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Cultural Differences: Asking For Directions In China

The Polish Interloper in Guangzhou

In my travels in China, I encountered a Polish interloper who had traveled around the world.  I encountered him dwelling in Guangzhou on his protracted detour in China.  He had lived in Guangzhou for more than a month getting by as an English teacher before his planned travel to Xi’an, Sichuan, and then back overseas.

He had some stories to tell.

In one of our many colorful conversations, he shared his insights into how illiterate Chinese people are compared to the rest of the peoples in his travels around the world.

He said, “When I tried to get to my hotel on the first day, I stopped people on the road to ask for directions.  I used sign language to tell people what is the metro.  You know, China is the only country in the whole world – and I have traveled to many, many countries – where they don’t understand basic sign language and English.”

“I can go to any country and do a basic shape of a rectangle and make the choo-choo noise, and people will point me to the metro station.  But these people!  They have no idea!”

He was just startled.

Language Barriers in China

In my mind, the language barrier has never an issue because I speak fluent Mandarin, but I can now appreciate how troublesome China could be for holiday makers and travelers alike.

Adding to the complexity is how Chinese-language street signs and shop signs rarely have a Western-Friendly English translation.

English is just not a priority in China.

English literacy in Hong Kong conversely is much more conducive to cross-cultural communication, and more favorable to travelers, which makes China look more like a hermit kingdom to outsiders like the Polish guy.

He added, “When you are walking on the street at night in China, and you are trying to get somewhere, and you are a foreigner… good luck to you!”

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