I have had the opportunity to travel abroad in the past couple years to countries like Costa Rica and Peru. In my experiences abroad, I never had to worry about the language barrier because I spoke fluent Spanish. I was able to talk to locals about their experiences growing up and could easily navigate myself around town by reading street signs and asking around for help. In a group setting, my fellow classmates often relied on me to translate conversations with the locals or help them bargain for some souvenirs. The feeling of security from knowing the local language in my travels abroad did not carry over to my experience in China.

As soon as I was dropped off with my homestay family in Bangdong, I felt a jolt in my mood as my family only spoke Chinese; at the time all I could say in Chinese was hello. I had been separated from my groupmates who I had relied upon to translate and communicate phrases for me. As my new “Ayi”, or “Auntie”, showed me around her home and gave me what were probably basic introductions, I struggled to understand anything she was saying. It was then that it hit me how hard it would be to break through my newfound language barrier. I had underestimated the work it took to learn a new language and communicate with others. I stayed up late that night trying to memorize simple phrases to get to know my new aunt’s family, daily schedule, and interests. I was determined to have a conversation that extended beyond a hello and a head nod of understanding.

The next morning, I put my sentences to use as soon as I walked into the kitchen, where my aunt was cooking breakfast. I was confident that I would be able to have a nice conversation with her over breakfast, but my plan was quickly foiled when I could not piece together her answers to my questions. This is where our grand game of charades began, where our communication began. For the next couple days we would fill in the gaps of language with motions; an added bonus was all the laughter that came with it. We developed a system where we would explicitly tell each other when we understood something and when we didn’t understand each other, using the simple phrases of “ming bai” and “bu ming bai”. I saw this as a conscious effort to understand each other and I became invested in communicating with her. We would pick tea together while listening to her favorite Chinese pop songs on repeat, and during our fruit breaks she would excitedly point at the flora and fauna that surrounded us, showing me how to say them in Chinese.

My experience in Bangdong allowed me to develop a better attitude to approaching life in a foreign country. In these several months to come, Kunming’s street signs (full of mysterious characters) and inevitable gaps in daily conversations no longer seem like intimidating obstacles, but rather opportunities to learn about the new environment that surrounds me one word at a time.