A slight look of panic swept over the face of the girl at the counter. She quickly smiled and put up her hand in what I assumed was a non-verbal request for me to wait. She then did an about face and hurried into the back of the restaurant.
A minute or two later a smiling lady emerged from the back and, in serviceable English, welcomed me to the restaurant. This was in Xi’an’s bustling and cramped Muslim Quarter where I had endeavored to seek out Paomo, a local soup consisting of mutton and broken up leavened bread garnished with pickled vegetables.
My English speaking helper led me to a table, took my order, and showed me how to break up the bread before placing it into the hot broth. While I was getting the deluxe table-side treatment, everyone else had to order and pay at the counter. This wasn’t a fancy restaurant, it was a small place with about 10 tables.
That was a relatively easy transaction as the menu was prominent on the wall and had pictures and I was lucky enough to have picked a place with at least one English speaking employee.
Although English language education in China has been stressed since the early 80’s, most people I talked to felt that what is taught in state-run schools and universities is inadequate. There remains a bustling industry of private English language schools in China to fill in the gap and many international companies routinely send employees to these private schools to improve their skills.
On my 24 hour train ride from Chongqing to Guilin, one of my fellow compartment passengers was a young university student who spoke decent English but relied heavily on a translator app on his phone. He was excited to be able to practice English with me but frustrated that, after being taught English since primary school, he couldn’t speak it better and hoped to one day go to an English language school to improve his skills.
Language barrier or not, it’s a fact of life when traveling alone that reliance on strangers is a constant. In China, I was never once let down, led astray, or met anyone who didn’t make it their immediate goal to provide me with whatever assistance they could.
In Chengdu, I had arranged to have dinner with two Canadians sisters that I had met on the train the day before. They had gotten a recommendation of a nearby restaurant from their hotel. One of the sisters spoke a small amount of Chinese but it wasn’t enough to get over the language barrier at the restaurant and, it turned out, they didn’t even have a printed menu. Not that it would have mattered since it no doubt would have been in Chinese.
As we struggled to communicate, a young Chinese lady started speaking to us in English. After letting her know what we were looking to eat she pulled out her phone to give us directions to a different restaurant. She quickly realized that we’d never find the place on our own, so she led us through the streets of Chengdu to the restaurant, sat us down, summoned a waiter, and ordered for us. Despite our pleas to join us and let us buy her dinner, she politely demurred and left. We had no idea what she had ordered for us but soon plates of fresh steamed vegetables, spicy mapo tofu, and delicious kung pao chicken arrived.
Chongqing was the city where I encountered the most speed bumps in terms of communicating but that just meant I had to work harder for success. After arriving at the train station, I got into a cab and showed the driver the name of the hotel I was going to in both English and Chinese characters but he didn’t seem to know the location. Unfortunately, the cab stand was in an underground parking garage so I didn’t have a phone signal. The driver had a police officer come by and all three of us did our best to mime, gesticulate, and talk our way through where I wanted to go. But, after a couple of minutes, it was useless and, even worse, I was holding up the taxi line.
I decided to head up to the street level and use Uber. I immediately got a driver and, better yet, I had a phone signal so I could pull up the map. The driver, however, had no idea where I was going and had apparently never seen a map so egregiously flawed as the one I was showing him on my phone. Worse, the phone number I had for the hotel wasn’t working. I started to question whether I was even in Chongqing and thought for sure he was going to kick me curbside and speed off, cursing the day China opened itself up to dumbass Western tourists who couldn’t even bother to learn even 10 words in Chinese before visiting.
Just as I thought I was doomed to live out the rest of my days around the Chongqing North Railway Station, the driver jumped out of the car, buttonholed a couple of passersby and, after about 30 seconds of discussion, we were off. The traffic from the station to central Chongqing was hellacious but I arrived at my destination without any further trouble.
Later during my stay in Chongqing, I went into a small noodle shop looking for a spicy noodle soup. I pointed to the soup in the menu that was the most red in color which resulted in an eruption of chatter from the three or four people working behind the counter.
As I waited, it became apparent that I had not, in their collective view, chosen wisely. The woman taking my order smiled and starting waving her hand over her mouth to indicate that what I was ordering was spicy. I nodded my head in agreement but I must not have looked convincing enough.
After a few more moments of trying to impart to me that this spicy noodle dish was only for the heartiest of Chinese diners and would surely cause immediate death to any uninitiated Westerner, one of the workers ran outside and came back with a uniformed gentleman (I couldn’t tell if this was a police officer, parking attendant, or just the local English speaking good Samaritan).
He chatted for a minute with the restaurant workers and then turned to me and said “No, this too spicy. You order this,” as he helpfully pointed to something else on the menu. Then he nodded his head, waved goodbye, and quickly left.
Having no other choice, I took his recommendation and ended up with a perfectly fine bowl of hearty broth, chicken, boiled duck egg, and noodles.
The entrance to my hotel in Chongqing was on a narrow side street and across from it was a tiny convenience shop. My first morning, I stopped by to get some fruit and water and the woman working in the shop summoned her young son of about 8 or 9 to handle my transaction.
He was eager to try out his English and carefully counted up my items and counted out my change in English. After that, he smiled and waved goodbye to me as I disappeared into the crowds of the Changjiang 2nd Road. That was the only time except at my hotel’s front desk that I heard English in Chongqing. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.