10 Ways to Survive in China (Even If You Don’t Know Chinese)

In June, an Indian-American travelled to Beijing and Shanghai. Here’s how she survived.

Updated
India
6 min read
Forbidden City, Beijing (Photo: Veda Shastri)

Travelling can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have, but unless you’ve done some basic prep, navigating China can be baffling and bewildering.

In June, I travelled to Beijing and Shanghai. I was a vegetarian in a meat-eating country, and had no knowledge of Mandarin-Chinese whatsoever. Had I not had a bunch of tips, tricks and tech at my disposal, I would have had a tough time.

Here are my learnings.

1) Since you can’t Google your way out, use other translator Apps

Since it is banned in China, you can’t Google your way out of any situation (unless you have a VPN). So the best thing you can do to traverse the English-Chinese language barrier is to download a few key translator apps.

WayGo App for reading menus at restaurants


Use this app to decipher menus. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
Use this app to decipher menus. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

The WayGo app is designed to help you read menus. In China, it’s particularly helpful because you often find yourself with menus printed only in Chinese, and without any English descriptions. Chinese phrases are long because they use many characters to convey what we think of as one word--which makes it hard for translator apps. WayGo worked well when I tried to decipher the different types of juice available, but not so well when I tried to read a magazine.

WayGo wasn’t as effective in reading a newspaper as it was in helping decipher menus. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
WayGo wasn’t as effective in reading a newspaper as it was in helping decipher menus. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

iTranslate for basic conversation


iTranslate helped me navigate through China without interpreters. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
iTranslate helped me navigate through China without interpreters. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

This is a truly fantastic app and was a life-saver for me, the complete Chinese illiterate. The way it works is you type in a word in English (or any language) and it will translate into your chosen other language (Chinese in my case). It punches out the word in English and Chinese scripts, and also has a sound option (in case you want to play out the word or phrase for a local).

We went shopping in some art shops in Beijing where we were trying to buy calligraphy brushes. The woman running the shop only spoke Chinese and so I punched in ‘calligraphy’ in iTranslate and showed her the Chinese text. She understood and led us to the sets. After that, we kept punching in ‘thin’ or ‘thick’ to explain what sort of brush we wanted.

As a vegetarian, I regularly put in the word ‘vegetarian’ in iTranslate and showed it to wait staff, with great success.

2) Have your destination’s address written out in Chinese

10 Ways to Survive in China (Even If You Don’t Know Chinese)

This is an absolute must. Make sure you have the address of your destination written in Chinese script to show taxi drivers or locals. They will NOT be able to decipher the address in English.

Most hotels will have cards with their own addresses on them. They will also have cards with the addresses of the main tourist destinations, so just ask at the front desk. When in doubt, take a screenshot from a guidebook or an app (pictured above) that has the Chinese address.

3) Write down basic phrases phonetically

This is a must-do, but don’t be surprised if your mispronunciation leads a local to misunderstand you.

Case in point: I tried telling a local ‘I am a vegetarian’, but instead I apparently said ‘I am from Jiangsu province’! A slight change in tone or mispronunciation can entirely change the meaning of what you’re trying to say. But do try it as locals appreciate it if you use even 1-2 words in Chinese. And hey, worst case scenario, your charade skills will come in handy. Between sign language and acting it out, someone will understand you eventually.

4) Stop trying to make sense of English labels on signs, packages, stores

Signboards can be humorous. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
Signboards can be humorous. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

Chinese words are constructed from characters which are each imbued with meaning in context. Most translations to English look like a translator app went over the phrase in question blindly, which is why they seem nonsensical in the context we are used to. Try to understand the overall idea behind the translation instead of expecting it to make sense in syntax.

5) If you’re a vegetarian, avoid restaurants with menus printed only in Chinese.

A vegetarian spread at a restaurant. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
A vegetarian spread at a restaurant. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

Also, learn the Chinese word for vegetables, su and the phrase ‘no meat’, boo ro. If all else fails, tell them you’re a Buddhist.

The only problem is if you claim you’re a Buddhist and also order beer!

6) Practice eating with chopsticks but it’s okay to ask for a fork

I carried a fork with me but most places had one available if you asked. Notice how the locals use chopsticks--especially with noodles--they keep their mouth close to the food and slurp. So try!

7) It helps if you like green tea

Green Tea cheesecake at a Starbucks in Shanghai. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
Green Tea cheesecake at a Starbucks in Shanghai. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

It’s a given that the green tea flavour is in everything. Yes, including that cheesecake at Starbucks and the soft-serve ice-cream on the street. And no, it doesn’t taste differently if it’s supposed to be in a dessert.

But anyways, doesn’t green tea make everything better?

Fancy green tea flavoured chips anyone? (Photo: Veda Shastri)
Fancy green tea flavoured chips anyone? (Photo: Veda Shastri)

8) Lines are long, but efficient, so stick with them

Queue at the railway station at Shanghai. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
Queue at the railway station at Shanghai. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

Don’t be dismayed if you’re in a seemingly never-ending line at tourist sites or taxi lines at airports or railway stations. It’s always better to go the official route than be enticed by fake guides trying to rip you off. (And this will happen a lot, so beware).

I was adamant that I had to visit the Mao mausoleum in Tiananmen Square (where the late Chairman Mao’s body has been preserved and is shown to the public for 3 hours each morning), but as we approached the site, the line seemed never-ending and we groaned. To our surprise, the line moved steadily despite security checks, and within five minutes we were inside the building.

9) In an open-air market, make sure you bargain your price down. A lot.

Most shopkeepers will start with overcharging tourists by over several hundred yuan. China is a country where fakes abound. Almost anything can be duplicated. Keep that in mind when shelling out money for souvenirs.

Despite the language barrier, the Chinese have devised an excellent way to bargain--using a calculator. They take out a large calculator, punch in their opening price, and ask you to punch in your opening price. And then you keep going back and forth until a mutual agreement is made or bullied!

10) It is not the done thing to add an extra tip in most places

Foot massage in Beijing. (Photo: Veda Shastri)
Foot massage in Beijing. (Photo: Veda Shastri)

Tips and service tax are built in, so service and hospitality staff in most places are not used to being given extra cash (even at 5-star hotels). I tipped a helpful waitress and a foot masseuse and each time they seemed surprised and uncomfortable with it. 

Language is the biggest barrier between China and the world, and it is that, above all else which will trouble any foreigner trying to make their way around.

But as someone who has lived in India for the last five years, I found that civic sense is much more pervasive in Beijing & Shanghai, and even in the intensity of the hustle and bustle, a level of politeness, civility, and looking out for the other remains.

So rest assured, and happy travels!

Veda Shastri is currently pursuing a master’s degree in documentary film-making at New York University. Prior to this, she was a producer at CNN-IBN in New Delhi for 5 years. She can be reached on Twitter @vedashastri.

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