Talking Our Way Through China
© Copyright 2008 by Jane Adams
Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash
One of our main concerns about traveling through China in October, 2005 was the language barrier. We were determined to see the country on our own terms which meant – without the protection and isolation of a tour group.
Lonely Planet offers a small pocket-sized phrase book from Mandarin to English, an excellent resource. In nearly every situation we found just the word or phrase that we needed; however, there were problems with using the book which I will go into later.
The Mandarin language is not phonetically based, but rather pictographic. It contains over 40,000 characters, but it is commonly felt that an educated contemporary Chinese speaking person will use only 6,000 – 8,000 characters. Oh well! That certainly does narrow it down, doesn’t it?
The phrase book includes a phonetic spelling for words in Mandarin, so why not just try to speak the language? There are four tones in Mandarin (Cantonese has SEVEN!) and these tones can change the meaning of a spoken word. The word “ma” can mean mother, hemp, numb, horse, to scold or to swear depending on the tone of voice used as the word is pronounced. We DID try to use the pronounced words several times and got blank stares for our efforts.
The best we managed was to say “ni hao” (Nee How) which means “hello”, Sai Jyeng ( Sigh Jeng) “ good bye” and “pi jyao” (Pee Jow)…beer. Believe it or not, this limited vocabulary often led the Chinese to believe that we could actually speak their language!
In Kunming a large expensive sign touted the latest “Steven Ppielbeag” film. In Chengdu a menu listed “Genuine Lrapt Beer”.
Perhaps the best example of confusion was a sign in Shamian Dao strategically placed so the pedestrians in a park could not miss it.
Hopefully the Cantonese is grammatically correct as the speakers of the local language would be the ones “spilting and littering up”.
Our first stop was Guangzou, the old city of Canton. Having arrived by train from Hong Kong, we found a cab to take us to our hotel. The cabbie finally understood our verbal request for transport to the suburb of Shamian Dao; although, we don’t think he ever understood where the hotel was as he just dropped us in the middle of the area. My mate waited with the bags while I wandered around to find the hotel. This turned out to be a routine we would use often.
Supper that night was in a Vietnamese restaurant. I was fascinated to see the waitress writing in her Cantonese script and closely admired (examined) the bill. The poor waitress thought that we were unhappy with the bill and several people came by to try to determine just what we were unhappy about. Finally the head waitress came by – someone who spoke very good English and we were able (at last) to share our admiration for the penmanship. The head waitress actually gave us a brief demo of how they begin to learn to script as children.
One problem with actually using the phrase book we had purchased was the curiosity of the Chinese. Inevitably they grabbed the book from our hands to see for themselves what was in it. So we developed a back-up system. In a small notebook we wrote (in English) some phrases that we felt we would use often. In one of our first cities, we asked the manager of our hotel to write the Mandarin characters for these phrases. Before we ever approached a train ticket seller or a hotel desk person, we would have the gray flip-book in hand – as the Brits say “Brilliant!”
Our second city was Kunming. On our arrival there we were lucky to find a Chinese hotel directly across from the train station. We had decided early in the trip to look for the hotels that cater to the Chinese rather than to the tourist in order to avoid being plagued by “souvenir hawkers and tour leeches”. The Chinese hotels were usually recognizable by large marble-floored lobbies with 4-5 clocks on the wall tuned to various time zones around the world. Don’t be deceived! The large lobbies do not represent the same quality as the rooms, the elevators and hallways.
Our flip-book worked well at this point. At the desk I would point to each question in order. If I got an affirmative shake of the head, I would move on to the next.
Do you have a double room available? Does it have a private bathroom? Does it have hot and cold running water? Does it have air conditioning?
If all questions were answered in the affirmative, I would then ask to see the room in order to check for a toilet seat, towels and bedding…basic things like that. Then I would go back down to the desk to negotiate the room fee.
All the hotels required a deposit. We thought this a bit strange until we later discovered it was to protect the hotel from the Chinese patron destroying or stealing things from the room. The hotel in Xian served us with a list of prices for “broiling” things.
In US equivalent prices we read:
1 Wall picture $10
2 Telephone $12.50
3 Healthy bucket (waste can) $2.10
4 Bed $43.75
5 Chest $41
6 TV $312
7 Minor of making up $22.50. It took a while to figure that one--mirror--out!
So what did “broiling” things mean…spoiling, stealing, breaking…perhaps it was a combination of breaking and spoiling? We never did translate that one! Each morning when we returned the room key to the hotel desk to check out, someone would physically check our room before the deposit was returned to us.
Our first stop in China,
Guangzhou, had given us a hint of some dishes that we might encounter
as we traveled the country. We had visited the Peaceful Market just
north of Shamian Dao. It was early in the morning by Chinese
standards – about 9AM. A lot of activity could be seen in the
parks at that time but the shops were just beginning to open.
How interesting it was to see someone busy at work with chopsticks over a large plastic tub. Upon closer examination we could see that the job was to fish out the scorpions that had not made it through the night. Yep, they eat those scorpions and the patrons who shop for them like to find them alive! Some of the other delectable ingredients used in their cuisine were there as well: large black beetles, snakes and huge dead centipedes (the size of a foot-long ruler) all tied into a neat bundle. We saw live turtles for sale. In fact we saw so many turtles that it is difficult to imagine that there are any left in the wild! Of course we found Man’s best friend on the menu as well. Since these ingredients are not a usual part of our diet, we could see that it was going to be a challenge to find proper nourishment during our trip.
My mate, Sander, definitely will not eat anything with which he is not familiar. I am a little crazier and ready to try something new. During our stay in the city of Kunming, while we were walking the streets, Sander had a rather desperate need for a toilet. The Chinese do well to provide public toilets along the street, but at this time there were none to be seen. We popped into the nearest restaurant, rather elegant but with a staff who spoke NO ENGLISH. I settled at a table and Sander rushed off to take care of business. The menu had pictures so one should be able to find something that looked familiar. OK, I could deal with that.
Recognizing none of the
photos on the menu, I chose a salad that looked interesting and
ordered a beer (“pi jyao”) for Sander. My diary reads,
“The salad was hot and spicy, a little like marinated snake
skin. What are you going to do when you have a toilet emergency in
China?” I asked the waitress to record the Mandarin name of the
dish so that I might ask someone in the future just what it was that
I had eaten. Interestingly, upon our return to Hong Kong I was able
to find out that the salad had been “fish skins” –
pretty darn close!
It became pretty clear to us that we had to do something serious in order to survive the rest of the trip through China. When we could find a menu with English translations, we were delighted. When we found a menu with Mandarin characters only, that was a different story. Luckily, we met Robin and discovered a solution.
Her name was not really Robin. It was Yuen Li Huang, but she wanted an English name. One of her three names meant “flying” so I told her about our bird, the robin, and said that would be a nice name for her. She agreed.
Robin had approached us as we stood on the street killing time and waiting for a bus to leave. She asked us (in English) if we would like to have something to eat at her family’s food stall. We agreed and were brought a lovely plate of fried rice with pork pieces, vegetables and mushrooms in it. We both found it tasty and hearty and asked Robin to write the name of the dish (with the ingredients) in our flip-book of phrases.
It was our experience all over China that, the moment we entered a restaurant, the staff would pull out chairs and pour hot tea for us within the first 30 seconds. In order to save ourselves the possible embarrassment of not being able to order a dish, we would have the flip-book ready. We would show the “door-opener” our flip-book immediately to determine if his restaurant could serve Robin’s fried rice. If he showed a moment’s hesitation, we would say “thank you” and walk on.
If he smiled right away and shook his head “Yes”, we would sit down and proceed to the next challenge…pulling out the plastic forks and spoons which we carried with us. The real challenge was to turn aside the offered chopsticks. Learning to eat with two skinny sticks was something else that these Old Farts were not willing to do. Somehow, the appearance of the plastic-ware was not a sufficient clue to the staff though. We would put the chopsticks aside and every time one of the staff would pass by, the chopsticks would end up in front of us once again!
Robin’s fried rice dish came in different forms. We often got steamed rice, a plate of pork, and a plate of vegetables. That was fine too, but one day we got more than we bargained for. The separate plates of rice, pork and veggies were brought out. Before we had begun to tackle the meal, we were served another plate of fried rice with all the stuff in it. Surprise, Surprise! We went away very full after that meal, but (as always) it was a very inexpensive meal.
We did need to find a grocery store every now and then. One product that we sought often was wet towels to clean our hands regularly before we ate. We also liked to buy a bottle of Chinese wine now and then to enjoy in the hotel at night. In Jingdezhen (towards the end of our journey) I also needed to find some cream to put on my feet that were dried and cracked from wearing sandals. We had trouble finding that needed grocery store. Seeing only clothing and shoe stores and failing to find the Chinese word for “Super Market” in our phrase book, we stopped a middle-aged couple on the street and pointed to the Mandarin word for “grocery”. The man asked to borrow my eye glasses in order to see what we needed. All of a sudden I couldn’t see what word to point to. Sander saved the day by passing his glasses to me. The Chinese couple smiled in agreement making signs from hand to mouth – as in eating. OK!! Follow us, they motioned…and led us straight to a restaurant! “No, sorry”, we motioned. The Chinese man realized instinctively what the problem was. He raised both his arms at the elbows as though to show carrying packages. “Yes, Yes!” we responded and were led down the sidewalk about a half block. We were pleased to find the store and our Chinese friends seemed very pleased to have been able to help us.
Once inside the grocery store, I wandered the aisles searching for cream. Seeking help I found lots of staff eager to assist me. I rubbed my hands together and then pointed at my pathetic scaly feet. Within 20 seconds there were ten people around me trying to help. They seemed very excited to be asked – perhaps they had been bored or perhaps it was a novelty to be helping a foreigner. We never lacked for attention in China. We were stared at long and hard all the time. It felt rather like being a movie star. We would try staring back, but that never worked. We would ask “What!!??” but they would just giggle in response and continue to stare.
Our four-week trip through Mainland China presented the most exhausting effort we had ever undertaken. Immersing yourself in a culture where you are “the different one” every minute of the day and night presents constant challenges. When you think about traveling, isn’t that what it is really all ABOUT? Like most things in life…you receive as much as you are willing to put into the experience.
Jane Adams and her mate, Sander van Peski, own a cruising yacht and have just recently completed an eight year circumnavigation. During the voyage Jane enjoyed sharing experiences with friends and family through emails. She hopes to continue to travel and share those experiences.
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