How do I communicate with Ben?


I have to say that I feel that Ben and I seem to communicate quite well. His English is decent enough that we have very few failures, conversations where one or both of us just don’t get what the other is trying to say.  It sometimes takes longer to get to the point but we usually get there. I was worried about it to begin with. Having a driver is of course a new experience and I wasn’t sure how to act or what  I should and shouldn’t say. I knew the second that I met him at the airport though that all would be fine and we’d figure it out together. And we have. I know instantly when he doesn’t understand because his brow furrows. I only see this face when I’ve lost him. I appreciate it because when I don’t understand I just usually give a blank look, totally blank. I’ve seen this look on others as well and I would far rather have a furrowing of the brows.  He probably knows he’s lost me when I give him my stupid, blank look.

When he picks me up it usually takes 20-30 minutes to get where we’re going and then 20-30 minutes back. That’s a lot of air time for me to sit and not say anything. I cannot do it. I mean almost an hour of not talking when I’m sharing the same space with another human being? Not gonna happen. I ask questions and God bless him, he always answers.  I didn’t move to China from kids, family, friends, and all that was familiar so I could pine for my life  in America. I came here to learn and discover and experience. What better way than to talk to someone who is like an open book, and Ben is.

So the first thing I do is speak slower. That is not easy for me but I can tell when my pace is picking up and I have to slow down.

I also leave out a lot of little words that just get in the way. Mandarin is a very simple, logical language. To translate literally would be very difficult because we have a lot of superfluous words. I wish that English was as easy as Mandarin. (OK, the tones are what make the language hard to learn but that comes with practice.)  Anders is the master at dumbing down his English when talking to a non-native speaker. I hate to use dumbing down but essentially that’s the best way to describe it. I know Kiersten and Andrew are laughing right now because he would come home in Geneva and forget that we spoke fluently.

I talk the way he talks. By now I know some of Ben’s favorite words and phrases and when I talk to him I use the same terms.  An example is “total”.  It took me about two days to figure it out but now I know he uses it in place of  everything, everywhere, everyone, adding, and anything where he’s describing a majority of, most of, or all of. When I need to convey all or most of something I just say “total” even if it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to me.

Being able to think outside the box helps. I think I might know an easy way to explain something but I get that look and know I’ve got to come up with something better. Sometimes it’s more than just coming up with a different word and I have to explain a whole concept. It’s like the game where you’re given a list of words, have to get other people to say them but you can’t use that one word. Ben is actually quite good at this. If he doesn’t know a word in English he’s very good at explaining the whole idea behind the word, he just doesn’t know the one he’s looking for. “It’s a feeling” is another of his favorite phrases and when he comes off with that I’m know about to learn a little about the Chinese psyche. I love it!

Body language is very useful, that’s why speaking on the phone is more difficult. I’ve read that up to 55% of communication is visual and other studies put non-verbal communication as high as 90%. I’m no sure I’d go that high but I do know that seeing someone you’re trying to speak to that doesn’t have a firm command of the language helps a lot! I’ve done it and been on the receiving end of it. Body language, motioning, and pointing go a long way in helping another person understand what you can’t say.

I use Mandarin whenever I can with Ben.  I’ve only had four lessons and to say my vocabulary is limited would be putting it mildly. But I’m getting there. My confidence is far better than when I was learning French. The Chinese appreciate any effort you make at speaking the language and they don’t pretend to not understand you because you don’t have the perfect accent. Ahem, French? The locals  know it’s difficult and therefore have low expectations (my kind of people). Ben’s face lights up when I say something correctly or he says very good in Mandarin, he’s like a proud papa.

I know that at least one of you (my dear friend SP) is wondering why I need to speak Mandarin if Ben speaks English. It’s simple: common courtesy. I’m the foreigner living in China. I’m the one that needs to learn the language. It makes for a more pleasant experience for everyone if you show some effort at learning.

Last week Ben picked me up at the apartment and we drove to pick up Anders at work and then head out for dinner. We were right on time but Anders was nowhere to be seen. Parking at the office building is impossible and the police don’t like when the drivers just keep driving around the circular driveway.  So Ben found a place to park about a block away and we talked for about 20 minutes. Finally Anders called Ben’s phone and asked where we were. He had called me twice, sent a text and I heard none of the them because we were blabbing away. Ben and I had quite the laugh over that.

We’re getting there. It’s only been 4 weeks since I arrived but I’m feeling confident that when I leave I’ll be able to speak to Ben in Mandarin. Truthfully, he’s such a good person that I want to learn just to make it easier for him. In the meantime, we’re doing just fine.  

4PM – 103 degrees


About vikarenously

I am an ex-pat living in Guangzhou, China. I am married to the man of my dreams who has indulged my love of travel by working hard enough to snag two international assignments. Oh yes, I also have two amazing children who accompanied us on our first one to Switzerland and are now mature and responsible adults which makes it so easy for us to experience this adventure as empty-nesters. Experience it vicariously with Karen.

One response »

  1. How did you get the gift of Ben? Through P&G? And do only certain employees get the secretary/driver combo? Is this Ben’s full time job? And when you leave, will he get another family? How is his baby? Adorable, I’m sure. Did you get her a gift? Do the Chinese follow that custom? Speaking of customs, what is the proper protocol with gift giving? What holidays will you celebrate, old and new? How are the Chinese with vacation time? It seems to me, since everything I own has a “made in China” stamp on the bottom and your story of the men pouring concrete- they are hard workers and taking time off really isn’t their thing.
    I commend you for learning Mandarin. If you are living in another country, as oppose to visiting, I think you need to make an effort. I only have slight issues with the non English speaking tourists cutting me in line at Disney because I’m assuming they are tourists. (although stepping in front of me while I have been in line for 20 minutes to get my 28th picture of my kids with Mickey 🙂 , I don’t get. You don’t have to speak the same language to not be rude…..)
    When you go out for dinner, what language are the menus in? Have you eaten at a McDonald’s yet? Please go and report back! And please take pictures!

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