Confronting Communication Barriers in China

Having a shellfish allergy has not presented any significant challenges for me living in the United States. Nor has it been a barrier for me while traveling in other Western countries, even when I don’t speak the language. But traveling to China has presented a unique set of challenges.

The primary challenge is that I cannot read or speak Chinese. But this dilemma has put into focus a question I often ask myself when traveling to foreign countries—whose role is it to be able to bridge the communication gap? Should it be my responsibility to speak and read Chinese in order to communicate my shellfish allergy? Or should it be the responsibility of people in China to learn English to accommodate the needs of Western travelers? I believe it is the latter.

Still, not being able to understand the language when it comes to making decisions that may result in a severe allergic reaction is exhausting. Additionally, because I am unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine—and how it differs regionally in terms of ingredients used—my ability to understand what exactly was going to be in the food was largely limited.

There are also cultural differences between the service industry in China and the United States that have affected my experience as well. In the United States, the role of waiters is to help customers navigate their experience and accommodate the diner’s needs—sometimes to a fault. This of course also includes being hyper-vigilant about food allergies. In China on the other hand, waiters are mainly in charge of delivering food from the kitchen to the table and often do not know what exactly is in the dish.

Shellfish 1

One night in Beijing, a group of us decided to find a place for dinner on a street someone had recommended to a member of our group. After walking up and down the street, trying to decide where to go, we finally settled on a place and were quickly ushered in and seated at a table. Shortly after sitting down, a platter of complementary crawfish arrived at the table. Alarm bells immediately went off for me. If crawfish was complementary, was this a shellfish restaurant? And if so, how could I ensure that there would not be traces of shellfish in other dishes? After showing the server a Chinese translation of “I am allergic to shellfish,” I was unsure of whether the server had understood my translation based on his reaction. In hindsight, I realize the server’s reaction was related to the fact that he likely did not know whether there was shellfish in other dishes.

Based on my experiences in China, I have learned that in order to be able to confront this challenges head on, I bear the burden of preparing for these experiences in advance. Next time I plan to travel to a foreign country where I can expect to confront significant communication barriers, I will invest more time and energy into researching what I need to know to avoid situations that leave me feeling completely lost. Of course, there will always be unanticipated challenges, but planning ahead will prepare me to confront those challenges more easily.

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