The very best thing I did while living abroad was pick up enough of the local language to function. Honestly, it changed my entire experience. When I left Canada, I think I assumed that because I was heading to a large Chinese city, there would be enough English around to get by. This was not the case—at all.
I arrived in China during Chinese New Year. So, not only could I not communicate, but most stores and restaurants were closed for the week-long holiday. There were some hole-in-the-wall restaurants down alleyways and side streets that looked open, but I was too intimidated by my lack of language skills to go in—think menus in lists of Chinese characters, no pictures, and a waiter who (rightfully so) spoke zero English. Hand gestures only get you so far—and, if you’re not careful, guessing can land you a very raw something you don’t recognize as food!
So, for my first week in China, I subsisted only on corner store cookies, chocolate bars, and yogurt cups. I vowed that I would learn to communicate, stat.
The fact that Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language made it challenging to learn at first. For example, “horse” and “mother” are the same word, but the tone you add when you say them distinguishes their meaning—you can see where it’s possible to get into some trouble! Luckily everyone around me was very understanding, and I had the help of some language classes at the international school. Within a few months, I was using basic greetings, building my vocabulary, and, most exciting of all, ordering my own food at restaurants. Up until then, I had to have someone accompany me to all restaurants that did not have a picture menu. Hello independence!
As my language skills grew, I started to understand some of the conversations going on around me: best restaurant locations, neat events going on in the city, location of the latest pop-up kiosk—everything I could want to know.
Like me, you may not have time to master the language of your host country, but I promise learning even the basics will enrich your experience one-thousand-fold!
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