It’s no secret that China has one of the fastest growing economies in recent history, and it’s no surprise that about one-fifth of the world’s population speaks some sort of variation of Mandarin Chinese. With such a booming cultural industry, many find themselves traveling to China, for work, business, study or just for a vacation. Whatever the reason, the number of foreigners in China has increased dramatically. But once here, many tend to isolate themselves into a sort of bubble, rejecting the domestic and sticking to what they know.
When I first arrived in Beijing, China, my number one fear wasn’t the pollution , the food or getting lost; my number one fear was having to break down the Great Wall of Communication that stood in front of me, that seemingly indomitable leap blocking my opportunity to truly embrace Chinese culture. The height, length and width of this barrier became apparent when I first had to tell directions to a cab driver.
As I began to study Mandarin, I started to see this wall slowly crumble away. The first time I met my Chinese roommate, all I could say to her was, “Hello, my name is Oriana; I am 21.” Embarrassing as this was, she was patient with me, and by the end of the semester, we could easily speak about life goals and our passions, and we would giggle away into the night with our girl talk. Because of my opportunity to speak to her (though I promise you it involved, and still involves, many hand signals and drawings), I began to realize that the Chinese people aren’t very different from those from the Western Hemisphere.
One day, while hanging out with some foreigner friends working in Beijing, I noticed that they did not make any effort to learn the language. They belonged to the group of 外国人 (wai guo ren) that Chinese people see as literally, the outside people. While hanging out with them, my friends and I were hungry so we decided to go to KFC. Because my friend was used to ordering the big bucket of fried chicken that KFC has back in the U.S. , he attempted to order it here. Of course, he ordered it completely in English. What he received was a big bag. Inside the bag there were smaller bags, and inside each of the small bags there was one piece of chicken. I burst out laughing at his flustered face. The poor woman who took his order didn’t understand what he was asking for and made the best of his order.
This, to me, represented a classic manifestation of a language barrier. Funny as it was, his anger and frustration could have easily been avoided if had attempted to learn a couple of key words, such as “bucket” and maybe, I don’t know, “fried chicken.”
Whenever I hung out with my foreigner friends, I began to learn that the language barrier causes friction. When you don’t understand something, your brain compensates by assuming, and these assumptions may not necessarily be true. My friends became more and more frustrated and soon began to hate it here. Many Americans argue: “If you come to my country, you have to learn to speak my language”. Shouldn’t the same apply abroad? What is the point of coming to a brand new country full of opportunities if you choose to isolate yourself from it?
Here are some more reasons to learn Mandarin if you are in China:
Learn new perspectives from the Chinese people.
Communicate with one-fifth of the world’s population.
Open up opportunities for new relationships and partnerships.
Experience the satisfaction of being able to understand what others say without feeling clueless or left out.
Discover a brand new face to China and begin to truly enjoy yourself here.