I speak no Mandarin. I don’t think I can even count ‘Ni hao’ given that this is usually greeted with silent stares. I put the staring down to two possibilities: I’m either butchering the tones (highly likely) or the sight of a muddy, sweaty, giant foreign woman on a bicycle is too surprising to muster up a reply (quite possible). Despite my complete incompetence with their language, however, the Chinese I’ve met so far have really gone out of their way to communicate with me.
One example of this took place in a town called Deqing. I arrived early afternoon after my longest ride ever (101km), found a hotel, had a much needed shower and ventured out for some food. After hiding from the torrential rain outside a little shop (and almost losing my hearing to the screeching metal workshops on either side), I came across a little restaurant. I was greeted by smiles and rapid Chinese, to which I used the excellent acting abilities that I developed as an English teacher to mime eating. I was given a seat and a menu. Unsurprisingly I couldn’t read a thing. Eventually I located the character for ‘beef’. So I pointed to that one. They didn’t have it. So I pointed to another one at random. They didn’t have it. Another one. No luck.
A young boy playing on the computer was sent over to help me, apparently the English speaker of the family. He stared at me for a while before running back to the desk and returning with a sheet of paper. It was an English-Chinese vocabulary list from school. Scanning the page, I passed over ‘household items’ and ‘in the classroom’ until I got to ‘food’. Jackpot. I pointed to the words for ‘rice’ and ‘meat’. The young boy looked confused.
Somewhat at a loss of what to do, I went back to the menu, staring at it as if the characters were going to magically become intelligible. At the table beside me, the schoolboy was now being served his lunch. It looked pretty good, so I pointed at it. The lady smiled, darted into to the kitchen and came running back out again holding up some vegetables. I nodded. About five minutes later, a feast arrived on my table. A bowl of rice and a steaming plate of meat and greens cooked in a wonderful garlicky sauce.
As I was getting stuck into my meal, the boy had left his meal and raced back to the computer. Shortly after, a printed page appeared on my table: “For the first time you come to China.”
And so began the unspoken conversation. My new friend, his food completely forgotten, would run to the computer, type my sentence into Google Translate, type his reply in Chinese, translate it, write his reply down in English and run back.
This continued for quite some time.
The conversation had an audience: the entire family. Dad came out from the kitchen to see what was happening, the two waitresses stood by giggling and Grandma sat at the table looking proudly at her grandson.
I learnt a lot about my friend. His name is Long Jian Hong, he’s twelve years old, has two sisters and his favourite subject at school is maths. He showed me what my name looks like in Chinese and tried, very patiently, to teach me how to say a few phrases of Chinese.
I could so easily have been seen as a burden, but they really went out of their way to welcome me warmly. So far, this has been the norm rather than the exception. After a photo session which involved me posing with a range of family members for a variety of cameras, I left the family, reminded of what this trip is all about: the people.