Monthly Archives: January 2017

How to live without language

I’m really good at the Chicken Dance.

This is a variation of the “I don’t wanna be a chicken, I don’t wanna be a duck” fad dance that kids learn in school when the Macarena is too complicated for them.

For me, the Chicken Dance takes place in restaurants when I’m overseas. When the menu is written in a language I don’t understand, or if I’m in a country where I’m unfamiliar with popular cuisine, I resort to the Chicken Dance. But instead of the aforementioned lyrics, my song usually goes, “Do you have chicken? Chick-en? Like this?” And, if the poor waiter still can’t help me, then I shamelessly tuck my hands into my armpits and flap my elbows.

Luckily, I’ll usually eat chicken no matter how it’s served, so it’s my go-to in foreign


General Tso’s chicken in Beijing, China — pretty different to how I know it in the States.

restaurants. That’s why “chicken” is one of the first words I learn in a new language, right after “hello,” “thank you,” and “bathroom.” Now, if I could come up with a recognizable Pizza Dance, I’d always be happy with my meal.

Conversely, my “not spicy” gesture had a much lower success rate in Asia than my Chicken Dance. This gesture — in which I shook my head and fanned my tongue — may have been lost in translation, or it may be because their interpretation of “mild” spice is equivalent to my “medium to hot.”

I know that traveling internationally for the past five years has been an enormous privilege. But in addition to that, it has made me realize just how much privilege I have had growing up in a country where I speak the most popular language and look like the majority of people.

Living and working in countries where I don’t fit in is a wake-up call. I would sometimes be in areas where I would be the only one on the street with fair skin and blue eyes. Most locals would be accommodating to me. Store clerks, waiters, security guards, even pedestrians have helped me if I looked lost or like I didn’t know how to say what I needed. If they couldn’t use a translator on their phone, they’d point to helpful suggestions or call someone who might know five English words for me. And if they still couldn’t help me, their eyes seemed genuinely apologetic.

I’ve also had experiences that weren’t as helpful. Without speaking a word of the local language besides “hello,” I’ve attempted to ask where my hotel is or how I can buy sunscreen and the local would become visibly frustrated. One older woman in Brazil became aggressively agitated at me when I tried to explain to her in English that I didn’t speak Portuguese. After a while I deduced she was asking me to open the door for her, but even after I did so she continued ranting despite my clear inability to understand it.

I certainly don’t blame them. Here I am, a foreigner entering a country without respectfully learning the language, and expecting services without being able to communicate what they are.

I can’t help this situation. Because I travel to most of these places for work, I don’t have time to study more phrases or learn more of their manners. This is especially difficult for places where I spend as little as four days before it’s on to the next country.

Yet if I can’t change the circumstances, I can do more to be a better communicator.

Having a conversation in different languages is an effective exercise in body language. If I want to say “gracias” or “arigatou gozaimasu” or “merci,” it’s more effective if I smile to show my appreciation. And when I make a request, I realize now how important it is to make eye contact when I can’t address the person granting my request.

These seem like basic ideas, but I needed to strip away the crutch of language to recognize how little I employed them. This also made me realize why people I know unintentionally seem disingenuous.

That said, not being able to fully communicate is tiring. Sometimes I work on a different continent for months at a time and the only linguistic conversations I have are backstage with my coworkers. How can I truly enjoy meeting locals from overseas if I can’t ask them to share their stories?

Being a foreigner is a humbling experience. Still, it does get easier. Learning how to address people with a smile is important. And if I enter a building, I open a door for others or offer to help carry their purchases; being a kinder person establishes a more positive connection with everyone around me, even when I don’t need a service back from them.

Finally, while the gesticulations make for great filler in a conversation, they don’t need to be as extreme as my Chicken Dance. But resorting to a goofy way to place my order usually cracks a smile on the server’s face, which shows that I’m non-threatening and am grateful for their patience.

So when the Pizza Dance becomes the next dance craze, you’ll have me to thank for that.

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Posted by on January 4, 2017 in Blog, travel


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