I’m trying to ditch my best friend, Google

In 3. Language, The Art of Travel, Shanghai by KD1 Comment

I think my biggest fear of going to Shanghai was the language barrier. I have never been good at languages. I struggled with poor Spanish teachers in middle school and it was not until high school that I finally had a positive experience. I took French for four years, but I feel like nothing has been retained. Languages are a tricky thing, I feel like you need constant exposure to have it engraved. However, even with constant exposure, I am struggling.

I originally enrolled in Elementary 1 Chinese but have since dropped to Conversational Chinese. Elementary 1 is supposed to be for those with no Chinese experience but within minutes of the first class I realized that that was not the case. Other students spoke Chinese at home and did not want to place out and were simply taking the course for an easy A. This made it really hard because the professor thought everyone knew the basics. Once I switched into Conversational Chinese (it is a 2 credit for study abroad only) the pace was better, but I ran into another problem. Because I look Chinese people assume I speak Chinese, locals and professors alike. On my first day of conversational Chinese, the professor said to me, “Why are you taking Conversational? Don’t you speak Chinese at home? You can’t take this course.” This attitude towards the language I speak and subsequently do not speak has impacted the dynamics of the class.

Outside of class, I have been fortunate enough to have a roommate who speaks enough Chinese to get by. While I feel bad relying on her for everything, it is the most efficient way to live. Sadly, my roommate is away this weekend visiting family – leaving me and Google Translate to fend for ourselves. I usually rely on pictures to order food but that did not work last night for dinner. Based on the picture I thought I was ordering duck and rice but when I got my meal it was a mixture of organs and vegetables. Normally, I use Google Translate to try to figure out what I’m ordering but the picture was right next to the words, so I just assumed. As mentioned in the New York Times article, the camera feature of Google Translate has become my best friend. I do not have Bravolol but I will be looking into it soon. (I think Bravolol is a funny name. It is like Bravo! You know the language. But actually “LOL” you do not really.)

This “watchful silence” mentioned by Reid is something I have come to find normal, especially when ordering food. The first few days here it felt like I was suffering from sensory deprivation – I heard all these “words” but they were just noises to me. Now, I focus less on the words and more on the individual saying the words. A lot can be communicated through facial expression and gestures.

As stated earlier, constant exposure is important but something I am trying to battle here is the NYU bubble. If I wanted, I could stay with NYU English speaking students and be in this bubble, but I really want to go out and explore more of what Shanghai/China has to offer. As of right now, I am relying on my roommate to help me explore but hopefully, I will be able to order food, get a taxi, shop, and have a basic conversation in Chinese by the end of the semester.

It is interesting what other people find “exotic”. I thought it was funny that within chapter 3 of de Botton’s Art of Travel, Amsterdam’s airport is presented as exotic. Earlier this year, I was at the Schipol Airport and did not think it was “exotic” at all. Here, locals think I am exotic because I only speak English. One’s perception of exotic is solely based on that individuals lived experiences or exposure.

(Image: Introduction to Conversational Chinese book; Source: KD)


  1. Hey KD! I really enjoyed reading your blog about language. As someone who also appears to be of one culture but is actually of another, I can say that I have also experienced your struggles. It really is strange to come into a place that is totally foreign to you and have the inability to comfortably interact with it. It’s great that you have a person who can teach you so much about Chinese culture, but I do hope that your relationship with Chinese culture is able to be fostered on your own efforts as you mentioned in your blog. Best of luck!

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