Tea Toothpaste and Watermelon Chicken: Navigating Communication Challenges in China

Kelsey Gustafson is a weeknight teacher at Language ETC. Last week she wrote about the culture shock she experienced as an American teaching English in China. This week, Kelsey follows up with stories of living in China when you can’t, well, speak Chinese—a feeling that is no doubt familiar to some of our students.

By Kelsey Gustafson

Before I moved to Washington, DC, I taught English to university students in China. I didn’t know any Mandarin before I moved there, and I expected this would be a challenge (it was). What I didn’t expect were the frequent instances of miscommunication with Chinese English speakers whose language skills were otherwise excellent.

Kelsey with one of her students in China.

I had never taken any formal Chinese classes, but I bought a book called Teach Yourself Mandarin in Four Easy Steps, which I studied the summer before I left. For all intents and purposes, though, I was illiterate. Our university arranged for the foreign teachers to take Chinese classes with a graduate student while we were there, which is how I learned a little. We used our limited Mandarin when talking to local people, but mostly we relied on students and friends who could speak it (a couple of the foreign teachers were nearly fluent), as well as on Chinese people who spoke some English. I carried around a small notebook with important phrases written in characters. I’d look these up on Google Translate before I went anywhere, and show the notebook to shopkeepers and bus drivers.

Asfety, comfortableness and rapidness: if only the DC Metro could promise as much!

In my months in China, I learned firsthand that translation and fluency are about so much more than grammar and vocabulary. Key aspects of communication are nonverbal and cultural; words alone cannot adequately convey meaning. This realization improved my teaching more than almost anything else I learned. I used to get frustrated when students didn’t understand my directions and explanations. Now I think about my Chinese post office, and I slow down, and try again.

Within my first few days in China, I had already haggled and bartered my way to gifts for friends and family back home. I had every intention of mailing them off as soon as I could. A few weeks into the school year, I showed up at the campus office of China Post (the state postal service) with a small box and said, “I need to send this to America.” The woman behind the desk looked at me blankly, so I summoned all my knowledge of Mandarin and announced “Zhe ge (This). Meiguo (America).” She shook her head no. Then, in very broken English, she told me I needed to get a receipt and take it to the big post office downtown. She wrote something down for me, in characters I couldn’t read, and told me I should take a taxi.

Kelsey and another foreign teacher with Pan Pan.

Two days later, our group of foreign teachers went with one of the school’s office assistants on a tour of downtown. Our guide, Pan Pan, spoke wonderful English and was happy to show us around. After showing us the local fast food places, furniture stores, and banks, she stopped and pointed to a storefront that was gutted and full of large pieces of cement rubble and construction equipment.

“That is the post office, where you can send packages,” she said.

We all stared.

“So it’s under construction?” someone asked.

“Yeah. It’s under construction. It won’t be open for a while,” she replied. I continued to stare at this pile of rubble, sure I was missing something.

“So, Pan Pan. I have a package that I want to mail to the United States. Is this the only place that can do that?”

“Yes, this is where you mail the package.”

“But, um, this place, it is under construction. Lots of construction. It won’t be open for a long time. Is there another place where we can send packages?”

She looked confused at my question. “Yes,” she said, pointing at the abandoned storefront. “This where you send packages.” We then continued with our tour.

Did Pan Pan mean that I needed to suck it up and wait, because this was the only post office in the city that would mail packages internationally? Or was she telling me that once it was open, this place was one of many that would send my box of tea to the West? As it turned out, the construction was indeed temporary, and my friends received their birthday gifts only a few weeks late.

Delicious watermelon chicken.

Dining out and shopping held constant surprises. When my boyfriend and I ordered “watermelon chicken,” we did not expect to be served an entire chicken boiled inside a watermelon. With the help of a ladle, chopsticks, and my hands, I ate it anyway!

Potato chip flavors include tomato, "cool & refreshing" lemon tea, numb & spicy hot pot, seaweed, and shrimp.

I shopped every week in our large, Target-esque chain grocery store, Yonghui. One day I went in with “toothpaste” written on my shopping list. Walking the aisles, I saw a large display of Crest tubes for about 15 yuan, so I grabbed one. Further down the aisle, I saw the same size of Crest tubes for 3 yuan. Confused, I looked at my tube, then at the cheaper tube, and saw no difference. So I placed my 15 yuan tube back where it belonged and grabbed the cheaper Crest box. I looked carefully. Same shiny foil, same red and blue letters, same green stripe on the side with green mint leaves for the flavor. So I bought it.

That night, my inability to read Chinese caught up with me. Those green leaves on my Crest tube were not, in fact, mint leaves. They were, as any Chinese person would know, tea leaves. Tea-flavored toothpaste. I didn’t realize this until I tried it. To those who are curious, green tea toothpaste has a sort of sweet yet bitter taste, with an aftertaste like rotten candy corn. I promptly threw the tube away.

If you ever visit China, take Mandarin lessons before you go. And buy the more expensive tube of Crest.

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