Beyond Borders

A real language barrier

2010-12-10 13:32
Simon Williamson is a South African currently in Hong Kong.

Simon Williamson is a South African currently in Hong Kong.

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People who have travelled to places where English isn’t widely spoken will be able to fill dinner-tabled guests with language barrier stories: acting like a chicken in a restaurant, or spelling out what they want in crude sign language.

The prevalence of such tales in Europe is sustained mainly because it is South African travellers’ continent of choice and there is an ability to communicate - a similar alphabet means that words can be sounded out, and the Latin and Germanic references can often tie in with English and Afrikaans.

In Asia this is palpably not the case - even here in Hong Kong which was a British colony. While English may be the language of business and have its public presence enshrined in law, it doesn’t translate into the entire population being able to speak it.

While someone (like myself) who doesn’t speak the local Cantonese or even the mainland’s popular Mandarin can still do government-regulated things like open a bank account or rent a flat, it is far trickier getting simple things done.

Acting out

Purchasing shampoo involves messing up deliberately-crafted hair as, while in the pharmacy, one is required to act out what to do with the product. A request for tanning products (I have to counter my part-translucent shade somehow, and the sun merely brings out a washed shade of red in it) brought forth a smorgasbord of moisturising cream, sun cream, after-sun cream, haemorrhoid cream, skin-whitening cream (Hongkongers do the opposite of what us white folks wish to do to our skin) and other variants of skin products.

Purchasing appliances was similar - try and act out a microwave while differentiating it from an oven. Our house also lacks a drying rack for the dishes as I have not been able to pass on the message to any shop assistant, and my in-store efforts of trying to draw one (Pictionary was never my strength), pretending to wash dishes, holding two plates in a row and saying it in English in gradually increasing volumes have come to naught.

The bottom of barrel-scraping futility comes when trying to catch a taxi to a road with an English name which applies to probably more than half the streets on Hong Kong Island. What is called Magazine Gap Road in English is pronounced something along the lines of “Shin sha dow” in Cantonese and creates a stern barrier when the taxi driver and I communicate in similar fashion to Carl Niehaus and his credit-card company.

I am grateful regarding food as most restaurants we frequent have English translations and pictures. In grocery shops, for some sent-from-God/Allah/Buddha reason, food is labelled in Cantonese and English, so it is easy to separate the fish sausages from the pork ones.

My fault for not learning

I am 100% happy aware that it is my fault for not learning enough useful words – I certainly do not blame locals for their failure to understand my guttural utterances, but I do wonder just how tough it must be for travellers to this part of the world who don’t speak English or Cantonese.

I know that Hong Kong is a popular destination for French and Russian travellers who can’t even capitalise on remnants of leftover colonialism. Relying solely on hand signals and product labels is something I would not wish on Schalk Burger, even if I was a British Lions’ player’s eye.

Aside from the fact that written Cantonese can’t be read by those who grew up with our alphabet, it also can’t be sounded out. A guidebook may contain pronunciations of words but the delicate intonation and stress of syllables puts a completely different tack on the garble protruding from my mouth.

Relating to this paradigm of helplessness, we ended up in southern Taiwan a fortnight ago where my lack of directions to the high-speed rail station and communicable ability was compounded by a hung-over and empty stomach. Facing this degree of language failure regularly would send me into a loony-bin and, on this occasion, very nearly did.

We were directed to three different exits of a particular station before someone pointed us to a bus stop which we’d passed twice. This particular bus stop (nowhere near anything useful and standing out like a hay-coloured needle in a haystack) was the direct public transport link between this random dart point on a map and the high-speed rail station.

Mastering the art of pointing

Thankfully the sign had the bus times written in a way I could understand, but in a cruel twist of fate the bus was not to run for another two hours. Our first attempt at a taxi was met with a smiling but shrugging driver and so we went back to the bus stop and copied down all the Chinese characters onto the back of a receipt so that the next taxi could work out where we wanted to go.

In spite of this, I shall continue forth, and within a few months should have mastered the art of pointing, waving and smiling while spurting out English phrases in a non-offensive accent imitation (this works in Italy, by the way).

Should said understanding fail, this communicative process shall be followed up by frustrated Afrikaans swearwords, hoping my tone is lost in mistranslation.

You Europe- and Australia-destined travellers have it so easy.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. 

- Are you a South African living abroad interested in sharing your views? What is it like for a South African living in a foreign country or how do you view South Africa from a distance? Send us your columns to and you might get published in our new Beyond Borders section.

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