I have recently had the privilege to visit a country that is most famous for its ancient history, the only man-made structure visible from outer space and its huge population, which − even after 35 years of strictly controlled one-child policy − exceeds 1.35 billion.
I was invited by Nationalities University in Dalian in the North-East of China to deliver lectures on business and leadership to its students of International Trade in May this year. On my way there, I decided to spend four days in Beijing, as it would have been a shame to pass through this ancient city without visiting some of its famous sights.
I had been warned to expect large buildings and great distances in the ‘Northern Capital’, but I could hardly believe my eyes when, having taken the ‘Sky Train’ from the airport to the city centre, I stepped out of the railway station in search of a taxi to the hotel. The road in front of me was the size of a large European motorway with five lanes on each side and a barrier in the middle acting as central reservation. I was hoping to hail a taxi from the pavement, but there was also a metal barrier separating pedestrians and cyclists from the road and I could not see an opening in it anywhere. I even ventured down into the subway hoping to be able to cross underground to the other side of the vast avenue but only ended up back at the metro station that I had come from.
Seeing my despair (and it is not easy for a European visitor with a large suitcase to blend into the local crowd), an octogenarian rickshaw driver in slippers approached me and asked if I wanted a lift. When I showed him the address of the hotel, which I had very smartly printed out in Mandarin before I left home, he shook his head and waved me to a taxi that had miraculously appeared between the pavement and the roadside barrier. I couldn’t have been more grateful! I didn’t even mind the fare he was going to charge me which, for a relatively short journey, turned out to be twice the cost of an airport transfer.
It was just as well that I hadn’t contemplated making my way to the hotel by public transport, as there was no way I could have carried my heavy suitcase up and down the numerous stairs that seem to be inherent to any underground journey in Beijing. Public transport in China seems to have been designed solely for able-bodied athletes. If you wonder why most Chinese are so slim and fit, this is one reason: in order to get from A to B without a chauffeur-driven car or a taxi you have to walk for miles and climb hundreds of stairs every time.
I was relieved to eventually arrive at my lovely hotel and to be greeted by English-speaking staff and a comfortable bed to sleep off some of my jet lag. In the evening, refreshed, I ventured out for a walk to discover my immediate surroundings. I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the hotel being near Beijing Railway Station, the area was far from dodgy or run down. In fact, it was very modern with tall office buildings and shopping malls, and also very clean and free from any rough sleepers or beggars you would normally expect in such a location in most other countries. The roads, however, were still vast.
On my first evening stroll, I decided to walk across the zebra crossing in front of the station, the memory of which still sends shivers down my spine. I obviously waited for the lights to turn green for pedestrians before starting my long walk across the ten lanes that this particular road consisted of, luckily in the company of some brave and experienced locals. However, once on the crossing, I was astonished to see cars turning from both left and right onto the zebra crossing and expecting the pedestrians to somehow vanish from their paths. I didn’t know which way to look and whether to keep walking or to start sprinting, so I simply decided to stick with the small group of determined locals and kept walking while trying to ignore the cyclists and rickshaw drivers who, at that point, also joined in the commotion. In a situation like this, having only two eyes is simply not enough! Since I’m only blessed with the usual one pair, and this was not an experience I wanted to repeat any time soon, on subsequent trips out, I insisted on using the subway nearby to get from one side of the road to the other. Where this wasn’t an option, i.e. on smaller roads only consisting of four lanes, I would check both ways, check again and then run for it, hoping no local driver would want to get involved with foreign insurance firms over injuring a European visitor.
On this first outing of mine, I decided to pop into the local supermarket. The layout of the shop was very similar to that of many supermarket chains in Europe where you can find everything from clothes and household appliances to fresh fruit, meat and fish under the same roof. It didn’t surprise me too much that approximately 70% of all the food on sale was unrecognisable to me either due to its appearance or its Mandarin labelling, or both.
I wasn’t on a mission to try some exotic Chinese delicacies on my first evening, though; I was actually hoping to find some bread. I know that in Oriental countries bread isn’t part of the essential diet like it is in Europe, but I thought a large supermarket in the centre of Beijing would surely cater for more unusual tastes. Having spent about half an hour looking at various shelves and walking up and down numerous isles, I decided to ask someone for help. I thought I was very well prepared for this adventure as I had downloaded a couple of Chinese translator apps to my phone at home and this was the time to put my new gadget to the test. I quickly discovered, however, that both my apps were completely useless without Wi-Fi and I wasn’t desperate enough to use mobile internet 5,000 miles away from home at rates of about 1 ounce of gold per megabyte, so I resorted to approaching young, professional looking women (assuming that they might speak some basic English) with my ‘Do you speak English?’ pronounced as slowly and clearly as humanly possible. The reactions to this ranged from sheer panic followed by a swift move away from the stranger to giggles or simply saying ‘no way’ in Mandarin.
Working for a translation agency and having great passion for foreign languages, I do appreciate the importance of speaking the local language when visiting other countries. I also normally try to learn a few local phrases before travelling somewhere new, but in this case I felt completely unprepared: I could not communicate with a single person in that shop. The fact that I did eventually find something that looked like sliced bread but tasted more like brioche (an added bonus?) was not thanks to my verbal abilities but rather to my determination of not leaving the supermarket empty handed.
If lessons are to be learned from our experiences in life, then my first evening in Beijing taught me to avoid road traffic in Chinese cities at all costs and it made me realise that one must not assume that English is the international language of our globalized world. China is very happy with its own language and culture and is in no hurry to give it up or adjust it to our convenience.
Written by: Erika Arvai