Column: Shopping in a foreign language: not for sissiesEveryone else in my Introductory Mandarin class correctly interpreted the sentence, “Zheli you ji ge ren?” as “How many people are here?” I, on the other hand, had tried to do my homework on a bleary-eyed Sunday morning and had written down, “Where do you have chicken people?”
By: Arlene Anderson, For the Budgeteer News
Everyone else in my Introductory Mandarin class correctly interpreted the sentence, “Zheli you ji ge ren?” as “How many people are here?” I, on the other hand, had tried to do my homework on a bleary-eyed Sunday morning and had written down, “Where do you have chicken people?”
Yeah, I knew that was probably not right.
So you can imagine my difficulties when attempting to buy necessities here in China, let alone luxury items such as shoes. Shopping, usually good therapy in any country, began to feel more like a nightmare during my first months here in Zhuhai. Impromptu sign language and gestures can take you only so far.
It started out innocently enough. A group of colleagues from the United International College where I teach decided to gather for a Saturday lunch. Afterwards, we spontaneously decided to visit a local department store.
Then the trouble began.
First of all, my new Asian friends insisted on following me everywhere I walked throughout the store. This resembled a small parade. I protested, saying that trailing behind me was going to be very boring for them, but they wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
Our little group started out with five members. Before long, the other women politely informed the males in our party their presence was not required and they could be on their merry way. The men didn’t argue. Maybe some things are similar across all cultures?
The three of us who remained set off together. Checking a few tags, I quickly realized that being a size 8 or 10 in the U.S. translates into being an XL or XXL in China. Yikes! Enough said.
Any time I glanced at an item for more than two seconds, an eager sales clerk would be on the scene, telling me of its many virtues, in Mandarin — none of which I understood. Worse yet, the sales clerks would then start dragging out other wares that I didn’t remotely like.
Since I couldn’t communicate what I wanted in the first place (color, shape) of course they guessed wrong. All of this caused me to expend time and energy trying to politely turn them down in an attempt to move on.
This is where my friends stepped in and proved to be extremely helpful. They rescued me by translating my wishes about size, color and other important details. They pointed out interesting factors, such how to tell the difference between Korean style and Hong Kong style. (Korean style has a high waist.)
They also helped me bargain. The number on the tag is always inflated and it is up to a skilled negotiator to get a good deal. I was a newbie and from Duluth — two major handicaps. “Minnesota Nice” was certainly doing me no good negotiating on my own.
After two hours of searching for boots that could survive the occasional typhoons of Zhuhai and finding none suitable, I changed my standards and just hoped to find shoes that would stay on my feet and keep me from falling down. Mission accomplished.
However, buying things I needed was only one part of the equation that afternoon. The task within the task was deepening my cross-cultural understanding and new friendships.
I so much wanted to be independent, not truly grasping my helpless state. My companions well understood the situation and stood by my side, ready to assist as soon as allowed to do so. Their local knowledge, skills, and abundance of patience kept me safe.
Receiving help for such a basic activity was humbling indeed. I was grateful for the persistence of my friends and I became culturally wiser by the end of the afternoon.
Next time you consider complaining about the difficulties of shopping in Duluth, be thankful you at least know how to communicate what you need.
Like the Beatles, though, it seems I can get by with a little help from my friends.
Arlene J. Anderson is a native Duluthian turned explorer and teacher in Zhuhai, China.