongoing quest to try all the barbarqued tofu in Shandong. We bought scallion bread and rice dumplings and strawberries, which was a lot harder than in sounds. First, because we can’t understand what they’re saying with Qingdao accents. Even when we use the Chinese handsigns for what we want and how many we want, the vendors seem to interpret “2 dumplings” as “Please call the rest of your family over to see the Americans. Really. And touch my hair, I love that.”

We found a low stone wall to sit down, eat our lunch and attract stares. One woman stared open-mouthed at us as she passed… ok, a lot of women did but I’m mentioning this one because she had pink hair*. Our picnic spot turned out to be next to an office and the men inside all poured out onto the steps to ask us the usual questions “Are you Russian?” and “Are you sisters?”, tell us that we’re beautiful and watch us eat. Once they realize that my Chinese is exhausted by “Hello, we are Americans” they go back inside.

They tap on the window from inside, and point to two chairs in their breakroom. We don’t go in, of course, and after a moment, one man come out to give me his business card and say “Welcome to China!” in English. I accept the card with both hands, but I can’t figure out a single character on it

After eating, and waving goodbye to our audience, we took a taxi to the Tsingtao brewery. The driver asked if we like Tsingtao beer, and told us that we’re beautiful. (sensing a theme here?) I tried to tell him that I’m a teacher but I accented lao shi wrong, and I told him “I am an English mouse.”

*Fresca would like you to know that one of us shouted “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? YOU HAVE PINK HAIR!!!” and that it wasn’t her.

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