When I first moved to China in 2010, the smart phone was still dumb. My name– 麦静洁 would turn in to Pure and Peaceful Hamburger bun when put into language translators. Most of the signage looked like a dropped can of Pick-Up sticks and the magical phrase 听不懂, which is Chinese for “I don’t understand” was printed on my T-shirt. I had a translator on speed-dial in case of an emergency like when I couldn’t find brown shoe laces at Walmart.

But in the era of G5 and data packages from Chinese Mobile for about $10 USD a month, you don’t need to speak Chinese, you can speak Googlese.  Just tell Chinese Alexa what want, push a button and bam! The greeter at Walmart can point you to– not only the beauty section, but to the exact aisle where to find wrinkle cream without bleach.

So in this era of smart phones and dumb people, what are the incentives for learning Chinese? If I have survived this long on a handful of phrases, why start now?

I really don’t care that my brain is turning into blubber. I mean, I do care but that’s not what will get me to master the four tones that still all sound alike. The real incentive for learning the language is to talk with this sharp dresser in the suit and Pepe Pig sandals.


I met this kid while exploring the old neighborhoods of Kunming behind Guandu Ancient Town with a running group, the Hash Harriers. I know. I don’t run, either. But the group is full of quirky folks who ended up in China for reasons as equally as quirky as mine.

Thought I’d hang myself if I spent one more day wearing a tie.

I cycled here from Europe and never got on my bike again.

I wanted to eat authentic Chinese food…like a Bulgogi Tortilla.

As for Guandu Ancient Town? This place is the stuff travel vlogs are made of, filled with old temples and old timers strumming their guzhengs while others bust out a few moves of a traditional dance.

Old Guandu Town, Kunming, China

But the labyrinth of streets behind the Guandu Ancient Town are not part of the tourist show, they are full of kids that will never leave their neighborhood. It reminded me of Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing projects where I worked with kids who never made the six block hike to Lake Michigan.

Anyway, along with being the only one in our group who couldn’t run, I was also the oddball who couldn’t speak Chinese. So, when kids came pouring out of the cracks to see the Westerners, I couldn’t make small talk. I had a zillion questions on the tip of my tongue that just stayed there.

I also have questions to ask the ladies in my neighborhood. These women got apartments from the Chinese government when their old village was torn down to make room for a Starbucks. They don’t it much which is why they sit outside all day weaving baskets and playing cards.

They don’t speak Googlese, either.

And of course, the day I lost my wallet was the day I couldn’t get a phone signal, making my language app as useless as my lips.

What Chinese do I know? About one hundred words, including an assortment of yoga poses. Plus, I know enough to talk to the farmer who sells me apples, the taxi driver to get me home, and the blind masseuse who knocks the kinks out of my back.

Ouch translates into every language perfectly.

As for finding out what makes Mr. Pepe Pig tick? That will forever remain a mystery.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

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