Thursday, January 27, 2011

Banana Split: Sweet and Sour Chinese

Although the day started out fine, Matt and I didn't arrive into China for the first time under the best of circumstances. We had walked across the land border between Lau Cai in Vietnam and Hekou in China with relative ease. Then, things went a bit downhill...

The Lau Cai immigration center at the Vietnam/China border

From Hekou, we took an eight-hour bus journey to Kunming. The bus ride wasn't so bad, except for the heavy smoking that took place in the back of the bus. By the time we arrived into Kunming, things were not looking too good. It was already late in the evening and quite dark. The bus station seemed to be literally miles from the actual city of Kunming and we had no clue as to where we actually were. Neither Matt nor I had eaten all day and were quite cranky from the day's cramped traveling conditions. We didn't have any Chinese RMB as we had just crossed the border that very morning. Oh, and we had absolutely NO IDEA where we were going to stay for the night.

Enter the Chinese.

We were swarmed even before we were off the bus. Exhausted, hungry, grumpy and confused, Matt and I thought that the best option was for us to pretend like we didn't speak Mandarin at all (even though I can understand and speak a little bit) until we had the chance to think and figure out what we were going to do.

Rapid Mandarin was fired at me (remember I look Chinese and well, can you blame them because I actually am): "Miss, where do you want to go? Do you need a taxi? I have a lovely hotel..."

"I'm sorry, we don't speak Chinese," hoping that this would buy us some time to think and locate ourselves on the map.

It didn't work.

The crowds stayed with us but made lots of commentary thinking we didn't speak Chinese but not knowing that I could (kind of) understand them.

"She says she doesn't speak Chinese but she looks Chinese!"

"I saw them first, I will take them in MY taxi!"

"My, what big bags they carry with them!"

"Who is the white boy she's with?"

And so on and so forth.

Finally, in exasperation, I said, in Mandarin, "We have no money" to try to get them to leave us alone.

Everyone laughed and more commentary followed, as well as cruel (so it seemed to me) imitations of my poorly spoken Mandarin.

"She DOES speak Chinese! I knew she was Chinese!"

"What does she mean they have no money?"

"How come the white boy doesn't have money?"

Now, I can only imagine that this has happened to us in EVERY single place in Asia we've ever been. The only difference was that I didn't understand what was being said. And to be honest, in the horrible and bad-tempered mood that I was in, I found it really annoying that these people were being so rude in talking about us to our faces even though they now knew that I could speak and understand Mandarin, that they laughed at me for trying to speak Mandarin and then mocked me for it AND that they were not actually trying to be of any help to us at all.

We did our best to ignore them and tried to figure out what to do. The logical thing was to take a bus into town but that required money, which we had none of and there were no ATMs or money change stations around. In short, we were kind of screwed.

Wanting to get away from taunting crowd, Matt suggested that we walk away from the station and hope that we find an ATM along the way (Fellow travelers, THIS IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA! If you cannot see lights for miles around, THIS IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA).

We started walking. It was dark. There was nothing around. I was hungry and I wanted to cry.

After a few minutes, we realized that someone had been following us. It was a middle-aged lady. "Miss, Kunming is very far. You will never make it there on foot. I have a nice hotel here. You can stay the night and then tomorrow go to the city."

I translated to Matt and we decided to check out the lady's hotel even though we didn't have the money to pay her. When we got to the lobby, I was trying to ask the lady and her teenage daughter where we were located on the Lonely Planet map but they said they couldn't read the map.

The empty street where we spent our first night in China
Okay, maybe I need to explain the language situation. My mother is Chinese, right? She speaks a dialect of Cantonese called Tai Shan. I grew up speaking this and that's the Chinese language I speak with my mother's side of the family whenever I'm back in my hometown (which is, sadly, not too often). I learned Cantonese through various avenues such as Chinese pop music (yes, I went through THAT phase), watching Hong Kong action films (another phase) and speaking with Hong Kong friends in high school. That said, my Cantonese is okay, though I tend to throw in Tai Shan words in my Canto conversations. In high school, for some inexplicable reason, I really wanted to learn Mandarin (read and write as well). I had private Mandarin lessons twice a week and attended Mandarin school for two hours each Saturday morning. This went on for about three years, though I will confess and say that even though I asked for the Mandarin lessons, I was never too keen on learning it and kind of breezed through the three years of lessons (sorry Mom for wasting your money!). It's safe to say my Mandarin was pitiful.

Now back to the embarrassingly slow conversation I was trying to have in the hotel lobby. Finally, the daughter gets frustrated with me as I'm trying to explain to Matt what was going on and yells, within inches from my face, in Mandarin, "Miss, if you just tell us where you want to go, we can help you!"

I'm ashamed to say it but I lost my temper. You have to understand, I was tired, hungry, grumpy, lost, penniless, sore and now a Chinese girl was yelling in my face.

Inches from the girl's face, I yell back, in (slow and broken) Mandarin, "I do NOT speak Mandarin! Just wait a minute!"

I turn back to Matt only to see him bulge-eyed and shocked at my outburst. "What the hell just happened?"

I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Calmly, I turn back to the daughter and explained in Mandarin, "We have no money. We do not know where we are or where we are going. We are hungry. We have no money. We have no money to pay you for the (whatever word I thought "room" was). We do not have money to eat food. We are hungry and tired."

Then, a miracle happened. The lady who had followed us said, "It's okay. Here, we give you 100 RMB so you can go eat. Tomorrow, we take you to Kunming so you can get money and pay us back."

Grateful, we thanked them and went next door to get some dinner. Bellies full, Matt remarked on our way back to the hotel how funny it was that moments after yelling in their face, the ladies had given us money for the night.

I had to admit, my first impression of the Chinese wasn't a great one with all the yelling and running commentary but they sure saved us from a night of desolation with their kindness and hospitality and for that, I will always be grateful. I just wish I had kept my cool a bit earlier. And certainly, I have no idea what would have happened to Matt and I if this situation had occurred anywhere else where we truly didn't speak the language.

Little did I know that this would come to be the prime example of most of our interactions with the Chinese while we traveled in China. Some people were really nice and helpful to us while others mocked and ridiculed me for my poor Mandarin skills. But more on that later!

Have you ever had a travel experience where someone's generosity and hospitality, despite any language barrier, helped you out of a difficult situation?

© Connie Hum 2011


  1. Damn. That's a hot mess. And a scary mess. I wouldn't have a CLUE what to do in that situation!!!!

  2. @puhhLEIGHze I honestly think my primal survival instincts are what kicked my Mandarin in gear! Maybe you could have just pantomined the same? =)

  3. Hi there. I'm currently living in Taiwan, I've been studying Chinese for a while, and I can totally relate to this kind of frustration. Hang in there. You sound like one tough cookie.

  4. Oh the ups and downs of travel...thank good the ups are so freaking amazing that we can just let the downs go.

  5. @Marjorie Learning a new language is one of the toughest things anyone can try to do. It should be encouraged instead of mocked. Hang in there yourself, I'm sure your Mandarin is better than mine!

    @Andi of My Beautiful Adventures Well said, Andi! The ups of traveling definitely make all the downs seem like small, minor things. I would take all the downs of travel for even just one up!

  6. @Andi of My Beautiful Adventures

    It's true that we have to be thankful for the good aspects of travel! There are so many. Thank goodness Connie that some people were kind to you in China!

  7. I know your pain...despite growing up with a Mexican father, I never was taught Spanish in my home, and now living in Spain the language barrier has been at times excruciating like your story. I don't blame you for losing it after such a long day, and what a beautiful twist in the story when they offered you money.

  8. @Christine I'm always so grateful that I learned to be tri-lingual growing up (I speak English, Cantonese and Burmese at home). I hope to raise my children speaking multiple languages too! And yes, how wonderful that these women were willing to help us out! I'll always remember them.

  9. Wow, what an adventure. I'm glad you got through it safely. I do think your language skills saved you. Anyway, how many languages do those men who were teasing you speak?

  10. What a great post, if a scary adventure! In my many travels I have discovered that most people anywhere are kind and often willing to help a stranger. Which doesn't mean you can't come across the "other" ones ;)

    Glad it worked out for you. Forgive yourself for yelling!

  11. @ramblinbess I always try to remember that ignorance is a big issue in the problem I encounter when I travel, but it's hard to keep it in mind during stressful situations.

    @Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane It's true, most people are willing to be helpful! Unfortunately, you run into the not so nice ones every so often.

  12. Sounds like a rough entry into China! I don't know why they put the bus stations in Kunming so far away from EVERYTHING. It's ridiculous, we used Kunming as a transit point and getting from one place to the next took forever and was so confusing (we went by public bus too). We walked around with a slip of paper with instructions in Chinese going from person to person. And the LP maps...pretty worthless, I wish they would add an update online.

    Oh, and don't even get me started on the smoking in the buses in China!!! TERRIBLE!

    We found people to be mostly helpful although we were told by a few foreign born Chinese people that the reception they received was not the most welcoming so you weren't alone at least.

    Keep on trucking, brighter days are ahead and the bad days help us to recognize and appreciate the good ones!

  13. It's very sweet of that women to have taken care of you like that and lucky that you and Matt found her. I would have done the same concerning the others, who has time for people who can't be patient, especially if you expect them to give you money!

    It's funny (not humorous) that they mocked your language skills considering most travelers couldn't even begin to speak the language let alone try to form sentences. I feel like it happens all too often that locals bad-mouth travelers for not knowing the language and turn around and mock them when they do!

    In the end it sounds like things turned out for you!

  14. From our experience travelling, we learnt the same thing, never arrive at night without knowing where we're going, always have money, and never hope for the best! Always need to do it once to learn :) There always seems to be a nice decent person around though for those lessons. A man in London once let us stay at his shop as long as we were out by 8am. We had nothing to sleep on but the floor, but that's all we needed. A distinguished gentleman in Italy heard of speak about not knowing where to stay and we had no money, he brought us to a hotel and paid for it. Another man overheard us talk about arriving in Naples, and he asked if we knew where we would stay. Being naive we said no but we'll find a place. He gave us the name of a beautiful hostel in the country and told us to stay there, and not wander at night. Strangers in France put us up for the night. Lots of people had no malice intentions either. It was really heartwarming to see that people can be kind. Happy travels :)


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