Chinese Magic Letter

One of my big challenges with going to China was the language, so a Chinese-speaking friend wrote me this letter to help me. Chinese is much further removed from English than e.g. French or German, which means that communication is harder as you can’t pick up all the little clues that you find when abroad in Europe even if you don’t speak the language – and neither can you rely on a shared cultural understanding because that isn’t there either. There’s then the issue of the writing, which is so different that I didn’t even attempt to start learning it, so I was not only deaf and dumb but illiterate too.

My friend Andrew has been in China and studied the language for several years, so he wrote me this letter to help me get by. It has several stock phrases in English and Chinese, so I could point to the relevant one to ask for some food, a hotel room or whatever. The letter had to go through a couple of revisions: most memorably, we had a problem where many people would see the phrase “I don’t speak Chinese” and then try to write something for me, because the schools in China used to teach that Chinese characters didn’t just denote syllables but represented meaning itself. If that were true, how could anyone not read Chinese! “I don’t speak Chinese” was clearly not enough, so Magic Letter V2.0 got the additional phrase “I don’t read Chinese characters.”

If you’re going to China, feel free to use this letter yourself: the translator is happy for you to do that. Chinese literacy is now in the 90s percentwise and while some people took a while to read it, many people had no trouble at all, so I think this was due to the first group being slow readers rather than anything to do with the letter itself. One receptionist took a photo with her phone, so she now has her own English/Chinese crib sheet and can communicate with the next English cyclist who comes her way. I wonder when they will be?

The Letter

Hello, I am from England. I have ridden from England to China. Sorry I don’t speak Chinese. I cannot read Chinese characters.

I want to buy a big bottle of water.

2a) 我要吃一碗炒饭。
I want to eat a bowl of fried rice.

2b) 我要吃一顿胡萝卜炒肉盖饭。
I want to eat stir fried carrot and pork with boiled rice.

2c) 请,不妨辣椒。
Please, don’t put in any chilli.

2d) 没有上面菜的话,请给我类似的菜。
If you don’t have the above dishes, please give me something similar.

3) 附近有公共厕所吗?
Is there a public toilet nearby?

4) 请问,附近有宾馆或者便宜的酒店吗?请指出是什么方向,还是方便你的话带我去。
Excuse me please, is there a guesthouse or cheap hotel nearby. Could you point me towards it, or if it is convenient for you, take me there.

5) 我要一个单人间,明天结帐。多少钱?
I want a single room, checking out tomorrow. How much is it?