Cross-cultural communication; making the socially awkward, even more awkward! (Or Is that just me?)

Did you know that A Koala Girl In A Panda Worldstarted out as a Facebook page? Here is a throwback from my early days as a baby expat.

Thankfully as time passed I started to feel a little less anxious and I gained some confidence and tactics for dealing with things that may arise.

I have been in Hong Kong now for four months. In some ways things are moving along nicely. It’s not my first time here and I thought I knew what I signed up for.

One thing that can derail my day however, is my inability to communicate and understand Cantonese. I like being in Hong Kong, but there are days I crave the simplicity of being in Australia. Tasks like shopping or ordering lunch were simple and required little thought. While most of the time things are fine, there are moments when I am reminded that I have a lot of work to do.

Despite being told when I arrived that “every one speaks English, don’t bother learning”, I have to disagree. The levels of fluency varies from person to person, and I have no control in who I interact with during the day.

In addition to this, I recently lived with two people who do not speak English. This situation makes me different from many other expats because Cantonese is inescapable, it follows me home.

In fact, my first case of culture shock was in Sydney, Australia, my own country! I guess that happens when a Koala girl marries a Panda Boy!

Despite being a frequent flyer to Hong Kong, my Cantonese is at beginner levels. Yes, I can only blame myself. I don’t ask for sympathy!

While I did join a Cantonese group class in Australia, the nature of studying in a group didn’t work for me; I found it too intense to absorb any thing. As I didn’t have any one to practise with on a regular basis, I decided my learning tactic would be to listen to Cantonese lessons, in order to memorise sentences. I know people who have actually learnt languages like this (they clearly have amazing memories!) but this method alone hasn’t suited my learning style, some thing I should have realised sooner!

To be fair, the lesson cd’s worked to a degree, but i find that no one in real life speaks exactly like the lessons- native speakers talk faster than some one who is learning and processing a new language. Learning to HEAR is also different to learning to SPEAK, especially when a language has six tones!

I studied Italian in high school and enjoyed it. I have forgotten some of it now, but if I read it, it starts to come back to me. This tells me I can learn a language. Italian always felt like an exotic version of my mother tongue. Cantonese on the other hand is a different kettle of fish; I have trouble HEARING the correct tones, let alone memorising them and speaking them.

In hind sight, I should have hired a private tutor and learnt Cantonese this way. I think I overestimated my ability to learn a language so drastically different to my own. I also forgot that my own learning experience should be fun, and relying purely on drills is not that, at least not for me any way.

Having said this, Hong Kong is not the worst place to be if you are an English speaker. It was ruled by the British for 156 years and despite the reclamation of Hong Kong in 1997 by China, you can still see the British foot print. This is what gives Hong Kong it’s delightful east meets west quirkiness, the thing I find so endearing. You can definitely get by in Hong Kong without it, however, I am finding a certain level of stress and restriction that comes with not being able to communicate when I want to, for such a prolonged period of time.

Despite this, some times things happen and you feel a bit stressed. Then some thing else happens and you feel a bit more stressed. Then before you know it, you are starting to feel out of sorts and dreaming of holidays on a deserted beach. All by yourself. Cocktail in hand.Or Two. Or three. All in an attempt to run away from the place that is now “home”.

I was reluctant to write this post. After all, Some people may misinterpret it as me complaining and I am not. It’s my job to learn Cantonese as I am living here, and with the exception of a couple of people, most are kind and compassionate if they can see that I am attempting to speak or struggling to understand.

Take one day in the last few weeks for example;

10 am: we were having a new television delivered. The delivery man arrives and he can speak English! Phew! I tell him where to put the television, and he has me sign off on the paper work.

As he is leaving, he tells me that the t.v. will be installed between 2 -5 pm. Despite speaking English, he is speaking fast and his accent is different to mine, so I have trouble understanding. By the third time of me politely asking him to repeat himself, he starts to look annoyed as if he is thinking “can’t you understand English?”, and I myself am thinking “I cannot even understand English!” I finally understand what he has said and I confirm that I will be home.

13:00; I am hungry so I go to a local store to buy lunch. I have to wash my new towels, so I need to grab some laundry detergent.

I find the detergent section and look at the wall of unfamiliar products. I am momentarily filled with dread as I have no idea what to buy. I am then momentarily filled with joy when I see the liquid I used in Australia, but this turns to disappointment as I realise it’s for a top loader and the machine at our rental is front loader. I put it back and think to myself “no worries,I will just look at these others.”

I scale through the bottles quickly, trying to work out what is suitable but alas, most are labeled in either Chinese characters, or their country of origins language, or both…It seems only the stupidly expensive ones are labeled in English and I don’t feel like paying over $140 HKD for those bottles (Over $25 AUD)

I start to feel tense as all I want is a bottle of detergent but I have no idea what I should get as I can’t even read the description. The afternoon is getting away and I can’t afford to waste any more time, so I walk away with nothing. I need to drag my interpreter back with me next time. This is a new development as for the past decade I have been the supermarket shopper responsible for getting the groceries, and now I am struggling to pick detergent!

Next stop, the noodle aisle. We haven’t bought a dinner set yet so I decide the best thing to buy is a cup of instant noodles. I pick the tastiest sounding flavour (Tonkotsu Black Garlic Oil) and look at the price tag. It looks as there is a special offer written on the label (in Chinese) and I see a price, but I also see a #2, so now I am not sure whether the price I can see is for one or two packets. I end up taking one, just in case I go over my lunch budget.

As I am about to leave the noodle aisle, I hear a man shouting. I look around and while I cannot see him, I see people walking away from where I hear his voice. Others are unashamedly gawking. I have no idea what he Is saying. It’s most likely nothing but I think to myself “God help me if I am in an emergency situation, I will not know what is happening”

Not being able to understand the language means I miss a lot of the queues that people would normally pick up on in day to day life. It can feel very isolating to be surrounded by people, yet to not be able to understand what they are saying- it’s like you are in your own, isolated bubble, and personally, the only bubbles I like are in my chocolate…(hello, peppermint Aero bar!)

I walk to the cash register and I have taken the time to add up my grocery total on my phone. I never used to do this in Australia, but I am too slow working out Cantonese numbers; any thing above ten dollars requires me to interpret each number to English before I understand the total. I don’t have time to do this at a supermarket check out when the assistant tells me the cost, and I can’t guess based on appearances whether the person serving me will know English. On the bright side, this Is probably great for my budget!

I rush home and as I enter my new apartment building, I greet the security guard. She smiles and says some thing. She is one person that I will likely see every day, so I wish I could say more than hi, bye and thanks. Last time I saw her, another resident interpreted for me, but this time we were alone. I smile as I step into the lift and tell her my apartment number just in case, but I am 99 percent sure that is not what she asked. Out of the four security guards I have met so far, only one seems to speak English.

16:00 pm: the installer arrives and the first thing he asks in Cantonese is “do you speak Cantonese?” I can understand this phrase, but I don’t understand the language ! He struggles to communicate and I feel the tension again as I wish I could have a proper conversation with the guy. He is saying some thing about buying a new aerial cable but I don’t know if he is offering to sell me one or telling me to go buy one. The installer is nice enough but I feel stupid at my inability to communicate. I mean, I know toddlers who know more than me.

17:00; I want to stop thinking for a moment, so I turn the television on. I switch over to channel Pearl which, at certain times of the day, has English programs. I sit on the couch and watch Sesame Street in silence. I want to be indignant that the only thing on is Sesame Street but I secretly enjoy the fact that Elmo and Big Bird are in the house, despite the fact that I am feeling more like Oscar the Grouch.

Later that day: Panda arrives home from work. “Why are you so tired? What did you do today?!”

Like all things, you can learn from it, or let it affect you negatively. I have a huge respect for people in Australia learning English as I am that person here. I am reminded not to judge a book by its cover, as you never know where a person is on their journey. I am also reminded to be kind, as a harsh word to a person who is struggling with “simple tasks” like communication, can mean much more to them than you can imagine.

Have you had any good or bad experiences with cross cultural communication? Any tips ? Share with us below!

Koala Girl 🐨


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