Navigating China in English
Mainland China was fascinating and challenging and wonderful and discombobulating all at once. One particularly challenging aspect: I would say that many of the people we encountered in China, especially people working in ticket selling or front desk type jobs, were often unhelpful, and even unfriendly. There just wasn’t much patience on the part of officials at the train and bus stations, or even some hotels, when we tried to use the phrasebook to convey a question or request. There is a definite sense of “come back when you have learned to speak Mandarin.” To be sure, I would actually love to learn at least some basic conversational Mandarin, and the “come back when you have learned to speak English” attitude is not exactly unheard of at home. But it made travelling in the country much more difficult than elsewhere on the trip so far.
We were particularly attuned to this dynamic because we became, as a result, so reliant on the kindness of others. Time and again, we had to blindly trust that everything would work out. Fortunately, we did encounter many helpful souls who were as warm and as welcoming as you could ever hope for. Getting off the bus in Huangshan, finding our accommodation in Fenghuang, getting bus tickets to Changsha, and a dozen other interactions— all of these went (relatively) smoothly only because of help from complete strangers. They will never read this, but we are forever in debt to, among others, the woman from Shanghai who called our guest house when we arrived in Fenghuang, so they could come pick us up, the station manager at Changsha West bus station, the random man in the Hangzhou restaurant who helped us order, the wonderful owners at the Fenghuang guest house who fed us and kept us warm and managed to get us back to Changsha without incident.
Notwithstanding all this help, everything took us SO LONG. With every character having to be decoded and transliterated, it sometimes took half an hour just to order off a menu. Finding an address was an endless game of “does this character look like that character?” Reading a train timetable was next to impossible. We spent close to two hours trying to buy postage stamps. And failed.
Working in our favour was that, for the most part, we visited Chinese tourist destinations. This was useful, because there was a preponderance of visitors, normally from China’s east coast, who could speak English and rescue us in restaurants and on buses. I don’t think we would have managed as well as we did if we had gone any further from the beaten track.
It also gave us some insight into the enormous gaps between rich and poor in China. Huangshan, for instance, is incredibly expensive even by western standards. It cost us about $40 each for park entrance, quite apart from cable cars, accommodation, and food. By comparison, Banff charges $10 per person per day for park entry. Similarly, in Fenghuang, we ate dinner in a restaurant well outside the touristy old town (much pointing and miming involved; we’re relatively confident we ended up with duck and not groundhog which was also available), and it was about $12 including two beers. We went back to the old town for a drink, and two beers alone cost us about $16. Yes, the vast majority of China is still a poor, developing country, but the top 5 or 10% can *really* afford to travel, and in China that’s a lot of people.
But at the same time, we were still curiosities outside Shanghai. Other westerners were few and far between. People asked to have their photo taken with us, and any time I wrote in a journal in a public place it attracted a lot of attention. A few times people attempted broken conversation, intermediated by translation apps. They always asked how old I am and whether I am married.
We have only seen a small slice of China (plus Hong Kong, which is a very different, wholly westernized experience). We ate very well, and transport generally worked smoothly, as much as we struggled to buy tickets and/or get ourselves into the right place at the right time. We saw some truly beautiful sights and had some amazing experiences. I would certainly like to come back and see more, but at the same time I am reluctant because it is so challenging for non-Mandarin speakers to navigate this wonderful, crazy country. Maybe it’s time to start those conversation classes.