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January 2021: Get Better, Get Moving, Get Literate!

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Days sick: 0
Days danced: 0

I was in my feelings a lot this month, but not nearly as much as this time last month. But I’m not gonna lie; the beginning of a new year had me pressed to start getting back into the mainstream, which basically led me more into TikTok… for like a week, then I got out of my feelings and got back to work. Buuuuut the universe had other plans, as the Capitol riots took over a Wednesday and caused a 6pm citywide curfew for a day or two (and a midnight curfew up til the election).

There were a couple weeks of iffy sleep & emotional lows this month, but I still managed to see my parents for lunch twice, feeling some serious low back pain once I came out of the funk, and eventually pulling a side muscle. I started therapy and began feeling hopeful again, mostly ready for another week of somewhat crappy feelings & definitely crappy sleep the week after that.

Miraculously, I ended up having a couple of rather normal weeks for once! It was great. By the time I was finishing off the month I’d basically taken a week’s vacation to MA (after a negative covid test) and gotten a sort-of New Year’s reset of my own… Anyway, to top of a weird month of breaking fasts and starting anew, here’s an amalgamation of travel tips, AKA an unedited article I’ve always wanted to publish a version of, but never finished satisfactorily: How To Travel When Illiterate In The Local Language.


Traveling While Illiterate

You can’t read, too.

No, that’s not a typo, but rather an imagined Google Translate result based on my years of experience suffering through the app. Over time I’ve become thrilled to hear such nonsensical phrases, because it means one thing: English! And probably more than you think. I’ve found that in Asia, most people speak and understand way more English than they’d like to let on, but cultural shame of their imperfect language skills hold them back.

While more true in some countries than in others, English is still a bafflingly difficult yet popular language to learn, and this will only increase with globalization and tourism. For now, however, there’s still more English in major cities, but if you’re not a city person (I’m not.), then you’ll probably be venturing out into the countryside without any local language skills more often than you’d like.

The best resources for travelers going to countries where they don’t speak the local language, in what I call “illiterate travel,” is still body language and a list of local phrases. Learn a few of those phrases, hire a day guide & either ask them to teach you so phrases or patiently help them with their English. For larger countries like Thailand or Vietnam, you can also make use of Google Translate’s camera function for non-roman wording.

For as much as I may rag on Google Translate, it’s actually saved my life on a few occasions, stretching the meaning of those words only slightly. Having been stuck in the backs of taxis, looking at squiggles on restaurant receipts, and trying to decipher the websites of chocolate makers throughout Asia, I’ve been where you are. Whether researching for a massive trip, just wanting to order in a restaurant, or deciding how cheap to go on your hostel, I’ve mucked through those non-English directories and it is tough.

Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Korean, Thai… oh my. I’ve now been to several countries which not only don’t use English in any common capacity, but which which have completely different writing systems. High school Spanish will do you no good there. You’re simply illiterate.

Think back to the time when everything that existed was new to you, when everyday life meant constant confusion, and you’re nearly in the right mindset. So far, I’ve found that you can actually get by fine in cities with just English. If you stay in nice hotels and pay for organized tours and eat at fancy restaurants every night. Your experience doesn’t have to be like mine, sleeping in hostels and exploring on foot and eating street food. Forge your own path.

But if you do decide to invest in long-term travel, you will reap all of the rewards and deal with the downsides. It’s a balance, and one end of the scale is heavily weighed down with cultural differences, one of which is language. Not being able to read or communicate in the local language is a huge hindrance that scares most people. Even in Vietnam, where they use the Latinate alphabet, each letter represents a slightly different sound, and the accent marks change pronunciation.

On top of that, Vietnamese is a tonal language. So how does one deal with that? Well, here are my own coping mechanisms & tips:

  • Use paper maps.
  • Gesticulate shapes and sharing screen-shotted pictures of what you seek can be just as helpful as trying to describe it simply.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of just pointing/gesturing.
  • Learning basic phrases in the local language, especially if you have a written copy on hand to show people.
  • Translation apps are your friend.
  • Smile, a lot.
  • Being an English teacher in a foreign country really helps you learn the customs, even if you can’t speak in the local tongue. If you don’t happen to be a teacher, this is my advice: speak English slowly and clearly and basically, but not like you’re talking to a disabled person or a toddler, but like you’re just a slow speaker.
  • Thinking you’re stupid is almost always better than thinking you’re rude.
  • Ask the tourist information desks if you’re confused; this doesn’t make you any less inept, but rather gives you much better insight into the locale.

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