The prospect of 10 days of illiteracy washed over us like five oceans when we heard Mandarin for the first time on our flight to Beijing. Everything sounded like "Rrr" and "Sshh."
One of the most daunting communication challenges in a foreign country, between people who share no common vocabulary, is that of expressing openness and curiosity.
For 10 days in China's capital and the Anhui Province countryside, we took on this challenge by exploring some unconventional methods of contact and interaction. In the process, we realized that communication can occur even without the ability to form proper sentences.
Alternative communication began early, on our Beijing-bound flight. A stout Chinese man in a navy-blue suit was the last to board. He plopped down in the aisle seat next to my travel mate, Aaron, and threw his seat belt across his lap.
Neither Aaron nor I had yet learned how to say as much as "hello" in Chinese. We caught the blue-suited man's attention and greeted him with a silent nod and smile.
He turned away with a look of slight disgust, which we interpreted as a message to cease efforts at socialization. We were discouraged by the hostility of this first encounter, but we were determined to improve our pathetic capacity.
We opened our China travel book and started in on the "Useful Phrases" section. As we practiced counting from 1 to 10 quietly, we were startled to hear the third resident of our row chime in to correct our pronunciation of the number 2, ("aarrr," not "rrr").
We overeagerly corrected ourselves, thanked him generously, and went on counting, making it clear that constructive criticism was welcome. For the remainder of the flight, Mr. Wang leaned over our book and pointed out our mistakes. We shared a few laughs.
It did not matter that much of what Mr. Wang taught us was forgotten or misunderstood. What mattered was that his image of us as happily ignorant was dispelled, as was our image of him as hostile. We communicated.
The encounter with Mr. Wang was our first hint that in China, the inquisitive foreigner with the open phrase book is the warmly received foreigner.
When people saw us walking down the streets of the small town of Tankou in the lush and mountainous Anhui Province, they screamed at us to eat in their restaurants. When we approached these entrepreneurs with our new phrase book and asked for help on random sayings, they were surprised and enthusiastic. Most helped us with pronunciation, as well as giving us tips on the local sights.
One middle-aged woman wearing a sparkly shirt and shoes with holes poured us a cup of leafy tea and tried to teach us improbably phrases such as, "the smell of this mutton is very strong." After 20 minutes of practice, we had exclaimed, backslapped, and laughed, catching glimpses at the wide space between the woman's front teeth.
As our phrase book became worn and tattered, we had completed few comprehensive linguistic exchanges. But through common laughter and curiosity, we stopped seeing the locals as screaming salespeople, and they stopped seeing us as gaping prospective customers. We communicated.
Food, throughout the world, is an effective mode of communication. On our first day in Beijing, we sat at a market vendor's stand eating vegetables, fish, and rice. When a fellow diner laid down her dish and motioned for us to sample her food, we dug in and laid our dishes out for her to share. We ate the rest of lunch in the traditional Chinese family style.
We took this woman's statement of friendliness and repeated it throughout our trip. The next day, as I walked down a Beijing alleyway carrying a bag of fresh bread, a woman sat behind her meat stand, screaming at me to buy some squirrel. She was also eating dinner chicken, rice, and vegetables.
When I offered her some bread, she stopped yelling and laughed. Using the other ends of her chopsticks, she fed me chicken from her plate. Without a word, we were two people sharing dinner, not an American tourist and a Chinese meat saleswoman. We communicated.
Communication with children is a different challenge. As we walked into a 400-person village near Tankou, people seemed to have mixed feelings about our visit. A 2-year-old child in a bright red vest caught sight of us on the main street, burst into tears, and literally dove into a nearby wooden home for safety.
When we greeted a man who was butchering a pig's leg on the front step of his house, he looked at us with aversion and kept working.
Some folks were more receptive. By the time we reached mid-village, we had a train of five children between 4 and 10 giggling as they followed us.
When I turned around quickly and ran toward the kids, they tumbled over one another, laughing along with me. As one little boy jumped up and ran toward me, I reversed direction and ran away from him. A massive and exhausting game of tag ensued as children's parents looked over tea-leaf roasters and wet laundry in surprise.
As we said goodbye, still laughing and breathless, a young girl in a tattered yellow sweater repeated a Mandarin word over and over. As the girl took our phrase book and looked up the English translation of what she was saying, the man butchering the pig let out a trapped smile.
"Funny. Funny. Funny," she said as she handed the book back to us.
A game of tag dispelled the idea of us as aloof foreigners. We communicated.
Illiteracy, we discovered, does not have to lead to a lack of personal contact. An open phrase book, shared food, and even a universal children's game said as much or more than any grammatically correct sentences could have.