1, Eat chunky peanut butter
I’ve sworn by smooth for years, mostly for ease in baking. My illiteracy in Chinese has led to me buying chunky on several occasions, and not minding in the least.
2. Not be friendly with service workers
American culture and several past jobs have trained me to be sugar sweet smiley face to every stranger I interact with. In America, I typically hail the bag boy or barista with a big cheesy grin and speak to them as if they were my long lost great aunt.
In China, I tend to ditch the smile and take on a more unapproachable mien. Mostly to keep interactions limited to what Chinese I know, I wear a blank face at most transactions and speak as little as possible. At the grocery store I make sure it’s apparent that I brought my own shopping bags so the cashier doesn’t ask me if I want bags. The lack of expression is intended to stave off any attempts to sell me other things, and has a 50% success rate. (I listen carefully for any ‘ma’ at the end of utterances, indicating that it’s a yes/no question, so all I have to do is say no.)
To my relief, I don’t come across as rude as the excessive smiling and pretending you care about strangers seems to be a Western trait.
3. Rehearse everyday interactions
I’ve done it many times, and every time it’s more natural, but I still need to take a second and map my stratagem before I try my broken Chinese out in the field. I run through the sentence or phrases in my head beforehand, and anticipate every question they ask me. I know at the grocery store they always ask me if I have a membership and if I want bags, so I just refuse until I hear the price and I know I’ve made it through.
When I order my mango tea, I keep my ears peeled for the word ‘bing” which means they’re clarifying that it’s a cold drink. When I pick up the drink at the other end of the counter, they always ask me a long sentence wherein I recognize the word “dabao” which usually signifies a takeout bag, so I say no, but that always confuses them so I need to doublecheck with my roommate what I’m getting wrong so I can stick the landing. (Also, there are chunks of real mango in the tea. China is a beautiful place.)
4. Ask for help
Living in a new country with a new language means a lot of times I need to put aside my pride. Sometimes I need help with my visa, sometimes I need to register my residence permit at the police station and I need to get someone from my company on the phone to talk to the registration people who don’t understand why I don’t speak Chinese.
Things that I Do Now that Haven’t Changed
1.Go to the bakery and eat my weight in pastries after a stressful workday
Sometimes bakeries have the goods already packaged in bags that you just take up to the register. More often, you use tongs and a tray to take what you want from the case, and they package it for you at the front. This is usually an elaborate process involving carefully slicing the pastry (as if I were going to share it) and wrapping it in multiple bags, sometimes with tape involved (as if I weren’t going to devour it all the second I walk away.)
2. Don’t ask for help
My stubborn independence still asserts itself. I don’t want to be a bother to other people, whenever possible I don’t other people to be my translator even though I know they don’t mind. My phone company sends me messages that I can’t read that I click yes on regardless. I may have signed away my kidneys to my service provider but who knows. To switch from heat to AC, I spend a good 30 minutes drawing the characters from my AC remote into my translation app rather than ask my roommate who could read it in 2 seconds. Was it time consuming? Yes. Did I feel ridiculously proud of myself when I was able to cool my room without any help? Yes.