Learn the language

I just got home from Shanghai. Last week I traveled to China—my first time—for a conference to represent Hook & Loop and explain some of the ins and outs of what we’re doing with UX. I scheduled an extra day so that I’d be able to explore the city. It would be crazy to fly half-way around the world just to pop in and out without a chance to experience the place. Joining me on this journey was my buddy, colleague and traveling companion Peter Gagnon

On our free day we decided to get out and do some real exploring. We were staying at the Ritz Carlton Pudong, and asked the bell captain for a cab to take us across the Huangpu River. Moments later we were zipping through town with a stranger who couldn’t understand a word we said. After journeying through the tunnel and about 20 minutes of zigzagging this way and that I turned to Peter and said “We have no clue where he’s taking us”. “I think he has an idea” was Peter’s response. Eventually after passing some interesting looking stuff and as we closed in on the river from the other side, we tried to indicate to our driver that we wanted to get out. He deposited us on a random corner and we started threading our way on foot into some local neighborhoods, down streets and alleys that felt a world away from the high-tech, high-end district home to our hotel. 

After traveling literally to the other side of the world, we were rewarded with lots of exotic sights, sounds and smells. Strangely shaped dogs roamed grungy residential streets, birds in hanging cages squawked at us regularly, cats dominated rooftops, skinned animals of all sorts were drying on sidewalk racks, fish hung from clotheslines and balcony railings. Glimpses of walled gardens called to us as did markets of all shapes and sizes with products and foods we had never seen before. 

Yet, something was missing. I felt like a complete outsider. Normally when I travel, I still pick up a vibe from the people. And in other international cities I’ve been to, there are a decent number of folks who speak English, which makes things easier. But in Shanghai I just wasn’t able to talk to the people, and that had a major effect on my experience and my behavior. I didn’t even try to talk to locals because I knew they wouldn’t understand. And I assumed the same was true for them in reverse.

This was largely due to the fact that I hadn’t put the slightest effort in before I left. For whatever reason – being really busy, or just a procrastinator – I didn’t really learn anything about the town or the language. Except that a few years ago I’d gained some impressions reading J. Maarten Troost’s entertaining "Lost on Planet China.” 

There were a few instances where folks knew some English words or phrases—especially in the markets where I was called “a good shopper” and managed to bargain the price of a fake (I think) Bell & Ross watch from $250 to $30 without saying much of anything. But I couldn’t fully engage and I didn’t buy the watch. Even during breakfast at the Ritz Carlton my server couldn’t understand anything beyond the word “coffee”. Plain coffee, black coffee, drip coffee, these terms flabbergasted her and froze her where she stood.

I think about how this behavior applies in a more subtle way to my everyday, especially the time I spend at my job. There are people with whom I feel a bit alien, like say the development team. I don’t engage with them too much in part because we don’t typically have a ton of work-overlap, but the fact that I don’t speak their language doesn’t help. Not knowing the language makes it more intimidating. Then I think about everyone who works in my group, if they are split into these different teams and don’t speak to each other, how much more shallow that can make the daily experience. In China I spent all my time talking to people who I knew spoke English. Americans, Brits, Australians, Kiwis, and a few locals who work at my company – rather than put in the slightest effort to learn 10 lines of Chinese that could help me engage with this entire city. 

I could end up going through my whole career like that, intrigued and surprised but not necessarily fulfilled. It’s time to start investing a little more. You need to know at least some of the language of people who are not like you – people who have even more to offer you than a bargain-priced watch. 

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Check out Peter's photo blog on our journey here