“No, really, I don’t understand.”

One of my best and favorite phrases in Mandarin – and definitely the only one that I use in every single conversation, even though it always takes my pride down a notch – is this: “Ting bu dong.”

“I don’t understand.”

Before I came to China, learning such a phrase seemed like a waste of brain space. I assumed people would figure out that I don’t understand what they were saying from my silence and my blank stare. So I just learned how to order a beer, instead. As suspected, ordering a beer is a skill I am extremely happy to have, but oh, how wrong I was about the other part.

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My first ‘welcome to China’ – a warning in the Shanghai airport of much more confusion to come.

As it turns out, people here in Jinan, a cozy-feeling city of roughly 6 or 8 million Jinan-ers, are not used to foreigners who don’t speak Chinese. Even now that I can say that I can’t understand Chinese, I haven’t quite figured out the trick to making people believe that I can’t. A lot of conversations go like this:

I say hello and point at a food item I want or show a cab driver an address on my phone that a friend has texted me in Chinese.

The person says a bunch of stuff in Chinese.

I listen for any word I recognize, get nothing, and say, “Ting bu dong.”

The person says a bunch more stuff, as if they think maybe I’m lying and I really do understand, or maybe I will understand if they just keep repeating it.

I earnestly say my line again.

The person looks at me incredulously, like I’m a lost baby and they don’t understand how I’ve survived this long. They say more stuff.

I say something in English, just to drive my point home, such as, “No, seriously, I don’t speak Chinese.”

They say, ”Yadda yadda yadda … ting bu dong?” (Translation: “Yadda yadda yadda … you really don’t understand?”)

I say, “Purple elephant pumpkin pie.” Or something.

They nod knowingly. Yep, she really isn’t from around here, they realize.

Again, people are NOT used to foreigners here. And I’m trying, but I’m starting from zero. Like a baby learning a language. Sink or swim.

And yet…

Despite all of that, I’m not entirely lost anymore. Since my first week, I’ve learned how to get to lots of places – at least the important places where I go regularly.

And I’ve learned a few characters! There are several that I recognize on signs on the street all the time and get inordinately excited about. This is my written vocabulary: person, big, sky/heaven, mouth, fire, one, two, three, ten, field/factory, man, woman, king, China, middle, above, below, tree… that might be all of them right now.

It’s a strange way to learn a language; despite doing my best to attend Mandarin classes when I’m not teaching, I’m picking up characters separately from learning how to say words. So, I don’t know how to pronounce most of those characters that I recognize. And I don’t know what the characters look like for most of the things I know how to say – namely, “One bottle of cold beer,” “I don’t understand,” “Two bottles of cold beer,” “Thank you,” “Chicken,” “Open the gate,” (I got really excited when I used that one for the first time getting home the other night), and, “University of Jinan, west campus.” When I say that last one, in my head I’m thinking, “Please take me home and don’t murder me or rip me off, cabbie.” So far it’s worked really well.

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