Learning to Communicate Through Every Coffee Order I Place

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 2. Communicating, Shanghai by Brooke2 Comments

After a week and a half of living in Shanghai and taking Chinese classes, the only words I feel comfortable saying is hello and thank you… and I even worry I pronouncing those wrong. I walk in confidently to a coffee shop saying “Ni Hao,” a smile spreads across the barista’s face and I can almost see her thought process. “Maybe she’s fluent in Chinese, maybe this order won’t be a struggle, maybe she’ll know exactly what to say,” I interrupt this almost serene moment by saying “I can I get uhhh..” her smile fades as does her hope. I end up pointing to the board to signal that I want a mocha frappe and yet again I have made the process more difficult for both of us than it needed to be.

After traveling around Europe all last semester, I have always felt this sense of guilt every time I asked someone a question, or ordered a coffee in English. I questioned why I should just assume that someone knows English, and not even attempt to speak to them in their native tongue. I vowed that in China I would learn the language so well that I wouldn’t have to rely on English. One part about that is true, I can’t rely on English. Instead I’m relying on elaborate hand gestures and Google translate.

But I want to be an inhabitant here, not a tourist. I can’t keep viewing Shanghai as if I’m visiting and just doing enough to get by, I need to actually be living and thriving. I know this means pushing myself and practicing to actually learn the language instead of a few sporadic words. Although I know Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, I also know English is. I do not want to live in a different country and expect them to know my native language than I know of theirs.

I also have found it interesting that there are more languages than just oral ones. When I pulled out google translate after trying to explain my question to an employee in English four or five times, she breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. I could tell that she was thankful for that act even if she couldn’t explicitly express it to me. I find myself using ‘thumbs up’ quite often here as an act of communication. Even with the barriers of language and culture, we do find ways to communicate with one another and these mechanisms are more powerful than we even realize. However, there are minute details of body language that I do not understand yet.

As Button state in “On the Exotic,” “we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.” I desire to delve into not only the oral language in China but also the unspoken cultural language. Are there any specific manners here that I am unaware of? What is the different greetings you would use for a friend versus your boss? As I discover myself using body language more and more here, I am immensely curious as to how body language is used amongst the local people.

I believe that I would be cheating myself out of my full experience in Shanghai if I did not explore every facet of language here. I am not here to be a bystander and just simply gaze at the more beautiful things the city has to offer; I want to be an active participant in Chinese life which is something I believe I lacked during my last semester of studying abroad.


  1. Hi Brooke! Your post is so relatable—I would even venture to say that the sentiments you express are universal! I feel the same way in Prague as you feel in Shanghai. I have also learned the essentials such as “hello” and “thank you” in Czech, and even though I repeat them in my head frequently before saying them, I always hesitate a little too long because I get overcome with doubt: what if I have been pronouncing them wrong these past three weeks? But then I reason the following: it is better to show to whomever I am speaking that I am trying because I sincerely want to learn; because as you wrote, I also want to be a Prague “inhabitant, not a tourist.” I too want to be “living and thriving,” not just “visiting and doing enough to get by” because if that is my approach, then I will not gain anything from my semester abroad; and certainly, I will not be paying the Czech Republic the respect it deserves. Again, as you wrote, I cannot and do not want to live in a different country and expect them to know my native language(s), and not be held to the same expectation. That is just disrespectful and defeats the whole purpose of traveling!

    So, because I completely understand your frustration and desires, I wish you the best of luck in being able to communicate in Chinese, which is not an easy feat, but with your determination, it will be possible!

  2. Hi Brooke! I can’t believe how relatable your post is, I feel exactly the same in Prague! I find myself using way too many hand gestures, Google Translate, and especially English. Even though we had Czech language classes at NYU I still find it hard to recall specific phrases, not to mention even trying to start a simple conversation of any sort! But I do think that practice does make, well, maybe not so perfect, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Like you, I want to be an inhabitant, not a tourist. And honestly, since baby steps are better than no steps, I’ve been trying to incorporate small phrases along with my hand gestures to show that I’m trying to learn the language, slowly, but surely.

    In addition, as a Chinese-born American who has been to Shanghai a couple of times, I’d say that because the international community is so huge there, many people in Shanghai are very accommodating and especially appreciate it when you do try to speak Chinese. Even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t have the correct enunciations (Chinese is a really hard language to speak!) many people love it when you try to embrace the language and culture.

    Also as a tip for trying to order a green tea latte at a cafe, try 绿茶拿铁; in pinyin it’s spelled like: lǜ chá ná tiě and can be pronounced similar to “loo-you cha nah tee-yeh”.

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