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I looked over at Manfriend. There was no way he had understood all of that.

*more impossibly fast speech in a very strong accent*


To his credit, Manfriend continued responding, but I could tell by his expression he was as confused as I was. And to the driver’s credit, he let it pass, driving on to our destination.

So went our arrival to Guangxi Province.

Now, I’ve often written about my struggles with this language. It’s no secret that Manfriend does all the talking, while my expertise lies in reading, writing, and ordering coffee, of course.

And yet here we were, exploring provinces with such a wide range of dialects and accents, even my Chinese tutors claimed to struggle to communicate. I mean, really — what chance did I, the cripplingly shy one, have?

Well, luckily, I had the overtly-confident Manfriend by my side. And more importantly, as we learned, even the smallest language skills could go a long way. Throughout the trip, it was clear how much residents appreciated that we spoke Mandarin. Even hesitant or incorrect Mandarin was better than none at all. And so while Manfriend may not have understood the aforementioned driver, he was all smiles dropping us off.

So if quality didn’t matter, why wasn’t I talking?

Well, by our last stop, I was determined to try.

Just in time for us to return north, back to regions with much more familiar dialects.

We hired out a car for the few days we were in Zhangye, in Gansu Province. Our driver greeted us bright and early, and while I dozed, Manfriend filled her in on our lives in China. She dropped us off at the geopark and we set off exploring. By the drive back, I was wide awake and ready to chat — just in time for us to talk food.

As she was a Zhangye local, we hoped she could guide us to a vegetarian place in town. “Ah, yes! Actually, I’m a Buddhist — have been for five years, so I know a great place!”

She asked how long we’d been all-veg, and I told her my tale. She and I chatted about foods we liked and didn’t like. She and I were similarly picky, a fact Manfriend just shook his head at.

It was lovely, not the least of which because I had done it — I’d finally held a conversation with someone on our trip. She must have enjoyed it, too — at the end of each trip, she gifted us produce — locally grown tomatoes, and cucumbers the size of her arm.

And even now, looking back, I know I’d made plenty of mistakes, grammar and otherwise. And it’s not as though our conversations over those drives were important — just chit-chat about the places we were seeing.

But I’d spoken. And that memory shines just as bright as any of the others from our trip.

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