Points of Communication
It took me some time to figure out why I had come to China in the first place. I thought I wanted to travel around the country, but after several incidents where I cancelled my trip to stay with my friends in Beijing, I decided maybe that wasn’t the case. I think I might have come to talk to people, to find out what it’s like to live in China, rather than to be a tourist. Recently, I’ve barely even done that. I’ve been on autopilot for the entire Christmas period, feeling like all I wanted to do was fly home to England. I decided to write about some strangers I met to remind myself how interesting China can be.
- The wordless conversation
- At the start of the year, I passed a young man on campus who was deaf and mute. He sat me down and showed me a page of intimidating Chinese characters. Realising I couldn’t read them, he proceeded to translate the entire document into English using Pleco (a popular Chinese translation app) on my phone. I found out shortly he was asking for money, money to help people like him get a good education, and he’d come quite a long way to get to Beijing. I showed him I didn’t have very much in my wallet, and he placed his hand over mine as if to say ‘don’t worry’. I thought after that he might just leave, but instead he sat with me. Somehow using a combination of Pleco and weird hand gestures (I don’t know sign language) we managed to find out where each other lived, how old we were, what our daily lives consisted of, among other things. He spoke to people without saying a word, managing to understand them even though he couldn’t hear. But when we were alone he gave me a cheeky smile as if to say ‘actually I was just pretending’. He took me to the place I was supposed to find, said he would wait for me, but when I came outside he was gone.
- The moon cake women
- On Mid-Autumn Festival(6th-9th September), I found the Tsinghua University lake. There were student societies, families, classmates, workmates: hundreds of people were out that night eating and drinking under the clear night sky. The Mid-Autumn Festival is the day families sit outside and watch the moon. I was absorbing the environment by myself, until a woman just a little older than me heard me trying to speak Chinese to a barista and took pity on me! She invited me to sit with her and her friend, both were a little tipsy, and they bought me my very first Tsingtao beer (the first of many to come!) and I shared my moon cake with them. They were fascinated by me because they so badly wanted to travel to England. One of them had spent some time in France and her English was really very good. We hung out, discussed their work in Haidian District, their families and their hometowns, how they had come to be such great friends. They are really the only graduates I have met during my time in China. After that lovely night, I never saw them again either.
- The illegal religion
- Once I was travelling with a friend who spoke far better Chinese than me. By that time I was used to people stopping us on the street just to talk to us, and it was much more rewarding with him there as he could explain exactly what was being said. We were walking along a quiet path, and a man stopped us. He said that he was a member of a certain religion. The religion was once well supported by the Chinese government, but later seen as a threat. In the 1990s, there was a crackdown on the religion which was seen to threaten social stability. The man said something about how he could talk to us because we were foreigners, but didn’t feel secure talking to other Chinese.
- These are some experiences I have had communicating with Chinese people. I look forward to my Chinese improving so I can have more and more meaningful conversations as time goes on.