Adventures with Language, Part I: The Acquisition of Slime

It’s quite entertaining to live in a country where you don’t speak the language.  Take it from me — I’ve done it twice!

There are, of course, the delightful and confusing escapades that happen in the grocery store.  These are made all the more possible here in China because over here (and, to a lesser extent, in some parts of Korea), grocery store layouts frequently defy reason, intuition, common sense . . . in fact, sometimes I think they plot out grocery stores with a deliberate intention of confusing foreigners!  Surely that must be why one finds baby food amongst the pasta, frozen chicken nuggets and frozen french fries in the fruit and vegetable section, and creepy eels swimming around their tank . . . right by the bakery.  Occasionally, packaging has English on it, but the English is often less than helpful.  I’ve bought “pork lib soup”, “hot love tea”, and something that claimed to be strawberry cheese (but was actually yogurt).  With minimal command of language and rapidly-decreasing-but-still-stubbornly-present expectations of logic, one can have quite the jolly time getting thoroughly muddled.  For instance, during one shopping venture in Korea, I purchased what I thought was a package of wet wipes, only to discover later that it was white clay.  What clay was doing in amongst tissues and paper towels is a mystery that I shall likely never unravel.

Only a few weeks ago, I desperately wanted some hand lotion.  Since pretty much everything here in China is written in characters, reading the bottles was not an option.  And no, going by appearance doesn’t really work either, when the brands are unfamiliar (and keep in mind that placement in the store is nothing more than a highly deceptive rabbit trail).  I found an employee who was eager to help me, but we lacked a common language.  I tried asking for the product first in English, then in Korean.  No luck.  I had hoped that the Chinese word might magically turn out to be similar.  I then pantomimed rubbing lotion on my hands.  The lady smiled widely and led me . . . to the soap aisle.  I shook my head and tried again.  After a minute of failed charades, the woman finally said, “Bo-dy lo-shun?”  I nodded eagerly and told her yes in Chinese (that much I can say!).  She gave me a choice between two bottles, I picked one, and I went on my merry way.  A few minutes later, she chased me down.  “No, no — no bo-dy lo-shun.  Bo-dy wa-shuh!”  I handed the bottle back, and she showed me one that was actually lotion.  This time, I disliked the high price.  I managed to recall the word for “cheaper,” though I butchered the pronunciation.  She smiled again and left, then returned a few minutes later with two more bottles for me to choose from.  One was whitening lotion — I quickly dismissed that one!  The other, in English, said on it “Grapefruit body contouring for quick penetration happy cuticle healthy.”  It sounded safe enough.  When I got home, I discovered that it was an odd green slime.  To this day, I have no idea what it actually is.  It does, however, moisturize my hands very well!

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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on September 4, 2011, in China, Humor, Language, Stephanie Thompson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. My favorite in China is the potato chips. They are obviously easy to identify and actually have English on them. The reason they are my favorite is because of the flavors that they had. I don’t remember the specific flavors, but I remember that they were seasoned like the main course of a meal. Instead of cool ranch you’ll have pot roast. The magical haven for me was the German version of Costco that was in the city I went to. I thought it was layed out well and had a vast array of choices. Finally, remember that some stores want you to pick up a tag for an item, purchase the tag then you can actually go back to the shelf and retrieve your purchase. They though I was stealing some binkies because of this last time I was there.

  2. Maybe if you mix it with the clay . . .

  3. With my being foreign, workers in stores just sort of assume that I have no idea what I’m doing, so I get a lot of “help”. Often, that makes things take longer, since we then have to play the language game in order for them to help me. Fortunately, my Chinese is growing by leaps and bounds: I actually understood the other day when they told me that I had a ten-minute wait at a restaurant. With so many words being similar in pronunciation (i.e. differing only by the tone), I have plenty of opportunities for creating amusement! I just KNOW that I’m going to mix up the tones for soup and sugar at some point! And I’ve certainly mixed up “ten” and “are” enough times!

    I find that it really helps to make good friends with Chinese people (and there are many, many nice people to befriend here). I try to hang around with our Chinese staff at school whenever I can, and I have been cultivating a friendship with the very dear lady who runs my local fruit and vegetable stand. Now she always saves me the best mangos! :0)

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