Tuesday, 1 February 2005
The Amazing Race 6, Episode 10
Sigiriya (Sri Lanka) - Shanghai (China)
"We don't know how to communicate with them."
That was the key problem for the contestants, none of whom appeared to speak or read any Chinese, throughout this episode of The Amazing Race in Shanghai.
In cities, the racers have generally relied on taxis not just to get them wherever the "clues" from the producers of the race told them to go, but also to know where these destinations were located, and how to get to them. The savvier racers have sometimes even hired taxis to lead them when they were driving rented vehicles.
In a race, it's a logical tradeoff to pay more money for taxis than mass transit would cost, and give up the greater opportunities for meetings and conversations with local people on buses and trains, in order to get where they are going faster, and not to have to spend time figuring out where to go or how to get there.
Even for regular travellers on a budget, it sometimes make sense to take a taxi just as a way to find your destination. (If you suspect the distance is short, a cheaper and potentially more interesting alternative may be to offer a small tip to a child or someone else idling nearby in exchange for leading you on foot, a tactic the racers seem to have tried only intermittently.)
But many of the communication strategies travellers get accustomed to relaying on within the world of European languages that are written in the Latin alphabet and that mostly use the same phonemes (component sounds) break down when those same travellers go to China.
It's one thing not to know what a place name means when someone says it, or when you read it on a map, and quite another thing:
- Not to be able to recognize that the characters on the sign in front of you match those in the directions you were given (is that a different character, or just a stylistic variation in the writing?);
- Not to be able to "sound out" place names or other words you have in writing (because the writing system isn't at all phonetic); or, perhaps worst of all
- Not to be able to repeat a name or other word you hear recognizably (since you can neither recognize as significant nor accurately replicate the changes of pitch or "tone" within each syllable that distinguish otherwise identical-sounding words with completely different meanings), or tell whether someone else is saying the same or a completely different word.
Learn from the mistakes of the contestants on "The Amazing Race", who kept trying to repeat place names aloud: if you are going to China, and don't speak or read any Chinese, you'll need a very different set of coping and navigation techniques than in other countries where you don't understand the language but can still recognize or pronounce it.
There are three basic ways to "make your way", as the race directions always say, to where you want to go, if you can't recognize or reproduce either written or spoken language:
- Find someone who speaks or reads your language, and get them to take you or lead you where you want to go (or tell a taxi driver where to take you), or keep finding people who speak or read your language to help you along at each juncture (which direction to walk, where and in which direction to turn, where to get on the bus, which bus to get on, when to get off the bus, and so forth). This seems to be racers' main recourse, but it doesn't work well unless a high proportion of local people speak or read your language. If you rely on finding someone who speaks English each time you aren't sure which way to turn, you won't get there very quickly or efficiently, and you can get stuck if possible routes diverge at a spot where no one around speaks your language.
- Find your destination on a map, and show people that spot on the map. No words are necessary: a foreigner pointing to a spot on a map will be presumed to be trying to get to that place, and will (in some fashion) be given directions or assistance -- by anyone who can read the map -- without needing to say a word. If you can't find a bilingual map, it helps to have both an English-language and a Chinese map: once you or your informant locates a place on one of the maps, its usually possible to correlate enough landmarks on both maps to transpose the location to the other map. You'll have much more success getting Chinese passers-by to point you in the right direction if you show them a Chinese or bilingual map with your destination marked than if you show them where you want to go on an English-only map. Even a Chinese-only map can be useful: once someone figures out where you are trying to go, and marks it on the Chinese map, you can keep showing the marked map to other people to keep steering you along the way. It isn't clear, given the way the television show is edited, whether or how often the racers attempted this, or whether they realized the value of having Chinese-langauage or bilingual maps.
- Find someone who speaks or reads your language, and get them to write down the place name and/or address (and, if possible, directions for how to get there) in Chinese or the local language, and show this writing to other people. This is actually the most effective strategy in such a place, but it's the one the racers don't appear to have figured out. It's a lot easier and quicker to find someone before you start -- a clerk in a nearby hotel or business, for example -- who understands enough English to understand where you want to go, and write it down in Chinese for a taxi driver to read, than to find a taxi driver who speaks English. Once you've gotten one person to write down your destination in Chinese, you can get further assistance from any number of additional people along your route, even if they don't speak or read any English at all.