For anyone thinking about spending time in a place where you don't speak the language, I have a few tips on the do's and don't's to help you get along in daily life.
Let's start with the Don't's:
1) Never think you are above pointing and gesturing like a neanderthal. You'd be surprised how many people actually enjoy a game or two of charades. Besides, you really haven't lived until you've ended a conversation with a complete stranger with your leg hoisted up on their desk while you make doggy paddle motions with your hands.
2) Don't think that speaking louder will suddenly make someone speak your language. We've been on both sides of this experiment and it hasn't turned out well yet. No matter how slowly or at what volume the lady at the grocery store explains how I am supposed to prepare the mystery food I have just purchased, the Mandarin switch is not going to turn on, no matter how much we both want it to.
3) Don't underestimate the power of "please" and "thank you." You may not be able to be fluent overnight but you can at least be polite.
4) Most importantly, don't take yourself too seriously and don't get frustrated. When you tell the clerk at the 7-Eleven that you are a stupid monkey instead of asking for a bag because your tones are off, the best thing to do is just to laugh it off. After all, they are already laughing so you might as well make them laugh with you and not at you.
1) The first thing that I have learned to do when someone speaks to me is to smile. I may have no idea what they are talking about but at least I can be pleasant to look at, right? I have found that a nice silly grin beats "deer in the headlights" any day.
2) If after a big grin, the person doesn't realize you have no idea what is going on and they continue speaking to you, I enjoy giving them a nice "knowing" chuckle. You'd be surprised how many times a friendly chortle is appropriate in a stranger's conversation. If it isn't appropriate, this will hopefully really drive the point home that you are quite in the dark about what the other person is saying. And, it usually makes the other person laugh and gives them a nice story to tell their friends.
3) Use what you do know. I have gotten a few "deer in the headlights" on the other end since my pronunciation is so ridiculously bad but I have also gotten what I wanted more times than not. I heard once that the reason that Harry Caray led the crowd of Cubs fans in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" every seventh inning stretch was because he was so bad, everyone thought they could do better so everyone joined in singing. So, I will call my attempt at Chinese the "Harry Caray Effect". I butcher their language so badly, they have to know that their English is going to be better than my Mandarin and so they try it.
4) My final tip is a dangerous one but has served me well thus far. When in doubt, say yes. You can tell when someone is asking you a question in Chinese because their sentence ends with "ma?" So, if someone is waiting for me to answer them, I have just learned to say, "yes." It is kind of like a quick game of chance. Ooh, what have I ordered this time? It makes opening the carry-out bag for dinner much more exciting. We've had a few negative surprises like the watered down peanut butter juice for breakfast the other day, but mostly they have been positive, like last night when the lady just kept adding more food to our bag with no extra charge. Hopefully we didn't offer her our first-born in exchange for fried sweet potatoes.
I hope these tips were helpful. Happy communicating!