Tuesday, 8 February 2005

The Amazing Race 6, Episode 11

Shanghai (China) - Xi’an (China) - Mt. Hua (China) - Xi’an (China) - Honolulu, HI (USA) - Chicago, Il (USA)

The final double episode of this season of The Amazing Race was dominated by the racers’ continued difficulties with coping and communicating in China.

Watching the racers in some of the same places I had visited on my first trip to China 15 years ago, I was struck — as I was on my own return visit to China last month — by how much has changed, how much of China is still different from other parts of the world in the same ways as before, and above all by the differences between visitors’ reactions to the same place.

Almost the only time the racers looked happy in China was when they had nothing to do for 24 hours but relax and watch the scenery on the train from Shanghai to Xi’an. As I had done on the same train ride, most of the racers got tickets in the most luxurious class, in 2 or 4-person “soft sleeper” compartments — comfortable, somewhat less expensive than flying, and giving an opportunity to see much more of rural China from ground level than from a plane. Rebecca and Adam, who lost all their money as a penalty for coming in last in the previous leg and had to beg for their train fare, appeared to be in berths in an open “hard sleeper” car, which is much cheaper than “soft” class and actually much more comfortable than the name suggests, despite lacking privacy.

Off the train, the racers struggled, especially with communicating, navigating, and negotiating prices. “I hate China”, one said. When they got frustrated, they denounced everyone around them (word to the wise: making people in China “lose face” is one of the best ways to alienate them, and ensure that they won’t try to help you), and refused to pay taxi drivers who couldn’t understand their spoken English directions or demands to go faster. Imagine what would happen if someone got into a taxi in New Orleans, speaking only Chinese, insisted that the driver take them in spite of not being sure where they wanted to go, gave directions — and increasingly vociferous complaints — in Chinese, and then tried to abandon the taxi, and the driver, without paying, short of whatever might have been their destination?

China has long had a reputation as a difficult place in which to travel, but that’s rarely been my experience. Certainly I’ve found it a much easier place to get around than India, the other country (perhaps the only one) with which it can really be compared. Certainly the kinds of effective communications strategies I described in my column last week — which depend on people you encounter being able to read directions or a destination written in a local language — wouldn’t work nearly as well in India, or anywhere else with a high percentage of people who aren’t literate in any language. One of the greatest accomplishments and legacies of communism in China is near-universal literacy, especially in the cities. It’s standard practice for hotels in China to give guests printed cards listing some of the most common places they might want to go, in both English and Chinese — including, of course, the hotel’s own name, address, and directions — to use in indicating directions to taxi drivers or asking directions on the street.

What China shares with India is its distinctiveness. Neither country is self-sufficient or isolationist, but with a billion people each, they are both large enough to be worlds of their own, with their own ways of doing things, that demand of visitors — quite reasonably — that they take them on their own terms. “When in Rome, do as the Romans”, is nowhere as true as in India and China. That puts racers — or any rushed travellers — at a particularly severe disadvantage in such places, both because it’s easier to get frustrated when you are in a hurry and, perhaps more importantly, because people who are in a new country and culture every other day don’t have time to adjust their behavior to local customs and conditions, but of necessity try to find a single way of doing things that works more-or-less poorly everywhere. To a large extent, I think many travellers’ frustrations with China reflect the extent to which most people try to cover too much ground (such as by trying to “do” China, a country larger in area than the USA including Alaska, in a month or less) too quickly to really adapt.

After some of my previous columns, I got questions from readers asking how I managed to travel on my own in China. I didn’t find it hard, but I did travel very differently in China than I might in another country. For example, I usually avoid reserving accommodations in advance (except hostels in expensive countries), preferring to look at several hotels, and a specific room, before negotiating a price. But when you don’t understand any local language, you are at a considerable disadvantage in bargaining, since the hotel-keeper knows that you will probably find it more difficult to leave and find another hotel. And if they speak or read English, they feel (not unreasonably) entitled to charge an English-speaking guest a premium for their English translation ability.

So on my most recent visit to China, I reserved a hotel room for at least the first night in each city through the English-language Web sites of hotel booking agencies eLong.com or ctrip.com . Don’t panic if the home pages of these or other Web sites are almost entirely in Chinese or another language. Just look for the little tab labeled “English”, or the U.S. flag or the Union Jack, somewhere in a corner of the page. You’ll be amazed how many Web sites around the world have some sort of English-language version. (If not, there’s always robo-translation, but it doesn’t generally work for Chinese, nor is it typically sufficient to navigate an e-commerce Web site.) You’d be hard-pressed to make a reservation over the phone in English with a China-based Ctrip or eLong customer service representative — even though they have toll-free numbers in the USA — but the translated Web sites make that unnecessary.

Booking hotels in China in advance through Web sites like these — even a day in advance, or earlier the same day — has two advantages:

  1. Because these sites are targeted mainly at Chinese people travelling within their own country, their prices are set for the domestic market. They probably aren’t as low as the best price you could get if you showed up without reservations and bargained hard in Chinese at the front desk (although if you don’t look Chinese, they might be), but they avoid anything additional that you’d be charged as a walk-in guest for being a foreigner.

  2. If you make reservations before leaving your previous destination, you can print out the hotel name and address in Chinese, at the cybercafe where you make your reservations, to show people along the way to help you get there. Show it at the train or bus station , and people will send you to the right place to buy a ticket to that city. Show the ticket, and people will direct you to the right place to board the right train or bus. (Essentials like the platform number or bus stand number, and the time of departure, will probably be printed or written on the ticket — the same numerals are used in China as in the USA and Europe.) Show it to the conductor, and they will signal you when to get off. Show it to a taxi driver or to someone on the street, and they will steer you to the hotel.

The one time I had difficulty finding my hotel was when it had opened just a week before (typical for Shenzhen, where the pace of construction makes it seem as though everything is brand new, including the efficient new subway that had also opened just the week before), there were no directions or address in Chinese yet on the hotel Web site, nobody had heard of the hotel yet, and the hotel address referred only to the “Free Trade Zone” in which it was located, rather than to a street name and number.

When I got off the bus, I first tried to find someone who could translate the address I had in English, or mark it on my map. So before trying to hail a taxi (or allowing myself to be pushed into one by the taxi touts) I walked far enough away from the bus station to get away from the hustlers, and went into a series of shops, office buildings, and other hotels until I found a desk clerk who took my (English) printout of the hotel Web site, and my (Chinese) map away to consult some other people in shouted Cantonese (Cantonese always seems to be shouted), and returned with a dot marked on the map. Bowing and smiling my thanks, I went and tried to find my way there on foot — it didn’t look to be far — but discovered that there was an expressway forming an impassible-seeming barrier. So I gave up and flagged down a taxi.

The racers in Shanghai had trouble getting taxis to take them, but they might have been in an area where taxis weren’t allowed to pick up passengers on the street, but could only wait at designated taxi stands or respond to radio calls. (Not uncommon in the USA, and in many other places.) Or the drivers might have been trying to indicate that they couldn’t take them where they wanted to go because they didn’t understand English. Once again, imagine the person trying to get into a cab in New Orleans, and shouting at the driver in Chinese. They would probably reply in English with, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese, and I can’t help you” — or something less polite — and kick them out of the cab.

Anyway, I smiled to the driver, and showed him the marked spot on the map. He squinted a bit at the Chinese legend on the map, nodded to me, and headed off — in the exact opposite direction from the way I thought I wanted to go. Just as I was about to panic, we reached an underpass where we could get to the other side of the expressway, and headed back toward my hotel, which I now recognized (from the picture on the Web site) in the distance.

But before we got there, we turned off, and presently the driver stopped the cab in front of a gate from which a large crowd of laborers on bicycles were emerging into the street. He opened the door, and indicated that this was the place where I should get out.

If I hadn’t paused to think about whether there was an innocent explanation, I might have decided instantly that the driver was stupid, incompetent, or malicious. But what I think had happened is that my informant had marked the “Free Trade Zone” from the hotel address on the map, and the driver had taken me — reasonably — to the entrance for workers in the zone.

The racers tried to deal with situations like this by giving directions verbally. They also tried to ask for speed in English: “I’m in a race. I need to go fast.” This works if someone understands a little English — “Fast”, “Slow”, “Left”, “Right”, Straight”, “Yes”, No”, “Stop” — but not if they speak no English at all. The one thing anyone in “The Amazing Race” should try to get written down in as many widely-spoken languages as possible, whenever they meet someone at one of the overnight “pit stops” who speaks Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, etc., is “I’m in a race. I will give you an extra tip if you go faster than the other people in this race.”

Ordinary travellers may be better served by getting people to write “I want you to drive safely and slowly. I will tip you more if you go slower.” Or, depending on your tastes and needs, you may want to use the first opportunity to have someone to write out a card you can carry in a local language that says, “I don’t eat meat”, or “I am allergic to [I can’t eat] milk”. For communicating a broader range of messages, no matter waht lanaguage people speak or whether they are literate, you can use a laminated pocket-sized Kwikpoint visual translator. Few stores stock them, and the racers wouldn’t be likely to have a chance to pick one up along the way, but you can order one by mail before your trip.

Since my driver didn’t speak any English, I didn’t try to shout directions at him from the back seat. Instead, I leaned over to where he could see me, and gestured with my arms to indicate the turns to get us back to where I had seen the hotel. (Unless you are extremely familiar with the local culture of gestures, pointing with an entire open hand or arm, rather than with any single finger, is less likely to be misunderstood as obscene or insulting.) I made it to my hotel, safe and sound, and I paid the cabbie what was on the meter. All’s well that ends well.

Broadcasts of the next season of The Amazing Race start on 1 March 2005 in the USA and some other places. The following season, “The Amazing Race 8” will be for teams of 4 instead of 2, but the show will probably go back to teams of 2 (depending on audience reaction) for “The Amazing Race 9”. The producers are accepting applications now, and I’ve updated my information on how to apply for The Amazing Race 8 or future seasons.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 8 February 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Interesting comments. I only saw part of only the last episode of TAR6, as I was on a 10-month RTW trip (mostly trains), but I too was struck by all the attempts to speak English to the Chinese. I just spent 7 weeks traveling alone through China, part in the east and part in the south-west, and I got by on pattern-matching and the kindness of strangers - those people who did speak English went far out of their way to help me.

Since Lonely Planet prints place names in Chinese characters I could write out the name of the town I wanted and take it along to the bus station with me, and match it up with the departure board or with the bus itself, depending on the size of the bus station. I quickly bought a new phrasebook that had Chinese characters as well as pinyin. I bought "Essential Chinese for Travelers" by Fan Zhilong for 60 yuan in China, and found it very useful. I simpy pointed at the "I want a single room" phrase at hotel reception desks, and they would write down the asking price. I also wound up buying a Chinese dictionary, and that allowed the ticket agent in the bus station in Lijiang to explain to me that I would have to pay a hefty admission fee if I took a bus to Daju instead of hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Posted by: Kathy Wilhelm, 2 March 2005, 15:42 ( 3:42 PM)

You can get "Essential Chinese for Travelers" (which I also used) and many other Chinese language learning resources from China Books in San Francisco, ChinaBooks.com.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 2 March 2005, 15:48 ( 3:48 PM)

Thanks for your insightful writeup. Your India vs China remarks stimulated memories.

I arrived at the new HK airport late 9/22/2002 and took the bus to Kowloon. I hiked to the address of a cheap guesthouse which I had copied from a guidebook at my local library (despite the fact that I was carrying the new LP China guide). I was shocked to find that the locale was now a construction site! I ended up paying over $50US to stay at the nearby Caritas Lodge.

In Chengdu I foolishly went to the little railway station on the south side of the city because I assumed that a train headed to Kunming would leave from the southcity depot. I grabbed a cab and pointed at my train ticket and the main depot on the Chengdu map. He understood my predicament and took off. Within a mile he turned right (east) whereas the depot was due north of us. I bit my tongue and soon realized that he choose a much faster peripheral roadway. The traffic creeped as we neared the station but as I jumped out I gave him a good tip and a thankful smile. It was quite amazing to have made it all the way around that city of 11 million within 20 minutes.

Keep up your inspiring work.

A fellow traveler, just back from 5 months in India

Posted by: jerry jackman, 4 March 2005, 22:54 (10:54 PM)

The problem with the taxis in the Shanghai episode was this: Taxis are only allowed to use the under-river tunnel to cross from Puxi to Pudong on certain days, based on a numeric system. Even numbered license plates can use the tunnel on certain days of the week, odd numbered plates on the other days--Shanghai's way of limiting the overcrowding in the tunnel. So that is why no taxis would pick them up when the driver heard where they wanted to go. The racers destination was just outside the other side of the tunnel. The taxis could have taken them by one of the bridges, but it would have taken them perhaps 4 times the amount of time as using the tunnel--so the racers should have been glad the drivers were refusing to take them!

Posted by: Barb Strother, 21 April 2005, 23:07 (11:07 PM)

C Trip now have English speaking service reps. I have used them a number of times and their service has always been excellent.

Posted by: Dean, 29 April 2009, 19:44 ( 7:44 PM)
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