Finding your way in China.
10 November 2011
Asking (and Obtaining!) Directions: The art of getting ‘there’ in China
These notes are an account of my personal experience. They also might help you have a smoother travel experience if you are considering a trip to China.
After spending the last few years studying Mandarin in Taiwan, last summer I moved to mainland China to pursue my Chinese medicine studies.
The relationship between China and Taiwan is a very complex one and cannot be thoroughly discussed here. For our purposes suffice to say that the two have been separated since 1949, when the Chinese Civil War turned in favour of the Communists and the Kuomindang led by Chiang Ka-shek retreated to Taiwan. For decades after that there was no official direct exchange between the two. A thawing of the relationship started in 1979, but “The Three Links” (san tong), that is direct transportation, direct commerce and direct postal communication were only fully re-established in 2008.This means that for more than half a century the history of “the two Chinas” has developed almost independently one from the other. As a result they have developed a number of traits that are remarkably different, notwithstanding the common roots the two share with each other.
For me, this meant suffering a form of cultural shock as I relocated from Taipei to Chengdu.
Asking directions in Taiwan is pretty easy. Sometimes you don’t even need to ask. As a foreigner, you can stand at a street corner holding your map, or at a bus stop looking at a timetable and, before your eyebrows have fully knitted into a frown, someone will approach you and ask you in English: “Do you need my help?” If you say yes, the person will most likely provide all the information you need to find your bearings and get to your destination. Sometimes they will even walk you there. If you approach someone and ask for help, you will more likely be met by a smile and a kind, exhaustive answer.
The only one adjustment you might learn to make is about distances in terms of walking time. The Taiwanese “Oh, is much too far away! You can’t walk there, you need to take bus number x” can be translated as a 20min walk at London (or even Brighton) pace. If they do think you can walk there, scale their suggested time down by half and you’ll be fine.
My first impact with another style of dealing with directions happened in Hong Kong. I was at the Chinese visa office and I needed to print out some documents I had in a USB stick. A guard told me that the nearby “Novotel” had a business centre open to the general public.
- How do I get there?
- It’s there! – and pointed behind him with his finger
“Oh great, that’s simple!” I thought.
I walked out, turned the corner in the direction the guard had indicated and found there to be no hotel at all. I walked back into the hall of the visa office to get more specific information. The same guard pointed again and said:
- There! You have to cross the road – pointing now at a slightly different angle
“Ah! Cross the road!” I thought.
I went out. No zebras on the road. I found stairs leading up to a flyover that opened into a network of maze-like pedestrian paths that went into different directions; once up there, I looked to choose the stairs that would take me down onto street level as near as possible to where I actually wanted to go (or where I think the guard had pointed to). Even so I found no hotel. I looked around for a while and then asked a passerby:
- Excuse me: do you know how to get to the Novotel?
- There! – he pointed across the road (another road now) and walked off.
I followed his finger, crossed the road and found a hotel, but not the one I wanted. So I stopped again and asked a shopkeeper. He seemed particularly annoyed at my question and only acknowledged me after I asked it the second time:
- There! - and motioned to his left with his chin
He turned his eyes away and resumed whatever he was doing. By this time I was starting to get the gist, so I forced a
- Where ‘there’?
- There! (now pointing with his finger, too, for added clarity, then going back to his business)
- Sorry I don’t understand, “there” where?
- At the end of the block
I wondered whether this was enough information, and walked off. This time I found the “Novotel” and managed to print out whatever I needed. But by then the visa office was closed for lunch. Had I known where to go, the walk from the visa office would have taken me 10min at the most instead of half an hour.
Here in Chengdu I had a number of similar experiences. At first, I used to believe that I had been given enough information, that the hotel, shop, clinic I was looking for was really going to be “there”: I just had to start walking in that direction and I would see it! After a few repeated experiences I knew that the information was insufficient, and yet I still walked off; why did I keep letting myself be “short changed”; why wasn’t I learning from experience?
I realised that after giving a very vague answer, people clearly communicate that the exchange is over. How do they do that? They use their body language. They turn their eyes away before I can give a sign that I have understood (or rather that I have not); their face sets hard without the trace of a smile; they immediately start doing something else (stirring a pot, moving a chair…), to which they give their full undivided attention. The conversation is finished and my counterpart has removed themself from it. Asking a further question actually means starting a new exchange with an unwilling partner. This requires an energy that I don’t always have. Like trying to walk up an escalator that’s going down or resisting falling asleep when my eyes are already closing. That’s why in so many situations I have walked away in the direction of a finger or a chin, conscious that I would have to repeat the same question to someone else a few minutes down the road. And then again.
The turning point was an outing with a Chinese friend from Dalian, a city in the north east of China. The two of us went to Pingle, a pretty old town outside Chengdu and on the southern Silk Road, which neither of us had been to before. During our exploration of the town I had several opportunities to see her “in action”. What a lesson!!
The best example came when, after lunch, we went looking for a temple on the outskirts of town. We stopped at a little store and my friend asked the man in charge:
- Excuse me, where is Cheng Huang Temple?
- There! (finger pointing, no eye contact)
- Do we need to cross the street?
- After we cross the street where do we need to go?
- Pass the market
- And then?
- There is a path that goes out of town
- How far is it?
- Not far
- How long does it take to walk there?
- About 20min
- Are there any forks in the road?
- Keep to your right
- So we cross the road, pass the market, take the path that goes out of town, keep to our right, walk altogether for about 20min and we’ll get to the temple, right?
- Thank you
After each answer the shop keeper did what I have seen so many people do: he lowered his eyes, concentrated on some fine adjustments of the goods on his counter, never smiled, never checked for a sign that my friend had understood (or not). After every answer of his there was a clean cut off in the conversation, the one that always discouraged me from further questioning. My friend just stood there. She paused. She took her time to take in the answer and work out the following question. She compensated for the lack of details by devising questions that solicited them one by one out of our somewhat reluctant helper.
We got to the temple – an amazing one for its very graphic representation of the torments of hell using not pictures but endless rows of coloured statues, which created a much more graphic effect than any Catholic painting I have ever seen! – and we found it without needing to stop again for directions!
That was a few months ago. Since then I have been training myself to ask for directions like my friend did. I still haven’t mastered the art, but I am definitely wasting less steps than I used to!
PS if you are thinking of going to Pingle and visiting Cheng Huang Temple, don’t go by the directions I wrote here as I went by memory. I am afraid you will need to ask for yourself how to get “there”…
Chengdu, November 2011
 Because of the afore-mentioned complex relationships, foreigners cannot apply for a Chinese visa in Taiwan, but they can in Hong Kong.