A Foreign Correspondent’s Report

After leaving China for a trip, our language enthusiast discovered that even in Europe, there were to be plenty of encounters with the wonderful and complicated Mandarin.

Having spent a whole month away from the Middle Kingdom, in those parts of the periphery known as Europe, I’m happy to report that the gradual spreading of Mandarin to those remote places seems to be gathering momentum. My journey meandered through the old-world continent from North to South to East and back to South-West, offering plenty of unexpected encounters with the Chinese language.

Chinese characters may not yet be visible in all of Europe’s airports, but they’ve been a welcoming sight in the arrival halls in both Stockholm and Copenhagen for a while now. It does seem like Scandinavia is rather eager to embrace modern Chinese culture, Mandarin being an integral part of it. Entering a chic new shopping galleria in the heart of the Swedish capital, I was greeted by a discreet yet clearly discernible QR code and a message in Chinese that you could now follow news about it on WeChat. Inside, the food court featured a cool Asian-fusion restaurant decorated by huge banners in Chinese, hanging from the ceiling. Naturally, I was more than happy to demonstrate my command of the language to my friends by reading and translating those. Bragging is not one of the deadly sins after all…

Being able to explain to the Chinese lady working there approximately what I was looking for, probably saved me hours of helplessly wandering down the randomly stacked isles of this consumerism mecca.

Bragging apart, during my stay in Spain, Mandarin was as essential as ever. All the staff at the hairdressers around the corner from our flat for example are Chinese and they know by now that my Spanish is rather poor, so it’s better to communicate with me in Mandarin if we are to avoid any irreparable coiffure disasters. Chinese is also the language I resort to at the enormous emporium down the street where you can buy any item you might possibly need for your household. Not that I would know exactly what you call those special electric tennis rackets that you use to kill mosquitoes with in any language; but being able to explain to the Chinese lady working there approximately what I was looking for, probably saved me hours of helplessly wandering down the randomly stacked isles of this consumerism mecca.

Another leg of my journey took me to a remote village in the Bulgarian countryside where I would least expect any mention of, or allusion to Chinese. Imagine my surprise when I was urgently summoned to reassure a preoccupied grandmother in the neighborhood, whose granddaughter was to shortly embark on a one-year adventure to a Chinese university. Apparently, the girl had been having a secret love affair with the beautiful Mandarin language for a while. Once she’d owned her feelings and showed her achievements, it led to a generous scholarship provided by the Confucius institute. I was more than happy of course to chat to the concerned granny and point out all the advantages of mastering the most widely spoken language on earth, as well as outline the future of endless opportunities opening in front of the bright young girl.

Back in Barcelona, on the last night before flying back to China, we were having a delicious meal at one of our favorite restaurants when my husband, who always loves talking to strangers, managed to strike up a conversation with not one but two other couples dining to the left and to the right of us. Upon hearing that we’ve lived in China for a while, one of our fellow diners, a young American software expert from Denver, quickly offered the line, “Suoyi nimen ye hui shuo zhongwen a!” (“So you guys also speak Chinese!”) It doesn’t mean that we switched to speaking Mandarin for the rest of the evening of course, mostly out of consideration for the rest of our fellow diners. However, as we sipped our beer and sangria late into the balmy Spanish night and chatted casually to a bunch of strangers from different countries and continents, the knowledge that we shared one more common denominator added yet another dimension to the heady feeling of living in an interconnected and interdependent world.