Using Chinese in different situations: from rivers to roads

Although our stay in China is rapidly coming to a conclusion – less than three months to go – I find myself still wanting to learn as much Chinese as possible. Part of my motivation comes from the satisfaction of being able to take visitors around without too much stress and from the sheer enjoyment of being able to engage with Chinese people and find out a bit more about their lives and opinions.

For example, on a burning hot day out in the countryside near Yangshou/Guilin, an elderly man kindly invited us into his very bare and poverty stricken house to shelter from the sun. Probably he didn’t speak a lot more Putonghua (Mandarin) than me, but we managed to converse a little. He talked about his sons and proudly showed us studio portraits of himself and his wife, and they agreed to pose for us to take more photos. His wife grimly kept her mouth shut, so as not to display her broken and missing teeth.

Another day on a bamboo raft, floating down the Yulong river in the glorious karst landscape, I talked to my boatman. He and the older man propelling my friends’ raft chatted in the local dialect and then called out to other passing boatman. ‘This foreign woman can talk Putonghua and she lives in Ningbo’, I heard a few times. Chinese tourists on rafts were manoeuvred closer to me, so that they could observe such an extraordinary phenomenon. More opportunities to pass the time of day and ask them where they were from and if they were having a good time – ‘hao wan’ – having fun, as the Chinese say. Many of our visitors have remarked on the jollity of Chinese people – unremittingly negative press about China back in the West has meant people are surprised to see the very public displays of sociability and relaxation amongst Chinese crowds and tourists.

All the work I put into studying the local menu in our local restaurant back in Ningbo had not been in vain. One night my friends and I chose a small Sichuan restaurant just down the street from our hotel in Suzhou. On the menu there were very limited pictures and no English. It was one of those menus where you have to tick what you want to order – very daunting. I could recognise the characters for black fish (recommended by Yona), spice (chilli), potatoes and cabbage and ticked these. Back came the waitress with a host of questions which I didn’t understand. ‘You decide’, I said. This wasn’t good enough and she showed me on another table what the fish might look like. Light dawned slowly – it was all about presenting the fish in one shallow metal dish with the vegetables, and a small flame underneath. Would we like it like that? I assured her we would.

Sure enough, when the fish came it was delicious – fleshy, with few bones and floating in a sea of spicy sauce with potato and cabbage. My English friends showed impressive chopstick skills and we polished it all off with aplomb, washed down with weak Chinese beer. The meal was such as a success that we all agreed to return to the restaurant on our last evening in Suzhou and eschew the rather formal restaurant in the hotel.

This time I was better prepared. I realized that one question had been about the weight of the fish – how big a fish did we want? (This has been confirmed in a recent conversation class). I agreed to the weight that was suggested. We attempted to choose a different sauce but were firmly told by the waitress that this would be too spicy for us – so once again we did as we were told. We didn’t regret it – a second heavenly meal followed, this time with a sauce of preserved or ‘sour’ vegetables.

Sadly, my improved language skills were only partially successful when dealing with a taxi driver in Shanghai on the final part of our travels. Our plane took off late from Guilin and we arrived in Pudong airport at 11.30pm. ‘No underground’, an official told me firmly. We muttered about the aspiration of Shanghai to be a world city if its major transport link closed down so early, but resigned ourselves to queuing for a taxi.

Unusually, the queue moved quickly and we were ushered into a Shanghai cab. From the first rev of the engine we knew what we were in for. Joining the highway, the driver put his foot down. ‘There is no hurry, please drive slowly’, I said. The driver looked at me for a second. ‘Mei wen ti’, he said scornfully. ‘No problem.’ No way was a foreign woman going to tell him how to drive his taxi. I shut my eyes. Sweat dripped down my face. The journey on a good day takes about 40 minutes. We drew up at our hotel in the centre of the city after 20 minutes. The dial showed 140 kph most of the way. The speed limit was mostly 80 kph.

The fare was 201 yuan and I offered 210, waiting for my change. You don’t tip in China but the driver expected me to give him the extra 9, because he had got us there so fast. For the first time in three years I lost my temper – in Chinese. Words poured out. Forgotten vocabulary jumped into my head. ‘I asked you to go slower. You should have listened to me. We were terrified. You are a terrible driver. No, I won’t give you extra money.’ And so on. My friends stood outside the car looking on in amazement. The driver of course had no idea why I was so cross, took his 200 yuan, slammed the door and drove off. Foreigners!