“You’re going to China”, my boss told me more matter-of-factly than an order. Well, I was not too keen on going because of a personal conviction (hint: it goes with the acronym W.P.S.). Left without any amusing choice, I thought of making this work trip serve my interest somewhat. So, I was going to learn how to make Jiānbing (Chinese pancake/ 煎饼), was my resolve. Unfortunately, my boss told me we were sharing the hotel room during the trip. Great! No exploring the city for Jiānbing! Because my trip was purely about work, this is not going to be the usual travel blog. For starters, there will be no “Instagram-able” travel photos; no selfies with the Canton Tower as the backdrop; and no food tours.
Nevertheless, I am going to share an important, if not the most important, take away from this trip, that is, how to communicate with only a handful of Mandarin to native Chinese speakers, along with a few preparedness tips, regardless if Lao Tzu said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving”. He must not have meant it to be taken literally.
Guangzhou (or Canton/广州) is the capital city of Guangdong Province located along the south coastline of China.
1. Getting around like a frequent tourist
The horror stories I heard about getting a cab, especially from the airport ( I arrived at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport/ 广州白云机场 ) to the city centre gave me panic attacks. One lady I met at the airport told me how she was scammed by a cab driver who switched her genuine yuan with a fake note. There have been many incidences like hers. Other stories related to colorum cabs charging tourists exorbitant fares. So I had to do my homework prior to my trip.
At the airport, I had to ask the airport security, which area to take the metered taxi from. With broken English, they were able to give me directions. The thing is, one should avoid those guys who would beckon you to take a ride in their cab. Authentic taxi drivers just stayed near their taxis, not forcing passengers to pick them randomly from the taxi cue. Most of them, however, do not speak English.
So the first lesson: print your itineraries in English with pīnyīn and Chinese texts.On index cards or cut several card-sized papers and write down your itineraries. Show the card to the driver every time you take the cab, so they would know where to take you. However, be alert also with directional signs on the roads, which are inscribed in English and Mandarin.
A pound of practice is more worth than an ounce of theory. 读万卷书不如行万里路 [讀萬卷書不如行萬里路]。
2. Carry smaller notes
For my trip, I carried a few RMB100 notes. To not give an opportunity for fake note switching, I changed a hundred yuan for smaller amounts by buying bottled water in a convenience store located at the airport. It was easier to give the exact amount to the cab driver for the toll fees, and later on, for the cab fare.
He who wants to become rich must take risks. 做上险富得要。
3. Make keyword translations
Interacting with people of different cultures and limited English vocabulary can be quite frustrating. The locals I interacted with behaved and reacted differently to me when I started communicating with them: some were annoyed, and others were helpful and compromising. Generally, though, I found them willing to communicate either in broken English or by gestures. It is always rewarding to be prepped with basic native phrases and keywords to fill in the communication gap.
I made a printable list of English to Mandarin keyword/phrases translations with Chinese texts, which had been helpful for me to communicate. I supplement my words (pīnyīn) with hand gestures too. The numbers were especially helpful with negotiating for taxi fare (which I experienced, would skyrocket during the rush hours, or depending on where you are hailing the cab and your destination). The pīnyīn keywords were also helpful when I was asking for directions, or ordering food. In worse cases, you can show your printable to the person you are talking to and point to the Chinese texts.
Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. 学习是永远跟随主人的宝物 [學習是永遠跟隨主人的寶物。
4. Sensitive digestion? Not too adventurous with food?
First of all, I recommend drinking only bottled water even in hotels. I remember one time my boss, her colleagues and I went to dine in a restaurant and we were served steam fish, soy chicken, and sautéed sweet potato tops. I was not too fond of steam fish but did try it and took the fleshy part near the fins. The colleagues took the middle part and realised the fish was not thoroughly cooked. How did they know? They said if the flesh could not be separated, then it is still undercooked. The chicken meat was chewy and I think that was how chicken recipes are done in that part of Guangzhou (I cannot speak for entire China) because that was how the chicken meat was also served in another eating place we went to on another day.
My foolproof meal would be McDonald’s combo meal. Their servings were huge (almost good for sharing) though a bit pricey at RMB62.
One meal won’t make a fat man. 一口吃不成胖子。
5. Get a VPN for free!
Yes, you need a VPN (virtual private network) to get around China’s great firewall. Although (some) hotels usually provide connections to usual communication apps like Whatsapp and Skype but if you are like me that need to be hooked to the Internet to do researches on the fly while traveling, as well as to access the normally barred Facebook, Twitter, Google/Gmail, Viber and company webmail, you cannot do without a VPN.
I installed a free plan of Windscribe, which allows 10GB of free VPN a month, and I swear the connection was faster than I anticipated (because it hooked me to a Hong Kong-based server). Although I was able to access YouTube, but not able to stream videos, possibly because the wifi connection at the hotel I was billeted was also slow.
What I did was I installed Windscribe VPN a day before my China trip. I also used the Google Chrome browser for browsing instead of my favourite browser Brave. It is because, Brave is efficiently blocking ads, trackers, and whatnots, hence, was not cooperating well with me when I turned on the Windscribe VPN.
When we get to the mountain, there’ll be a way through。。 车到山前必有路 [車到山前必有路].
6. Wear a dust mask
Guangzhou’s air quality is moderate according to the US Department of State, and visually, one could see that from the grey haze across the skylines throughout the day. The haze was akin to rain clouds hanging low and covering the top of many taller buildings. I have a sensitive sense of smell and inside the cab, even if the windows were closed; I still could smell the whiff of soot. Guangzhou, as in the rest of China, is looking to increasing electric cars plying its roads by 2020, which is among its strategies to improve air quality.
Clothing is cherishable when new, but relationship when old. 衣不如新，人不如故。
7. Pack the raincoat, umbrella
I went to Guangzhou in latter May and there were occasional rain showers. So bring either an umbrella or a raincoat; or whichever is handy at all times. On non-rainy days, it is not quite as humid as in the Philippines during the same period, which is summer. While it is recommended to wear light fabric clothes, it is neither unforgiving to layer your outfit if it is your style. Travel light, as they say, but traveling with flamboyance makes the trip more fun! 一路平安。