When I moved to Mexico, I knew very little Spanish.
I had listened to a few language CDs and knew some of the Spanish words that almost everyone picks up in Oregon. But I was functionally illiterate in Spanish when I headed south.
I had only one survival skill. Two years of high school Latin. I knew immediately what a “carniceria” was. A place that sold “carne.” Years of reading Dennison’s chili cans helped me there.
But so did “cannibal” and even “carnival.” Both of them very meaty words.
Of course, that approach got me only so far. I could translate written words from their Latin roots (and sometimes be led astray), but that approach simply does not work when listening to a spoken language.
My visit to China presented a novel experience. For the first time in my life, I had no clues about navigating this foreign tongue.
I started to say it reminded me of my year in Greece. The Greek alphabet could have been just as disorienting as Chinese. But for two things. I had been exposed to the Greek alphabet of fraternities, and my study of Russian had given me a nodding familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet -- a close cousin.
Written Chinese is not alphabet-based. Each character is either a single syllable word or part of a polysyllabic word. There are tens of thousands of these characters. Each one looking like a small piece of art.
But it is an art I could not truly appreciate because I had no way to open its secrets. Latin was of no help.
Considering its strained past with the imperialist powers of Britain and armed conflict with the United States, I was surprised to discover that English is a standard second written language wherever we went. On street signs. On shops. On menus.
Chinese school children start learning it in kindergarten -- just as they once learned Russian in the heady days of monolithic Communism. But, unlike Mexico, where young Mexicans love trying out their English on foreigners, I ran into very few Chinese who would speak English openly.
At times I feel socially isolated in Mexico due to my limited Spanish skills. In China, I felt completely isolated when I went to the grocery store or ate in a local restaurant. A deaf mute would have been a better social member.
The government may be totalitarian, but its people’s instincts are entrepreneurial. Chinese merchants around the world long ago learned that the easiest way to put a Chinese product in a foreigner’s hands and foreign currency in their own pockets was to meet the customer on his own ground.
And, even though I was surrounded by people who spoke only Chinese, I never had any doubt what products were being offered to me -- and how much they would cost.
Even so, I will be glad to return to Mexico. Where I know what “carne” means, but not necessarily where it came from.