Most people who travel to China from the west will fly. If you travel via a Western airline, the transition will be gradual. The flight attendants will speak English. You’ll get a Chinese noodle snack.
When you get off the plane, say in Beijing, the airport will be huge and very modern. You’ll think “Wow, this is cleaner and much more impressive than our airports at home.”
You’ll be impressed at the courtesy and professionalism of the border guard and processing stations. You will even be able to rate the quality of their service. Can you imagine that in the US!!!? (Note well, when you come back to the US from China, you’ll experience directly the difference between our border guards and theirs.)
Then you will get a taxi or take an arranged coach to your hotel. That’s when things get interesting. The first thing you will notice is that you cannot read any of the signs. If you are lucky, the taxi driver will speak enough English to ask you where you are going. It’s best to have a printout of your hotel reservation with the name of the hotel and nearest cross streets in Chinese.
Next, you’ll notice the city is huge! Beijing is China’s second largest city (after Shanghai) at over 17 million people. To put that in perspective, consider that New York, the largest city in the US, has about half as many people. It will take quite a while to drive to the city center.
If you are staying in the major tourists areas in the center of the city, you’ll find many people with passable English. Although English is compulsory in school, only those educated after the 1970s are likely to have significant spoken English fluency.
In the tourist areas like the Forbidden City, Yong He Gong, Summer Palace, and the various silk markets, you won’t really create much of a scene. They see Lao Wei (Foreigners) all the time. However, if you get off the beaten path, you’ll likely raise an eyebrow or two. In other words, you’ll get stared at by the locals.
Since very few tourists venture into the business and residential sections of the city, the locals have few opportunities to interact with them. This reaction is even more pronounced if you go to rural locations or less popular cities. If you have not had an experience like this before, you will learn what it feels like to be seen as an outsider.
As I mentioned in part 1, as unnerving as it is to be constantly stared at, you’ll have to “Get over yourself.” There is nothing you can do about it, so you have to learn to live with it.*
Experiences like this traveling abroad can open your mind. At the very least they should help you find a little more compassion towards those who come to our country and try very hard to learn the language and customs. Even if their English is sometimes “Chinglish”, you can bet it’s a hell of lot better than the second language of most native born US citizens.
* This point is mostly true; we’ll explore the exception in a future post.