Anytime you travel to a country where you can’t speak the language, it will be a bit of a challenge. When you can’t even recognize the alphabet they use, that challenge gets a little more challenging. And when the locals you’re around speak as little of your language as you do of theirs—which might be pretty much none—you’re in for adventure.
That’s kind of how it was for me in China. I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. I know how to say hello (Nǐ hǎo) and thank you (xièxie) and that’s it (click each word to hear pronunciation on Google). And while that may be polite, it doesn’t really get me anywhere.
I loved China and all the adventure that came with it. But I had the good fortune of seeing the place with a friend who lives there and has already figured out the necessities newbies haven’t. And now that I’ve been there twice, the second time sans said friend, I had the chance to learn all about what I hadn’t learned when in the safety of my friend’s company. So here are a few things to know when traveling in China.
Get a translating app
First and absolutely foremost, find an app that can convert what you want to say into something those around you may better understand. I have been in a good many taxis and have yet to find one where the driver speaks much English, far less understands me trying to explain where I think I want to go. I can’t say which one is the best one, because it only just occurred to me that I should get one after my struggles trying to order food in Beijing. I downloaded an app called My Language, which seems to work and the reviews are good, but I guess we’ll see next time I’m in China. If you don’t want an app, at least pull up the place you want to go on the Internet before you leave a wifi zone, screenshot the address in Chinese and go forth.
Take the address + directions to your hotel everywhere
This one right here is not a joke. You do not want to be lost in a country where you can’t speak the language and where the person trying to transport you back to your hotel may not understand the words that are coming out of your mouth. Hotels in China already know you’re likely to have this problem, so the little card holder for your room keys comes complete with a map, directions and an address to your hotel in Chinese. Take. That. Thing. Everywhere.
Heads up: the toilets are different
OK. The toilets. I had heard about this here and there somewhere over the course of my life, but since it had never been vital information at the time, my brain didn’t seem to store it. So when I opened the bathroom door to find what pretty much amounts to a nice hole in the ground, it was quite a rude awakening. (Men, this doesn’t matter much for you, ladies, the struggle is all ours). Now, I like to think I approach things with an open mind, acknowledging that everyone in the world doesn’t do things the way I’m accustomed to doing them, nor should they, so I wanted to learn about this new squat toilet. But the learning had to take place post first use, since I was already in there. In the interest of keeping things ladylike, I survived, but I don’t think it was my most glamorous moment. Before going back for a second near-fail, I asked a local: do I face front? face the back? what do I hold onto? She seemed utterly confused by my confusion, told me I should face the same way I would with a Western toilet and that was about it. I still don’t really know how to do it well, but for the most part, you put your feet in the grooves on either side of the bowl, squat over the middle and hope for the best. Here’s a good tutorial. What I later found out, though, is that there’s generally a Western toilet to be found at major businesses or establishments (for the public toilets, they might more likely be local versions), so look for one. Though I’d recommend trying the squatty toilet at least once to add the experience to your list of adventures.
China, as I’m sure you know, does things its own way and tries to let in little from the West. Including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The latter two I can very easily go without, but as a traveler swimming in new beauty and color, not being able to share those things on Instagram can be a bit of a bummer. In Shanghai, you’ll get sporadic access to some of the sites in the bigger international hotels. In Beijing, I got no access at all. There are other ways people get access to those sites while traveling in China, but you won’t hear about them from me since I still need them to let me in the country. (But I will say the key to unlocking the sites has three letters and there’s a good possibility you can find out what they are on Google—which, by the way, is also banned in China. No gmail. And you’ll be relegated to searching for stuff on Bing).
Only go with metered taxis
This is actually a tip for a lot of places in the world as cabbies can be known to rattle off a price that may seem OK to you, when in reality using the meter would be much cheaper. When I took a taxi from the airport in Beijing to my hotel in the city center, it was 129 yuan ($19) including the 10 yuan for the toll. When I was leaving that same hotel to go back to the same airport, I got in the cab and the guy says 180 yuan ($26) and I was like “No, sorry I only paid $120 to come here, so $120 or you can let me out.” He said ok, ok $140 and I said no and he said $130 and I said “130 including the toll.” Even after all that, when I got to the airport and paid, he tried to give me less change back, showing me the ticket for the toll, and I said “No, sorry,” and waited until he gave me the rest of my change. People will try to play you, but they won’t fight that hard if they think you’re already hip to their game. So, now you are hip. Don’t get hosed.