As I’m sure you don’t need to be told, gestures can go a long way toward communicating when you don’t know the word. I very easily bought a power adapter for my laptop on my second day in China, not because I knew how to say the words, but because I took my power cord into the store and did a plugging in motion with it saying “I want to buy a thing” over and over.
But, just a warning, you may not be so lucky as to be the recipient of non-verbal communication when there’s something you don’t understand.
As and example, in my first or second week in China, a friend and I were buying some cookies. We successfully ordered the two kinds we wanted. The lady behind the counter asked us if we wanted “yīqǐ” 一起 or “fēnkāi” 分开.
Those choices didn’t sound like either of the flavors we’d ordered and we just kind of stared at each other. I asked her what “fēnkāi” 分开 meant and she launched into an elaborate explanation that neither of us could understand. I tried several guesses as to what these words might mean, but one thing was clear: she wasn’t going to move, and we weren’t getting our cookies until I answered her riddle correctly.
I finally just took a wild guess and said, “fēnkāi” 分开. She immediately started putting the cookies into two bags. Then she handed them two us one at a time and said “fēnkāi” 分开. The nickel dropped! Suddenly I remembered that “yīqǐ” 一起 meant “together” and I guessed “fēnkāi” 分开 must be separate.
As we biked home my friend and I tried to think of some easier concepts to convey using gestures. There were some, like “tall/short” and “happy/sad” but there was no way of escaping the fact that she could have cleared up the whole thing instantly with two simple gestures. She either refused, or it didn’t occur to her. What did occur to her was writing the hanzi characters for us, but that was obviously no help.
I noticed the same phenomenon in my English classes when we played a Taboo-style game. Students were trying to get their teammates to guess a word by doing anything besides saying the word itself. When a verb came up, they froze. I still remember this one student’s clues when her word was “dance.” She said, “It’s something girls like to do” (eat?). “No, no, no. In the bars” (drink?). “No, no, no. Ummm…ummm…” And then I saw a little dēngpào 灯泡 go on above her head and she started moving around. “What I’m doing now” (dancing?). “Yes!” The point is, acting it out was certainly her last resort.
So just a heads up, in a communication crunch many Chinese people seem to be gesture phobic. There may be cultural reasons for that, I don’t know. I do know that because of the myriad dialects in China, writing hanzi (on paper or one’s hand) usually clears things up between Chinese speakers. Not much help for beginners or even advanced speakers who don’t know the characters though.
But just because people around you are afraid of acting out things, doesn’t mean you have to be…