Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 10

Singapore (Singapore) - Shanghai (China) - Zhujiajiao (China) - Shanghai (China)

This wasn’t the first time that The Amazing Race was in Shanghai, and it wasn’t the first time that the racers who had the most difficulty made the same mistake: failing to adapt their techniques for getting around to cope with a place where few people speak or read English and where the racers themselves could neither read nor pronounce the local language.

Michael and Louie finished last after they believed someone on their flight who told them that one in three people they met in Shanghai would speak English.

That wasn’t true, of course. On the ground, it wasn’t clear if their taxi driver couldn’t read their clue (with the name of their destination village, “Zhujiajiao”, in Pinyin Romanization rather than simplified Chinese characters), didn’t recognize their attempts to pronounce it (likely, since they almost certainly got the tones or inflection wrong even if they managed the consonants correctly), or knew where they wanted to go but not how to get there. Whatever the reason, he took them to the wrong place entirely. Luckily, it was obviously wrong. But at that point there was nobody around who spoke English or read Pinyin, so they were unable to get help from any of the passers-by, even if (as is likely) some of them (and maybe even the taxi driver) would have known where “Zhujiajiao” was if they had been shown the name in Chinese, and would have been able to give directions to the driver in Chinese even if neither the informant nor the driver knew any English.

They got back on track only after their driver found the office of a tour company where someone bilingual and biliterate — and, presumably, knowledgeable about common stops on the route of tour — was able to recognize their goal and tell the driver how to get there.

All this could have been avoided, with no loss of time in the race, if they had used some of their time at the gate, or in flight, to get someone to transliterate their destination and write it down for them in Chinese. People on an international flight are much more likely to speak and/or read English than random people on the street, locals, almost anywhere.

Look for someone who looks like they are from your destination and going home, or an expat who lives in the destination, or a regular business traveller to the destination, rather than a fellow tourist. Most such people are happy to share their knowledge and advice about the place they grew up, live, or do business with a first-time visitor.

In addition to writing down any key words or phases (the name of the place you want to go, “I don’t eat meat”, or whatever), they may be willing to exchange a small amount of cash for the currency of the destination, which can be handy of the banks are closed when you arrive, the ATM at the airport isn’t working, or like the racers you are in a hurry.

You can also ask for advice about how to get out of the airport: Is there a bus or train to the city center, how much does it cost and how long does it take, how much should a taxi cost, and should you use a flat-rate taxi service (as in New Delhi and at New York’s JFK airport), go by the meter, or haggle. Not infrequently, if you are going to the same neighborhood, you’ll be invited to share a taxi, or even offered a free ride if someone is meeting your new friend or they have a car waiting at the airport. Remember this the next time you are coming home from overseas, and offer an arriving first-time visitor a ride from the airport.

Some general lessons from this example:

  • Don’t believe everything people say. “Everyone speaks English” is almost always an exaggeration. The linguistic ability of people on an international flight is not representative of what you will find on the street in the capital, much less further off the beaten track.

  • Anticipate differences in places with different writing systems and/or tonal languages. Once you figure out how to do it, it’s easier than you might imagine to get around without knowing the language. But it requires a different set of coping strategies in a place where, as I discussed earlier this season, you are effectively deaf and mute (due to your inability to pronounce or recognize the sounds of the local language) and illiterate.

  • Focus on ways to communicate, not just on finding someone who speaks English. Better to find a passer-by who speaks no English but knows how to get where you want to go — and can give your driver directions in Chinese if shown the name of the place written in Chinese — than one who speaks English but has no idea where “Zhujiajiao” is.

This turned out to be a non-elimination leg, so the pair of off-duty police detectives (“We’d rather be breaking down doors than doing this,” one of them said) are still in the race. But it appears from the previews that they will still be in China next week, and it remains to be seen whether they have learned the lessons of their problems in this episode.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 25 April 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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