Working and traveling in a country where I can’t speak or read the language means learning new ways of communicating. Simple everyday activities like shopping or taking the bus become difficult without the use of words. A week or so ago I took the metro to a famous Guangzhou shopping district, the Beijing Road Pedestrian Mall. First established as a shopping area during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 A.D), today Beijing Road has nearly 200 stores of all sizes and types, from clothing stores, to tea shops, to barbecued meats and jerky shops, to handmade dumpling shops, to candy stores.
The number and variety of shops is particularly astounding considering that private commerce has only been allowed in the Chinese Republic since 1980. In just 36 short years, China has grown into the world’s first or second largest economy (depending on how you measure it). The streets of Guangzhou and of the capital city Beijing scream “buy, buy, buy” with advertisements plastered on every available surface—even the sides of ancient, historic buildings. This may be communist China, but it exudes a palpable mania for capitalism.
Like pretty much everywhere else in this enormous city, Beijing Road is almost always crowded. It’s especially crowded the day I visit. I hadn’t planned to buy much on my trip to Asia, but I did want to buy myself a dress, as I have a weakness for most things feminine—especially dresses.
I enter one store that has a large rack of dresses. The saleswoman rushes up to me speaking in rapid Chinese. She takes a step backwards and tips her head to one side, eyes narrowed as she stares at my torso, calculating my dress size. She pulls a dress off the rack and hands it to me. It’s marked XS: extra small. In U.S. dress sizes I do wear an extra small, but one glance at this dress and I know it will never fit over my Western hips. My figure is … er … curvier than the average Asian female figure. My waist is narrower than most Asian women of about my size, and my hips are much wider. I try to pantomime that the dress is too small, but the saleslady keeps holding it out to me and pushing me gently toward the little curtained dressing room at the back of the shop. I finally give up trying to nonverbally plead my case and step behind the curtain.
The space is so small I barely fit in. A pair of sequined high-heeled shoes rests on the middle of the floor, inviting customers to don them to lend the dresses a more glamourous air.
The dress is way too small. I put my own dress back on and hand the tiny one back to the saleslady. I pantomime trying to slide the dress up over my hips and getting stuck. She seems to understand and reaches for another dress. This one is marked XL: extra large. It’s clearly too big for me. Again the saleslady is so insistent that again I give in and try it on. I emerge from the dressing room with the dress hanging loosely around me. I walk back to the rack and flip through dress after dress looking for a medium or small, but every dress is marked either XS or XL, with a couple of XXXL’s as well.
The saleslady stands next to me shaking her head sadly as I slide the dresses across the rack. She finally pulls a piece of paper and a pen out from the cash register stand. She draws “XS” in large letters at the top of the page and “XL” at the bottom. Then she draws an arrow pointing to the space between. She points to me, to the arrow, back at me, and to the arrow again. She looks at the dress rack and shakes her head.
Her point is clear: She only carries extra small and extra large, but I need something in the middle.
I leave the shop empty-handed and walk into the next four little dress shops that I come to. It’s the same thing at each shop: only XS or XL, with an occasional XXXL in the mix.
By the sixth store I give up and decide to buy a skirt. I see a rack of shimmery embroidered skirts—lace and sequins and flounce. I find two size mediums, a red and black one and a green one. I put on the green one first. All four of the young salesgirls working in the shop stand on the other side of the dressing room curtain from me, waiting to see how it looks.
I emerge in the green skirt. “BEAUTIFUL!” yells one of the salesgirls so loudly in English that it makes me jump in surprise. I strike my best Madonna Vogue pose, and all four young women laugh. Because of my severe language debilitation here, I often find myself resorting to the international language of exaggerated physical humor. A fake grimace or an eyes-open-wide-fake-surprised look never fails to elicit a laugh.
After much arguing among themselves, the salesgirls decide that they like the green skirt better, but I buy the shimmery red and black one, partly because the particular shade of red looks Chinese to me, and partly because of the softly swirling feminine feeling of the lacey underskirts swishing against my legs as I walk.
(Plus, the washing instructions say “No chlarinebleaching. Do not tuble dry.” I will be very careful not to tuble dry my new skirt.)
I pay for the skirt, and the salesgirls start speaking to me in rapid Mandarin. Or maybe it’s Cantonese; I’m not sure. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken here in the Guangdong Province, known more commonly to English speakers as “Canton.” Mandarin is the official language of the Chinese nation, used for all official government purposes and the official language of instruction in Chinese schools. Cantonese is the traditional language of the Canton region and is especially popular among the older residents, but most young residents speak it as well.
I smile apologetically, unable to converse with the eager salesgirls. They say “Bye-bye!” almost in chorus, and I leave the shop to go find something for lunch.
It’s frustrating not to be able to speak to people. My not being able to understand either of the predominant languages here renders me not just functionally illiterate but functionally mute, too. It also infantilizes me in the eyes of many people. When students and faculty realize that I can’t understand their Mandarin or Cantonese, most try to communicate with me in English, which I find endlessly impressive. Outside of the university campus most people react to my lack of comprehension by switching to that loud, sing-songy voice universally used to communicate with small children. It doesn’t help much. It may be louder, but it’s still Chinese.
Most people seem to think me helpless as well, even those who speak to me in English. When I strike up a conversation with the professor sitting next to me on the campus shuttle bus one morning and she asks how I’ve been spending my free time, she gasps in disbelief when I tell her that I’ve been taking the metro around the city to explore (hardly an impressive feat considering that I’m a longtime veteran of the New York, Philadelphia, and DC metro systems). “You did it by yourself?” she asks, much as one would ask a toddler if he put on his shoes all by himself.
Or, when I stop later on the Beijing Road to examine a set of purses a street seller is offering, the seller, a woman of about my age, or maybe even a few years younger, points out some wet yellow paint on my arm (I still don’t know where I picked it up.). She takes a tissue out of her bag and, clucking her tongue as she would to a messy toddler, wipes as much of the paint off as she can, then pats my shoulder consolingly and sends me on my way.
Perhaps it’s not my language disability that leads the seller to clean me up. Perhaps I’m misreading her typical behavior in a culture where people touch each other much more than I’m used to. A stranger on a crowded subway car here might rest her arm on my shoulder as we ride; two adult women walking down the street together might hold hands, not romantically, but as an expression of friendship; a man on a crowded bus might perch on another man’s knee to create a place to sit.
Maybe all this physical closeness comes from there being so many people in every part of this enormous city and in all parts every other major Chinese city as well. There are lines to wait to get on the bus, lines to wait to use the public bathrooms, lines in front of the metro station escalators, lines for waiting in front of popular restaurants at lunchtime. Personal space is also much smaller here than I’m used to. People stand so close to each other in a crowd that strangers often touch. Strangers in lines behind me nudge me along, not to be rude, but to work their way toward the front of the line in a country where there will always, always, be another line.
With an estimated 44 million people in the Guangzhou metropolitan area and 1.4 billion across China, most living together in densely populated urban areas, it’s not just personal space that is reduced but communication barriers as well. Strangers talk openly to complete strangers, cheerfully (often forcefully) offering unsolicited advice, such as the best way to pack a grocery bag or how to flag down a cab on a busy street. Or after a Chinese airliner jumps in turbulence, the passengers nod and smile at one another, expressing their surprise at the jolt and acknowledging that they’re all sharing the same experience.
These reduced communication barriers lend a community feel to this huge city, and create a feeling of shared national experience that is fundamental to the Chinese identity, whether it’s two teenagers walking down the street, each holding one strap of an overstuffed duffle bag to distribute the weight, or it’s four well-coiffed salesladies in a tiny dress shop arguing over which skirt fits me the best. (And I still think it was the red one, even though they all liked the green one better.)
Click here to listen to samples of Mandarin and Cantonese and to see if you can learn to tell the difference.