Having travelled to quite a few non-English speaking countries and cities, I perhaps naively thought getting by in Beijing with no knowledge of the local language, and instead doing so with only English would be no harder than it is in, say, Moscow or Sarajevo. I thought, especially as Beijing is a major world capital city, using English wouldn’t be a problem. I was wrong, it was a struggle, more so than anywhere else I’d been. However, it turned out to not be much of a problem at all in the end, and, besides, why should I even have expected the local population to speak to me in English? After all, I can’t switch to the mother tongue of visitors to my country.
Buying tickets for attractions or for public transport is no problem, you can easily learn the words for numbers, show the number of fingers you need or write the number down. In restaurants, there were often pictures of the food on the menu – that doesn’t mean you know what you’re getting, but the element of surprise is all part of the fun. In one particular restaurant the owner and I resorted to mimicking animal noises and actions (imagine pretending to be a chicken!) in order for me to understand what was on the menu. He would also rush back to the kitchen every now and then to show me vegetables that were not easily recognisable when depicted on the menu. Of course, an added complexity to travel in China is that the writing is also unrecognisable to non-Chinese speakers. Luckily, some of the menu items had been translated, albeit into ‘Chinglish’ – that often amusing mistransaltion of English which is frequently seen in Asia. From this menu I ordered ‘grape juice’ as my drink – the restaurant owner left the restaurant to visit the shop over the road and then came back with a bottle of wine!
Of course, there are locals in Beijing who can speak very good English: staff at the hotel, some guards in the metro system and certain staff at tourist attractions. Some of the best English I heard was actually from people trying to sell me souvenirs, offer me tours or tempt me to other attractions – many of these people are actually part of scams, which you need to be wary of in Beijing, something I’ll discuss in a future blog entry.
The main message here though, is not to be scared of travelling somewhere just because the locals don’t speak your language or because you can’t read their alphabet. Learning and using a few words of the local language will impress the locals and leave a good impression, perhaps even leading to a better trip. But don’t forget: there are many ways to communicate other than talking, and these other means of communication might actually provide some good laughs and experiences to remember!