Being a foreigner (or as they call us here: Lǎo Wài) is a strange thing here in South China. You won’t have any issues if you stay in your hotel room, but as soon as you venture out the adventure starts!
How do I know which store sells what? How do I know if I got a shampoo or a conditioner, a laundry detergent or a fabric softner? And most importantly how do I know what and how to order at the restaurant? (It greatly helps if you do not have any dietary restrictions and you are the “I eat everything” type.) A lot of signs don’t use pinyin so I feel like a child who can’t read. When they ask something at the store or restaurant you just hope it’s not something important. If they didn’t realize you don’t speak the language the simple phrase “Wǒ bù dǒng”* (I don’t understand) will help.
I managed of course, and figured things out. Slowly. A Chinese friend can be an enormous help. As an example, there is this restaurant nicknamed “Spicy” by the foreign interns here. The reason is obvious: most of their dishes are spicy. But some of them are not. But how to I know which ones? Trial and error is the first attempt. After several nose and eye watering experience I almost gave up. But one day Chinese colleagues came for a rescue and explained to me that there are those nice little characters near the items on the menu which refer to their spiciness. I just have to recognize them (or as they dumbed it down for me if you see one character that’s “spicy”). I was saved! 不辣 (BU LA) = not spicy, 辣 (LA) = Spicy. The third one is evidently “little spicy” but I couldn’t find it in the dictionary. I was proud to have learned my first Chinese characters.
Sometimes there are surprises how easy things go. Last Saturday for example I ventured to get on the bus for the first time. We made plans with a friend (also a Lǎo Wài) to go to a large botanical garden with the biggest Buddhist temple in Shenzhen. We had equipped ourselves with real maps, Google maps and online dictionary, in case we get lost. Taking the Shenzhen Metro is not a problem in Shenzhen. They have the stops in pinyin (or some even have English names), all important instructions are translated into English and stops are announced in English (see some photos I toolk on the Metro above). We quickly found our bus stop and checked that we would be heading the right direction (east). The only strange part was that I didn’t see any numbers listed that belong to the particular bus stop like in most countries, but there was a large board with a map and some information on the bus lines (in Chinese). We didn’t have to wait long to spot one of the lines that we knew was going to the park (thanks to expats’ helpful information online). According to the information and Google Maps directions the travel time was 30-40 minutes (depending on the bus line) but we got there in 15 minutes. We told to get off (and it was the last stop). As we got there so fast I thought maybe we are at the wrong place. Let’s check Google Maps! It’s confirmed: we were at the right place! I felt disappointed because we got there without any “adventure”!
Oh well, there’s always a next time.
* I looked up this phrase online and learned that the correct term would rather be “Wǒ tīng bù dǒng” meaning that you don’t understand what they are telling you.