I am meeting a German visiting professor of architecture at Tsinghua University. We are chatting a bit about Beijing:
– Ah, ok. So, you’ve just arrived. And, do you experience culture shock?
– Not really, to be honest I feel everywhere at home. That’s the way I am. I experience a serious language barrier shock, though.
This really feels weird. Hardly anybody speaks English here. Fortunately, my friend’s mother taught me 2 basic words before I left:
Xie-xie (thank you very much)
I must admit that I use them all the time. It gives me a false impression that some kind of communication actually takes place… When words fail, then there is always a smile, my biggest language weapon. The truth is that the communication will remain one of the biggest challenges during my 2 week expedition.
At the airport
5:30am. It’s still dark. First fast train which I am supposed to take leaves at 6:35 so I am checking the buses. Mhm, first obstacle: which bus is going where?
I am staring at the bus schedule, with my mouth almost entirely open since I am exhausted, and I really have to focus to deciphere complex bus schedules. In a glance of the eye I am surrounded by 3 people:
- a guy who pushes his phone towards my nose: where you go?
- a lady selling the tickets
- a young Chinese girl: you want to go where?
Her English is far the best from the group, so she translates driver’s elaborate explanation. The final verdict: wait for the subway. More easy!
At a bus stop
The same scenario. I gaze even more surprised and disorientated because I don’t understand a-ny-thing this time.
One of the ladies is observing me, curious and a bit amused. I smile, catch her eye and ask, articulating every single syllable separately: Rail-way sta-tion? and I point at the number 24 (thanks God they at least have normal numbers…).
She – of course- doesn’t understand. I show her the place on mapps.me. Fortunately, the names of the places are also written in Chinese. She seems to get it and assures me that I am at the right bus stop. Ok, so on y va!
I must admit one thing: people here are super helpful. They don’t speak a word English, but they show interest and want to help you somehow. This visiting professor was saying the same thing:
People here are charming! That’s also the reason I decided to stay longer. I came here for 1 year, but I like the city so much that I will stay 2 more years.
Give me food
At a certain point I had to leave the hostel in search of some food. The hostel is situated in one of the hutongs, narrow traditional alleys. There are enough local eateries in the neighbourhood. The only problem is to… order something.
First attempt: I look around, checking what other people are eating. I am asking if it is OK by raising my thumb. OK, it seems tasty, so I point at the dumplings’ soup somebody is having and got the same. Victory!
No idea what I ordered. No clue what I am gonna eat….
Second attempt: I found a noodle place with a menu made of pictures. Good. At least I have the impression what I am going to get. Unfortunately, not everything was on the menu. When I’m trying to ask what the drinks were and how much it is, they are just raising their shoulders. But after a second they bring forth their iPhones and start asking Siri how you say this in Chinese:
It’s spicy beef noodles. 36 yuan. OK?
You can never be sure where are you exactly heading to. They just give you a ticket, if you manage to explain where you want to go… Every single time I keep tracing the route with mapps.me till I am reassured that we are going in the right direction, so somewhere south-east or to the north…
Well, it’s been a while since I felt lost while traveling. Most of the time when I really needed to ask something, they would just giggle a bit and shrug their shoulders…