Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Degrees of awkwardness

"You're going to travel across China by yourself?!" people often ask with incredulity.
"You must speak Chinese, right?"
"You don't have a guide, or anything?"
"How will you manage?!"

No one ever asks such questions about Russia, or even the 'stans.

But here's the thing, which I already suspected and can now say with authority: China's easier.
How can that be?
  1. Most Chinese don't expect foreigners to speak Chinese.
  2. Very few Chinese people can speak English, but those who do are usually dying to practice it on you.
  3. Culturally, the Chinese are a highly demonstrative people: they shout, they gesticulate, they pantomime, they make Jim Carrey-worthy facial contortions.
  4. Most people simply refuse to accept the language barrier: a missed communication is seen as a lost sale (even when no money's involved).
  5. Many signs are bilingual (though radically fewer outside Beijing)
In Russian-speaking countries, on the other hand,
  1. Many people don't understand or believe that anyone could fail to speak their language. (It doesn't help that I look passably Russian.)
  2. More people speak English than in China, but those who don't are less inclined to struggle.
  3. Because Russian is somewhat related to English, however distantly, there's an expectation that foreigners should be able to manage it somehow.
  4. There are virtually no bilingual signs (in fact very few signs at all). This problem is compounded by the fact that, in Kazakhstan and other former USSR "satellites," most streets have two or three different names representing various stages of independence and/or language (Russia is the lingua franca, but Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Uighur, and others are all native tongues of the area.) Transliterating Cyrillic is a lot easier than Mandarin characters once you've practiced it, but to the uninitiated it can actually be harder, because critical differences can be so subtle, compared to the fairly obvious differences in Chinese names, which rarely comprise more than two characters each.
Things can easily seem more comfortable in Kazakhstan, because it's so European in architecture, urban planning, leafiness, wealth, ethnicity, preponderance of cars, food, etc., etc.--nearly every way except language. In Almaty, at least, there's a definite Darwinian mentality--if you can't handle our system, get lost.

China, on the other hand, wants so badly to be respected and loved by foreigners: from the central government to the man on the street, you can just feel that they're trying so hard to please.

1 comment :

  1. Because you sound reasonable and objective, this feels very educational and helpful about the two (or more) countries involved. Thanks. I'll check in again.