My teacher looks at me in total
bewilderment. She switches to English and keeps repeating her
questions „But… how do they do it? Just… how do they live
I had just learned the word for
room-mate in Chinese; it’s literally „house-friend“. Which I
think, has a beautiful connotation that the German word „Mitbewohner“
lacks. It just means „person you life with“.
My roommates here in Kunming are Dutch
and English. My Dutch roommate knows a little bit of Chinese. Vera is
working on HSK Level 2 and Ellen is just on her first words since
it’s her first time in China and she just arrived about a week ago
and planning on taking lessons once she is a bit more settled in,
found an apartment with her – Austrian – boyfriend. He actually
studies Chinese and has easily the highest level between the four of
So, how do you do it? How do you cope
and live in Kunming without knowing Chinese? You can cope, maybe not
as easy as in Shanghai but then Kunming-people are incredibly helpful
and I came across English speakers a couple of times already.
The wide-spread of mobile phones makes
many things easier – and less adventurous. There are some
translating apps where you can talk into in your language and they
answer in the desired language. But there are still some
misunderstandings, sometimes the internet connection is way to slow
and it just takes the fun out of things.
Plus, there are a few things that are
very good to know: the words for the numbers up to ten, how you
indicate them with your hand and how you write them. And there is one
sentence that has been vital for me and was among the first
expressions I learned. „I want this.“ It opens the door to almost
anything – as long as you can point to it. It doesn’t mean you are
eloquent or especially friendly – but it helps yourself and the
other person in sucessfully handling an operation.
In the following there’s an insight in
a couple of everyday situations and how I cope(d) with them without
knowing the language as well as coping methods.
How do you take the bus? Or metro?
Amaps is a great help. It’s a map-app
designed for China. It not only gives you walking, cycling or driving
directions but you can use it for buses as well. Works like a
ONCE you got used to it. Since it’s
been designed for China, everything is in Chinese. You have to give
it your destination in Chinese. But it can cope with PinYin. Pinyin
uses the latin alphabet for phonetic transcription so you don’t need
to install a Chinese keyboard on your phone.
Using it without being able to read
Characters isn’t too hard either since it’s using a lot of icons for
things like „walking“ or „bus“. Plus how it’s made up it’s
not rocket science but similar to google maps.
It’s obvious which is the bus number
you have to take and it even shows you on which side of the road your
bus stop is so you don’t end up going in the wrong direction.
What really gives me a hard time is
following it’s spoken instructions as it not only telling you the
important things like „turn left“ but asking you to take care on
the road. It basically feels like it’s talking non-stop. But if
follow the dot on the map, it’s easy.
The only thing giving me a hard time
are bus lines that seem to divert. Goingtowards the city centre the
bus line number 1 turns either left or right at one point. I haven’t
figured out how to tell which of them I am on.
How do you get a metro card?
There are three ways to pay for the
bus. Either cash, by app (only an option if you have a Chinese bank
account) or by card. The down-side of the cash version is that you
throw your money into a box. Bus is 1 or 2 Renminbi so before I had
the card I was holding on like crazy to my one-renminbi bills to have
enough for the bus.
My first try on getting a metro card
wasn’t succesful – even though my Chinese skill were already at the
amazing level of being able to say „I want to buy a metro card“ –
like I knew all the words AND the right order. But the clerk at the
booth just waved me away. So I eventually took a picture of someone
elses to point to it. Worked like a charm as it gave me enough
self-confidence to walk up to the booth again, smile and ask for a
metro card which I hold in my hands minutes later.
But have done the „I want this“
picture thing many times before in China.
How do you buy food?
Apart from a splendid amount of
affordable restaurants there are more sources to food: Supermarkets,
markets and people selling from the back of a truck.
To be honest, at the start, China was
sometimes overwhelming in a way that I didn’t want to deal with any
of these options and decided for a pack of Oreo-cookies to be a whole
Supermarket feels the easiest as it
involves the least interaction. You go through the store and put
everything into the basket you’d like to have. You can go to a small
one in your neighbourhood or to a big one of a foreign chain where
you will also get loads of imported products. The smaller ones in
many places don’t sell vegetables and fruits though.
So you will want to opt for going to a
market. It feels scary at first – I felt a bit vulnerable and
unsecure. Going to a market stall involves a lot more communication
then I could master. It works with pointing, taking the food as well.
The situation is pretty obvious actually. Many stall owners would
have a calculator to show me the price if I didn’t understand it or I
would just give a rather large bill.
Buying from the back of a truck is
working pretty much the same – it’s just that they have less
variety. Here in Kunming, most times they are selling one or two
kinds of fruits.
It’s worth the bit of akwardness as I
get a load of nice veggies for a really good price.
But of course, I don’t want to cook
How do you order at a restaurant?
Yunnan has the best invention ever, when it comes to ordering food
without any language skills: Fridge restaurants! All the food they
have is on display, you just go and point what you want to have, sit
down and get surprised which food has been fried, cooked or become a
soup. But it’s the best way to really get what you thought you
Other places offer a a variety of options. Many places have
pictures of the dishes so you can point at them and hope it turns out
what you think it is. Most times it works out alright – it’s more
noodles and less vegetables most times.
Another option is to point at other peoples food and indicate you
want that kind of dish. Sometimes the staff hands me the menu,
completely in Chinese. I explain that I can’t read but they insist.
So I just point to a couple of dishes and hope to not get Chicken
feet. I opt for the cheaper dishes as they are most likely to be
vegetables and/or eggs.
The English Speaker
Many times, when it got more complicated, „the English Speaker“
evolved. Like the other day at the pharmacy – many times when I was
somewhere and there were some conversational issues – the English
speaker would show up. It would be someone being called from outside
– like this one lovely time when I was in a small store in a city
somewhere between Hong Kong and the Vietnamese border – a young
student who loves to watch English movies and speaks a conversational
English was fetched from the street to assist me. At other times,
someone would overcome their shyness in speaking a foreign language
and simply go for it. If the English speaker can’t be found among the
people that are there, she or he will be called on the phone to
translate. Like this one lovely day on my first biketour, just
outside Xiamen, when I was sad and lonely, eating an early lunch and
I think, the people around could tell I wasn’t in a good place. They
called an English speaking friend basically so she could ask me if I
was okay and if they could do anything for me.
The last resort: calling a bilingual friend!
This is the best joker ever if you are in China and you can’t
speak the language. If you have a Chinese speaking friends who also
knows English (or German or… whatever language you have in common).
It’s pretty much the reverse version of „calling the English
speaker“ as you are calling „the Chinese speaker“. Many times
one of them saved me when I was desperate because something just
wouldn’t work out. This summer, when I arrived in Qingdao, I needed
to take a ferry, was totally exhausted by that time and couldn’t
figure out where to buy the tickets. Even though there were people
trying to help me. So eventually, I called Huan who helped me out by
translating. Within a minute all the communication issues that had
been going on for twenty minutes were solved and I got my ticket.
Yes, it’s much easier when you are in a country where you speak
the language – but it’s also less fun at times. Plus: whenever I
handle a situation here I feel a bit like a hero. And the sales
person as well. Or she is simply smiling with relief when I walk off
with the desired item.