[The following is a version of the text broadcast on WVTF's Weekend Virginia. on August 14, 2010. Listen here (I'm towards the end of this segment.]
The language: My Mandarin is a little thin, and honestly I was really worried that the language would be a problem. Until I went, I thought “ni hao” was always followed by Kai Lan (A joke you will only get if you have a kid under the age of 7). But no, “ni hao” is Mandarin for “hello,” “sheh sheh” is “thank you,” “zai gen” is “bye,” and “Kai Lan” is “Dora the Explorer.”
So yes, my vocabulary is that of an 18 month old. But it turns out the Chinese don’t expect you to know many words. They were surprised that we even knew the Chinese word for our country, which happens to be “Meiguo” (May-gwuh). If you have the sudden urge to sing “The Bare Necessities” you aren’t alone.
The menus have pictures, so you point. The universal sign for “bring me a check” where you pretend to scribble in the air with your finger works there too. And everybody knows what “Beer” means. The taxi drivers speak about as much English as I do any Chinese, but that’s okay too.
The hotels give you a card with all the touristy places on it in Chinese and English, so you just point. Or you can get a guy at the hotel to write down where you want to go and you give that to the driver, although this did make me feel a little like my mom had pinned a note to my shirt as I got on the bus. My kids got along better than we did. We would use too many words . We’d say “Hi, I was wondering if perhaps you had any apple juice” and the waiter would stare at us curiously. My kids would say “Apple juice, please”and the waiter would say “Yes, apple juice.” In other words, everything I needed to know to communicate in China, I should have learned in Kindergarten.
Speaking of Kids: They got a lot of attention. They were waved at, stared at, heads patted, smiled, even gawked at. They were hugged. After buying a necklace from one woman, she told me to watch her little store, took some of the money I’d just given her and ran outside to buy my kids some ice cream. She then told my daughter to call her Auntie. My kids were photographed. A lot. Parents had their kids pose with my kids.
Grown ups would pose themselves with my kids.
People would watch my kids just walk and take pictures of them. My kids got use to it holding up two fingers in this V-victory thing that everybody in China seems to do when posing. I have pictures of people taking pictures of my kids.
I don’t know if my kids were circus freaks or rock stars, or heaven forbid, stars of some cloying Disney show. I can’t imagine why it was so unusual for the Chinese to see these little American children. Doesn’t everybody sit their kid on a plane for 16 hours?
Cigarettes: I say this as a girl from North Carolina. There is a lot of smoking in China. I knew before I went that more people smoke in China than live in the U.S. But this is old school smoking, the kind where they walk down the street with a cigarette clenched in the center of their mouths with their teeth . I was served a beer by a guy whose clenched cigarette had about 1/2 an inch of ash hanging off the end. There was a guy hawking children’s toys with a cigarette in his mouth. I got a picture of that.
There was another guy standing outside of his own butcher shop not 6 inches from hanging meat, same thing.
I guess smoke preserves the goose? And also toy helicopters?