One day, while I was living in Singapore, I mustered up the courage to shoe shop in Mandarin. I’d been taking evening classes for a few months and was trying to take small steps to apply what I learned.
I prepared a few words and phrases before walking into the store that I thought would help me communicate in this situation.
2. Yes, thank you.
3. I want to buy these.
4. I don’t understand.
I walked into the store and as I was picking out the shoes I wanted, the store attendant walked up to me. I smiled, said hello and managed to actually say my prepared phrase, pointing at the shoes: I want to buy these. It might sound rude in English, but from what I’d learned up until then at least, this was an acceptable way of phrasing it in Mandarin. Also, a smile and body language helped soften the request.
She asked if those were indeed the shoes I wanted – couldn’t believe I understood that, picture me giddy! – so I said yes, thank you. Hello, prepared sentence! She seemed delighted and started chatting away in Mandarin all the way to the cash register where she finally turned around and saw me looking at her wide-eyed. ‘I don’t understand, I don’t understand’ I said in Mandarin with apologetic smiles and gestures that made her and her colleague laugh.
I was pretty happy about the baby steps I’d taken that day. It felt liberating to have overcome my inhibitions, understood something and made myself understood. But the three of us laughing together? That was joy. Warmth in a moment of vulnerability.
It was a lovely reminder that we don’t need too many common words to make each other laugh and share a moment.