Dealing with the language barrier (while motorcycling across China)

I recently got an email from Nathan, an English teacher in Hangzhou, China, who wrote:

I’ve read your book several times and really really loved it. I was thinking the other day about you saying you took a motorcycle trip across China, and I had a one question. How did you manage to get around the language barrier? Did you study any Mandarin before you came? Did you just rely on the basics ( hand signals, acting things out, finger counting)? I’ve been in Hangzhou for about 4 months and I lived in another city for 10 months before that, and my biggest daily challenge is the language.

Nathan references an anecdote from Chapter One of Vagabonding, but it was just a hypothetical example — I’ve never motorcycled across China myself. Still, based on my general experiences in China, I told him this:

My advice for such a journey would be two things — first, to learn as much Mandarin as possible while you’re in-country. This will require discipline! Second is to become comfortable with non-lingual communication — body language and hand signs and such. A combination of these two things (rudimentary Mandarin plus body language), along with the goodwill of most of the people you meet, should serve you fine.

If you really do plan on motorcycling across China, start researching the paperwork ASAP. Independent travel from province to province can require a lot of red tape; you might want to employ the help of a Chinese fixer or
travel agent. Good luck!

Posted by | Comments Off on Dealing with the language barrier (while motorcycling across China)  | November 22, 2006
Category: Vagabonding Advice

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