I LANDED IN CHENGDU’S GREY WINTER after midnight and took a taxi in China for the first time. I pushed my iPod Touch through the bars that separated the driver’s seat from mine and pointed at the address written in Chinese characters on the screen.
Since it was my first time here and I was traveling alone, I had decided to couchsurf with a local family. My host lived inside a building complex, so she’d asked me to call her once I got to the entrance and she would pick me up. We arrived at 1am, and when I tried to call her using my Malaysian SIM card, a recorded message (in English as well as Chinese) said I didn’t have any credit left to make the call.
I didn’t want to get out the taxi – alone, in the middle of the night, in a city I wasn’t familiar with – without having first contacted my host, but how could I explain the situation to the driver?
“I need to call my friend. Friend. Call.”
I pointed desperately at my cellphone and raised my shoulders.
Finally I switched my phone to speaker mode, tried to make the call again, and made the driver listen to the Chinese message. I pointed at his cell phone and he understood. He offered me his phone and I called my host.
It was then that I realized just how challenging my solo trip around China was going to be.
Here are some of the tips I picked up that will help you get around if you have no time (or desire, or willpower) to learn either Mandarin or Cantonese.
1. Be practical: pack a translator, dictionary, or phrasebook
I didn’t pack any of these before flying to China. I had been traveling around Southeast Asia for over a year and rarely had communication problems, so I thought, “How hard can it be?”
After my first day walking around Chengdu on my own and not being able to ask where the bus stop was, I realized how wrong I had been to assume I could handle the language barrier in a place like China.
That night I got online and downloaded a free phrasebook and a translator for my iPod, and an English-Mandarin dictionary for my phone.
Tip: Make sure to download or buy applications that can be used offline, since an Internet connection is not readily available in some regions of the country (especially when you really need it). I used two iPod/iPhone applications: KTdict C-E (Chinese English Dictionary), and World Nomads Mandarin Language Guide. (Both are available for free on the iTunes Store).
It’s also a good idea to carry around important addresses written in Chinese characters, just in case.
2. Master the art of pointing, and sign-language
The first day in Chengdu, my couchsurfing host family prepared some traditional breakfast for me (stuffed bread with pork, a hard-boiled egg, and some milk), but when I tried to have lunch on my own outside the house, I couldn’t do it: all the menus were written in Chinese characters, and had no pictures. So I ended up buying a big stock of instant noodles at the nearest supermarket.
But the noodles, of course, didn’t last forever. A few days later I was at a small hostel in Kangding, skyping with a Chinese friend who lived in Malaysia. It was a freezing cold night, and I was hungry but didn’t know how or where to order a simple meal. My friend called the manager of the hostel – yes, she summoned her via Skype! – and asked her to buy some rice with vegetables for me.
And then she gave me the solution to my problem: “The next time you go to a restaurant, just get inside the kitchen and point at the ingredients you want”. I imagined myself being kicked out of the restaurant, seen as the crazy foreigner who has no boundaries, but my friend assured me that everyone in China did that. She was right. The next day I started shamelessly entering restaurant kitchens and pointing at what I wanted. And I wasn’t the only one.
3. But be aware that some signs are different in Chinese sign language
One time I went inside a small shop to buy some cookies. The package didn’t have the price written on it, so I gestured a “how much?” sign to the seller and waited for him to show me with his fingers how many yuan I had to pay. He pointed at me with his index finger and raised his thumb, as if forming a gun with his hand. I stared for a while, and finally decided to give him a 50 yuan bill (around $8) and wait for the change.
Later on I asked my Chinese friend why the man pointed a finger-gun at me. She said it meant eight, and laughed about it for the next week. At least the seller was honest and had given me my 42 yuan back.
Tip: The signs for numbers are the same from one to five, but different from five to ten, so be sure to learn them!
4. Use your intuition, and read people
One morning I arrived at a small town and spent about 45 minutes looking for what was apparently the only hostel around. I was lost and tired of walking, so I sat down on the street with all my belongings – and a frustrated look on my face – to rest for a while. An elderly woman spotted me from a distance, waved happily, and walked towards me. Her hand was stretched out, so at first I thought she would ask me for money. But she didn’t. She spoke to me – I have no idea what she said – and smiled in a very sweet way, then gestured that I needed to eat and sleep, patted me on the shoulder, and slowly walked away. She assured me, without words: Don’t worry, everything will be ok.
Many times people would approach me and speak to me, and even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I somehow got the message. Rather than listening to what they said, I listened to how they said it: I read and interpreted their tone of voice and body language. Even though Chinese languages are tonal and can seem hard to decipher, some things are universal: a smile, a laugh, or a kind pat on the shoulder are enough to make the message clear.
Tip: Whenever someone speaks to you, observe the following: Are they speaking loud or soft? Is their tone aggressive or calm? Are their movements sharp or gentle? Do they stand too close or keep a distance?
5. Don’t be too shy or afraid to ask for help
I needed to buy a ticket at the bus station in Kangding but the bus schedule was written in Chinese and there was no information desk or tourist office. A girl about my age was standing beside me and I asked her if she spoke English. My Chinese friend had told me that young people in China usually study English at school, so I could rely on them to help me.
The girl bought the ticket for me and then invited me for breakfast with her mom. We spent the day together and later they asked me to join them for dinner at their friend’s house. They were lovely, warm people, and it turned out they belonged to the Yi minority, one of China’s 56 ethnic groups. I was lucky to be allowed to “peek” at their traditional lifestyle for an afternoon.
Don’t be shy to approach strangers and ask them for assistance. I found people were always willing to help me out, even when their English was poor or nonexistent. Take the chance: you never know who will help you and what positive experience may arise from that.
6. Do it the easy way, and join a group tour
If you are traveling for a short period of time, you could consider joining an organized tour (ask at your local travel agency, they will probably have tour packages to China). You will neutralize the language barrier, though the trip will be much more expensive and not really independent.
Alternatively, you could stick to traveling around the touristic cities only, but that way you will miss out on many other towns, landscapes, and cultures that China has to offer.
7. Or better yet, couchsurf
One of the most authentic ways to experience a place is in the company of people who live there. And one of the easiest ways to do this is through Couchsurfing.
Susie, my first host in China, was extremely generous and helpful. She introduced me to her family and translated our conversations (her parents didn’t speak English), wrote down some phrases for me to learn, drew maps in my notebook, lent me a jacket for the cold weather, told me how to get from one place to another, took me out to try local food, and, overall, gave me a warm welcome to her country.
Tip: Bear in mind that China is a huge country, so while there will be many people willing to host you in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, it will be harder to find potential hosts in the smaller towns or villages. And remember: Couchsurfing is not about a place to sleep for free, it’s about hospitality and true interest in the other person and his or her culture.
8. Finally, don’t get (too) frustrated
There were many times when I just wanted to burst into tears and be teleported back home to Argentina. Being alone in the middle of a huge city where every street and building looks alike, where you cannot recognize any of the names you read on the map, where no one seems to speak English, and where you cannot even ask for indications to get to the nearest bus stop… it can wear out your energy after a while.
However, the good thing about not sharing a common language is that you have to come up with creative solutions on the spot, have to use your imagination to solve everyday problems that you would never experience in your own city. That’s why every time I started feeling frustrated I told myself that it had been my choice to travel to China without speaking the language, and that I would have to make an effort to overcome that barrier and enjoy my time.
And if you feel like you are lost in translation, remember this: even though Mandarin is the official language in China, there are almost 300 other languages and dialects spoken in the country, many of which are mutually unintelligible… so sometimes even the Chinese people have trouble understanding each other!