There is no denying that communication is a two-way street. Most of the time, it involves two people physically talking back and forth. However, communication can also be utilized through non-verbal language, a skill-set I have become increasingly familiar with and one that I would consider as my personal non-verbal form of Beijing communication.

I arrived in Beijing for my internship here with CPG five days ago with a relatively small arsenal of “street smarts”. I speak one Chinese word (ni hao) and also have no inherent “mental compass” that some people seem to possess. This makes getting lost a regular occurrence to me.

After a few days of getting orientated to the city, it was time for me to start my internship. I knew the building was quite far from my apartment in the Shuangjing district, but I didn’t have an exact location. I knew that I would need to take the subway seven stops, and then take a bus heading northeast for about 2 miles or so. I woke up early that morning and equipped myself with a city map, a subway map, and most importantly, a positive attitude.

I walked to Shuangjing station, and anxiously waited outside the doors. A subway worker came over to me and said something to me in Mandarin, which I answered with a puzzled gaze. She then moved her arms in a shoving motion towards me. Confused, I looked around and noticed that everyone else is standing in an orderly line outside the doors. I gave the lady a whimsical smirk and she did the same right after I conformed to line structure. Although I didn’t say a single word, she knew that I was embarrassed because I didn’t know how to stand in a line, but also very thankful that she corrected me. I proceeded to get on the crowded subway and counted seven stops.

I got off the Subway at Sanyuanqiao, and exited the station. When I got outside, nothing looked familiar to what I had seen on Google maps the night before. My map and subsequent travel plan was rendered useless. My saving grace was a business card with my destination written in Chinese characters on the back.

After finally managing to snag a taxi, I greeted the driver with a nearly incoherent “ni hao” and gave him the card. He spoke to me, but I gave him a quizzical look, and pointed at the Chinese characters on the card. At this point, he knew the language barrier existed, and we would resort to our non-verbal communication skill set. He nodded and let out an “ahhhh” to let me know he knew the location. We arrived at the building, and I paid for the ride.

A typical Beijing taxi

I wanted to let him know how thankful I was that I didn’t have to mindlessly wander around Beijing, so I clasped my sweaty palms together and gave him an exuberant nod and smile. The proud look on his face along with his wide smile let me know he was happy to assist me and that my non-verbal form of Beijing communication was understood. Unfortunately, I was an hour early for work, so I decided to try a coffee shop I noticed near the building.

I entered and noticed the menu was in English, which enabled me to peruse the menu and settle on ordering milk tea. When it was my turn to order, I pointed to the large milk tea. The lady then said something in Mandarin, which I answered with my usual lost puppy look.

She then crossed her arms and acted like she was shivering. This was her way of asking if I wanted the tea hot or cold. I shook my head no, and gave her a big smile to commend her on her creativity. She smiled back and laughed; basically, her way of accepting the compliment. I drank the tea and headed to work right on time. Getting home is a whole other story.

My usual coffee/tea shop

There are lots of things I took away from my first solo commute to work here while using my personal non-verbal form of Beijing communication. I learned that the people are very resourceful and patient when communicating with ignorant foreigners like myself. I also learned that a smile is the universal way to let someone know you’re on the same page with them and that things are alright. I am incredibly thankful for the people I encountered during my voyage to work and I know they will continue helping others in the future.