Life Abroad

Language Barriers Everywhere

November 5, 2019

A little while back I needed to buy a 2-inch washer. 

So, obviously, I went to the hardware store and asked where I could find the 2-inch washers. I didn’t need it for any home repairs, mind you: I was buying it for my daughter to make a necklace with her Brownies troop. She was going to cover it with nail polish and hang it on a ribbon, so I wasn’t even being picky: color and material, not important. I could even be flexible on the size. But I did need a washer.

The woman behind the counter gave me a blank stare. I said, “Washers?” while I tried to show her with my hands what a washer looks like. I saw a flicker of recognition, so I started the crazy dance I sometimes do—gesturing with my hands and legs and arms and making weird faces just to get someone to understand that I need to know where in the store I can find the washers or the sunscreen or god forbid the bathroom. I was nodding and pointing at my hands, repeating “washers? washers?” like a deranged handyman, feeling pretty sure it was going to happen, I was going to break through this language barrier! And then, “No. No no no. We don’t have.” 

Hong Kong hardware store: not quite user-friendly
Not Lowe’s

And you might say, Just learn the language! Which is fair, except that the language is Chinese and I probably don’t need to say this, but Chinese is hard. If you are skeptical, I invite you to read this article, by a professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, entitled, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.

No amount of time spent learning high school French or college Italian could have prepared me for trying on Chinese. I took one term of it wherein my nine-year-old daughter and I shared a textbook (I was on chapter one, she was on chapter 16) and she laughed (in a good-natured way) at my attempts at the tones while we did our homework together. And even if I did eventually grasp the most basic of basic phrases, that was Mandarin. And here in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese.

Most everyone I know can very politely say hello, goodbye, thank you and a handful of directions for taxi drivers (many know a lot more, of course). Beyond that, we go straight to Charades. Sometimes I’ll just find an image of what I’m looking for and show my phone to the shopkeeper. But that feels like cheating, like when you can’t think of an actor’s name or the year a movie came out but you don’t want to Google it, so you persist in stubborn ignorance. Which is what I did in the hardware store, performing for an expanding and confused audience.

Eventually someone brought me an assortment of screws, nuts, bolts, and…washers. We all laughed and smiled a lot—we did it!—and I broke out my poorly pronounced Dor je! Dor je!, profusely thanking everyone for humoring me. It does leave you with a sense of accomplishment—this victory over confusion, persevering till you reach comprehension—even if it is just to go home with a 2-inch washer. 

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