Having lived most of my life in the continental United States, I have never experienced a language barrier. That is to say I have never been thrust into a situation prior to coming to China where I found myself incapable of going about my everyday business due to a language barrier of any kind.
In Shanghai, where there are many Western tourists, foreign teachers, and a higher level of affluence, English is available though uncommon. In Zhengzhou, where Western tourists are rarer, there are fewer foreign teachers, and on a whole the city is at a lower level of affluence, English is hard to come by or nonexistent. Many of the signs that are in English are usually in a hodge podge of broken or misused English that is referred to as "Chinglish"or "Engrish", though "Engrish" is primarily Japanese. You see Chinglish more often than not on clothing and it is often hilarious. In many ways though, the lack of English in China almost mocks you here, with it only being supplied in a limited though practically mocking fashion.
With my limited Chinese, which is very limited in the grand scheme of things since we never learned how to sign up for a cell phone or ask for a Coke Zero in Chinese. If there is no English available in Zhengzhou, the chances are that there will not be someone who knows even basic English to help you. Even the number signs in Chinese, which are similar to those used in sign language, are not the same as they are in English. These number signs are used a lot too, especially in purchases 10元 or cheaper.
Buying things a lot of times is not hard though. If you want something, you generally point at it and ask “duoshao?”, which means how much. They will tell you in Chinese, which thankfully I know my numbers, and then I will either barter with them if outside or just pay them in a store. The rules for the record by the way are that if it has a fixed roof, you generally don’t barter. Bartering generally involves me telling them “tai gui le” which means “very expensive” and then lowballing them. A lot of times I am charged a foreigner fee because I make five times that of the average resident. At restaurants, I try to find places where I can point to what I want on a menu or in a case. If you don't have that option, it can be difficult.
Last weekend I went to a Hui mian place downtown with some of my friends/coworkers for instance. The Hui are a more recent minority group in China. They are Chinese who adopted Islam hundreds of years ago from Silk Road traders but share little in common with the vast majority of what Westerners consider Muslims. The women generally wear a headscarf and the men a white hat. They are well known for their noodles, lamb dishes, and their acumen at business. The very nature of the eating establishment was alien to us. When you enter the establishment, to your left is a woman sitting at a wooden table with a pad full of tickets, a stamp, and a razor blade for cutting the tickets. This woman spoke no English and since it was busy she was not interested in holding our hands. After a while of fumbling, we hand her 12元 each and she gives us our ticket. From there, there is a buffet counter. You pick out what you want and then you pay them. Not knowing how this works, we ordered 4 dishes for 100元 though we probably should have ordered 2. We ordered green beans, some type of beef, what we thought was some type of red meat covered in a sauce but was in fact fish, and what we thought was a type of noodle but was actually really long mushrooms that tasted like Fritos. We ordered some beers and that sat down. While we sat there, several of the waitresses just stood there and stared at us giggled and talked about us in Chinese. This is somewhat normal in Zhengzhou where people tend to stare at foreigners more due to their lack of exposure. After about 15 minutes, I realize that everyone in there has noodles but us. I call over the waitress, tell her we want noodles, she takes our tickets, and then brings us a very large bowl of noodles. We did not complete this meal, there was too much, but the learning experience only cost us under $30 all together.
I would like to digress for a moment to make a note on money and the currency of the PRC for those who aren’t familiar with it. The Yuan is spent in the same manner as the US Dollar is in the US for reference. 1 kuai, the Chinese word for dollar, has the same value as a Dollar in US society. The exchange rate differs but the Dollar still goes a long way, around $6.39.
Supermarkets on the other hand can be frightening, especially when buying food. There's so much available but most of it is labeled in only Chinese. There are also people in the stores who urge you to buy things but you have no idea what they are selling sometimes. Luckily though, a lot of items will have English on the label so you can see what it is you are buying.
In many ways, this has left me very secure in my ability to cope and survive. I know many who read this might not think so but it’s frightening when you realize that you have to feed yourself when you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking at. It has also left me with a good understanding of what it’s like to be a foreigner in a mostly alien place.