Ever since I was more or less shamed in grad school for being monolingual (despite completing Spanish 3 twice and forgetting almost everything), I set out to learn another language. That was at least one reason I moved to China (why didn’t I choose a country with an easier language to learn?).
While in China, I quickly learned the most useful words and phrases for travel. And those phrases followed me to other countries as well. Whenever I traveled outside China, I attempted to learn the basics of the local language. My vocabulary usually included “hello,” “thank you,” and the names of food I wanted to try. Unfortunately, when traveling to destinations such as Thailand and Malaysia, it’s easy to forget the local language because so many people speak English well enough.
The basics in China went a long way. In a city like Shenzhen, where almost everyone is a migrant trying to make a quick Yuan at the expense of others, it was important to know how to give taxi drivers directions to avoid getting ripped off, which still happened too often. And reading a few characters on a menu helped me avoid eating undesirable meats (I’m not a fan of animal stomach and other internal organs).
Most helpful, of course, are numbers in any language. How can you bargain or even understand a price that isn’t written? Numbers themselves are fairly easy to learn in Chinese–once you know 1-10, everything up to 99 is based on those numbers. The problem is that many people speak dialects and some places are too loud to understand the spoken language. Most travelers use hand signals, which are mostly universal. But they’re not quite universal in China. Unfortunately, I put off learning the hand signals and missed out on some opportunities to use them during that first year.
I learned the hand signals (here’s a handy guide) in a bar. Because so many people enjoy playing liar’s dice in bars, it’s necessary to know the hand signals if you plan on joining the game. Every now and then I got my sevens and nines mixed up, but I still managed to do well in the game.
These hand signals were useful outside the bar as well. Some days I just didn’t feel like talking to street vendors, so I resorted to hand gestures, which worked just as well. Of course, I more often spoke with the street vendors to practice my Chinese.