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When I taught English in Changchun, China for a year, I was told that there are more people going to a private school to learn English than there are English speakers in the United States.

We never seemed to run into those millions while we were traveling.

I speak a little Chinese.  You have to learn a bit out of necessity if you live there.  In my small town of seven million people, the only English speakers I ever encountered in the streets were my own students, so crash-course Chinese started on arrival.  I can order items in a restaurant.  I can bargain for a better price.  I can ask for directions.  I can sometimes understand bits of the conversations around me.   I can make polite small talk for a few minutes before the discussion gets overwhelming.  At my best I could read and write around 90 characters, but you need 3,000 to read a newspaper.  Even with this small arsenal of language, I had a hard time comprehending the people in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan province, as the accent was very different from the clean tones of the northeast.  I whispered to my husband that there was only one man on our minibus en route from Yushu to Ganzi that I could understand clearly: it turned out he was from Changchun.

Sometimes it was nice that no one could understand us.  We could speak ill of our surroundings without the danger of being overheard and criticized for our lack of cultural empathy.  “Disgusting!  There’s a dead pig rotting in that garbage pile!”  “No, no, it’s not dead!  It’s just SLEEPING in the garbage pile by our hotel.”


At other times, it was really, really frustrating that we couldn’t make ourselves understood, nor could we find anyone who understood us.  We spent an hour looking for the bus station in Shangri-La after I asked for directions.  Each person pointed us further and further away from the actual station.  One man sent us directly into the middle of a construction site.  I’d even given up on trying to ask in Chinese:  I was pointing directly to the question in my phrase book and it was still somehow lost in translation.

Chinese children start learning English in primary school.  The one word that sticks with everyone is ‘Hello.’  We heard this word constantly.   It was used as a shy greeting by beaming youngsters, “Hello!”  It was shouted by young men at the top of their lungs directly in our faces, “HELLO!!!”  It was shouted by guards telling us  not to do whatever we were doing, “Hello!  Hello!  Hello! No No No!” accompanied by violent shooing gestures.  It got to the point when every time we heard the ‘greeting’ we cringed and knew it didn’t mean anything good for us.

We were leaving a park in Beijing on our way back to our hotel.  The evenings come alive, because it’s finally cool enough that people can stand being outside for any kind of physical activity.  I noticed a young man placing a sign on the sidewalk, and it caught my eye because everything was in Chinese except for one line across the middle that said: NO, NO, NO, NO.  Ever the curious tourist with my handy camera, I went over to take a picture of it.  “Helllooo!!!  No! No! No! No”  The young man hurled his body in front of the sign and said, “No!”  I didn’t budge.  I told him in English that I wanted to take a picture of the sign.  He threw himself in front of me no matter which direction I turned my camera.  I asked him why I wasn’t permitted to take a picture of a sign in a public square.  He fumbled with his phone to find a translation service and typed in some characters.  “It is forbidden to take photos of the sign.”  I didn’t budge. “Why?” I asked in English.  “Why?” he repeated it with a kind of desperation.  He fumbled in his brain for any word in English that would explain the situation, never giving up his important sign-blocking vigilance while I sneakily snapped a blurry photo.  I asked him to tell me what the sign said, but all I got was the same desperate insistence that I not know anything about it.  If he hadn’t been so adamant about stopping me, I wouldn’t have had any curiosity whatsoever as to what the sign actually said.  After several minutes of this I finally turned on my heel and walked away while he was still stuttering, “No, no, no, no.”


Now updated with a partial translation.  It’s nice having friends who live and work in China!

“Something about financial investments through state-owned banks.”

I can’t stop laughing.