This is the first time that I've been to China in my whole entire life. I was born and raised in the States, a Jersey girl at heart. When I was really young, all I spoke was Cantonese. But basically when I hit nursery school, the rejection started. I hated going to Chinese school on Saturdays, I just wanted to be like the rest of the kids. I wanted to fit in and speak English, goddamn it! So my Cantonese slowly declined to the point where now all I can do is order verbally at restaurants in Chinatown. And forget about Mandarin, I can barely count to ten even though I took a semester in college.
So I knew it was going to be tough traveling through China without being able to speak or read. But the actual experience has been a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be. Weirdly enough in Hong Kong I felt like I fit in. I could understand at a basic level what people were saying, more than I thought I would. People didn't bat an eye if I spoke to them in English or if I replied in mangled Cantonese, it was all good. Being illiterate in Chinese was not a problem, there was usually some sort of translation into English that was good enough. The only places where it was an issue were some of the small restaurants, but perhaps if I had had enough time I would have gotten up the courage to go in and try to ask for recommendations.
Mainland China is a whole other ballgame. Sometimes it's been so frustrating I want to cry. Or at least have a giant sign that says "我不会说中文" ("I don't speak Chinese") so I don't have to say it again for the ten millionth time. Everyone automatically assumes that I speak Chinese, which is fine and normal. At first I would say "I don't speak Chinese very well" and they'd talk a mile a minute and still expect me to understand. So I switched to "I do not speak Chinese". Period. End of story. However, they still launch into a whole long dialogue. Very unhelpful.
In Thailand people mistook me for being native – which I was surprised about since I don't think I look Thai, but I soon found out that people thought I was Chinese Thai. So people would start speaking in Thai, but at least when I indicated that I didn't speak it, they backed off a bit, tried English or hand signals, and things worked out. They weren't rude in their reactions, maybe a bit curious, but it was easy to deal with.
In China people are totally confused and have no idea what to do with me. It has never in their minds occurred to them that a Chinese person could be Chinese without speaking it. So I've gotten to the point where I've figured out how to say "My grandparents are from Guangdong, I speak Cantonese, but I was born in America, I'm an American" in Mandarin. (Of course, being in Western China, they snort at the Guangdong part.) And they STILL don't get it.
If I don't open my mouth I look like every other Chinese person on the street, even if I dress slightly differently. In fact, when I'm not with Wayne it's like nobody sees me, I'm just part of the crowd. I think it confuses them even more that I'm with Wayne. Just tonight, I was sitting on a rock waiting for him, and this little kid comes over and starts climbing on the rock next to me. OK, no problem. Wayne shows up and we're talking, and the little kid looks over and I swear he fell off the rock with the most horrified look. (The "OMG I've never seen a white person before in my life and I'm going to stare at him for an uncomfortable period of time" is a whole other blog post completely.) "White person with Asian person? DOES NOT COMPUTE!!" and you see smoke coming out of their ears. Sometimes I think they think I'm his tour guide or something.
The most frustrating thing about it is that I want to communicate. I want to be able to ask about how the noodles are made, if they like the city they live in, where's a good place to eat, what they recommend doing, what's village life like. But I can't. So I have to stay in my role as a tourist, just passing on through and gawking. Which is fine for now, but I'm looking forward to being able to converse on a deeper level with people like we had the opportunity to in Thailand and Hong Kong.