I’m staring at my wife gesturing wildly with her arms. From my view point I can’t tell what she’s trying to communicate and it looks like the locals are confused as well. Is she looking for a swimming pool or the airport?
It’s a serious challenge to communicate when you don’t recognize the language let alone speak or read it. Ever since leaving Turkey, we have had the communication competency of illiterate deaf mutes. Every country has had its own alphabet (although China doesn’t even have that much) with it’s own very specific language. With few signs in English and even fewer English speakers, it can be difficult to do even the simplest things.
Here are ten items and skills we’ve come to rely on:
1.A Bilingual Order Form – Go to an online language translator and type in words like “train ticket” and “bus station”, “date” and “soft sleeper” and whatever else you might need. Print up that piece of paper and when it’s time to buy your ticket or check into your hotel, point to what you need. This is especially useful for transportation when you have to choose a class of transportation (like on a train), a date and/or a seat.
2. Cell Phone – Sure, a cell phone is useful to call people but it is far more useful than that. When you don’t know your numbers in another language this is often the best way to communicate a price for something. Many sellers who normally work with tourists will have a calculator sitting by for the same purpose, but this isn’t always the case. Using your fingers also works nicely but when the exchange rate is something strange like 150 to one US dollar then its hard to know if two fingers is 200 or 2000.
3. Maps – Everyone is familiar with a map of the world. Having a set of maps (we’ve had this mini atlas with us the whole way) to show where you’re from, where you’ve been and where you’re going, is a great way to have a simple conversation. More valuable though, is to have some fairly local maps that are bilingual so that both you and a local can read it. When trying to buy a train ticket from Urumqui to Dunhuang, and you’re not pronouncing ‘Dun-who-ong’ with the proper tone, having that map at the ready is a huge help. We purchased a bilingual Chinese Atlas our first day in China for $3.
4. A Picture Dictionary – No, not an album, a book. This is probably our best friend when we’re struggling with all our other methods. We usually use the Point It book which has a lot of photos of things you might need to purchase or use. It has a few different varieties of seats and beds for trains, a picture of a few planes and boats, all kinds of meats and produce and even a diagram of a cow to help you get the cut of meat you want, to avoid ordering intestine. There are colors, computers, iPods, different denominations of several currencies, and even few different types of toilets. We carry a second picture book filled mostly with icons, one clearly shows snakebite while another demonstrates vomiting quite elegantly.
5. A Photo Album – Yes, this too. We actually tried to put together a mini-album before we left but ran out of time. Instead, we now have a ton of photos loaded onto our iTouch which allow us to share photos of our travels as well as photos of our family and friends from home.
6. Business Cards – Not our idea but it’s a great one nonetheless. We made some $5 cards before we left home and haven’t run out yet. They have our photo on them so that people can remember who we actually are. We’ve received emails from people we met 6 months back who lost and then found our cards. People all over the world give these out and its a quick way of exchanging information when you’re running to catch a bus.
7. Digital Camera – This is a much more valuable tool than just taking photos. Want to tell a taxi to take you back to your hostel but can’t tell him the exact street its on, take a photo of a nearby landmark. Afraid of getting lost in a Turkish Bazaar, just take a photo of the entrance you use as you walk in and when its time to go, show it to as many people as you need until you find it again. Works to name street signs or even subway stations when they are are written in ‘squiggly’ rather than Latin characters.
8. Charades – We are better at this than you can imagine. The problem is that it has become a language onto ourselves that we speak fairly fluently but no one else does. No wonder the locals are staring at us. We’ve just made the sign for X when we mean Y. Nonetheless, we’ve learned to be very creative with how we contort our hands and bodies to make signals at people.
9. Pen & Paper – You’d be surprised how much easier pictionary is than charades. Just trust us on this one and keep a pen with you. It’s hugely useful at all kinds of random moments.
10. Patience – This should be obvious but it is easy to forget as you’re flailing your arms at a bunch of confused faces. Of course your trying to say ‘fire’ but they just think you think you’re a bird. Remember you’re in their country and they don’t need another language to go about their daily business.