Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moment of Weakness

These days, I should be organizing and packing for our trip to Beijing. There are gorgeous travel books to pore over, Mandarin phrases to practice, cool-weather clothes to wash and pack. Instead, I am procrastinating, because thinking about being on my own in China’s capital city fills me with the kind of dull dread I used to get before exams in college courses I hadn’t entirely wrapped my brain around.

It’s not that I don’t want to go; traveling in this part of the world was a major reason I signed on for expat life. It’s just that Beijing is the most “different,” and least English-using, city we’ve traveled to so far, and it’s a daunting place to tour alone.

At first I figured I’d have no problem, with Joey - and his fluent Mandarin - at my side. But then I added up the hours he’d be in conference meetings and found that except for one day, I’d be on my own. So I thought perhaps our American friends in Beijing could accompany me to some of the tourist sites. But their family of four is down with the flu. (“Can I bring you any Western stuff?” I asked today. “Children’s fever reducer,” they croaked.)

So for the first few days, at least, I’ll be navigating Beijing by myself. Joey and our Beijing friends think (perhaps wishfully) that this should be no problem for me, as I’ve had some exposure to Mandarin. But I think my experience has been at the shaky level of the most basic beginner, and my tiny vocabulary just doesn’t seem enough for conversing or haggling or avoiding getting misled or cheated.

And while I wouldn’t have thought the latter would be too much of a problem, many reliable sources - from Frommer’s guides to Joey’s mother - have helpfully pointed out the myriad ways everyone in China will be out to fleece me, the foreigner. There are long lists of advice: Don’t take a taxi from your hotel; they’re there to pick up hapless laowai who don’t know the right way or the right price. Sit in the front, have a map, and act like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. Assume starting prices of goods will be inflated 10 to 15 times for Caucasian faces. Don’t trust advice from the bellhop or museum staff; they get kickbacks for sending you to places where people will charge you exorbitant prices. Be cautious about breathing the pollution, eating the street food, and drinking bottled water sold on the Great Wall (it could be tap water poured into a bottle reclaimed from the trash, the rumors say).

Sure, I could (and probably should) treat all this as some combination of common sense and urban legend. But it’s a lot easier to maintain perspective when I truly know the language or, better still, when I have a fellow traveler or two by my side. I suppose going it alone is “confidence building” and therefore “character building.” But sometimes, after purposely stretching myself for the past seven months, I wonder: could anything just be “comfortable”?


Candi said...

Um, have a great trip? :)

jima said...

Good luck with the trip, Jenn! I definitely know what you mean. Challenges like this are nerve racking, but also character building. If you decide to opt for an easier locale for a different trip, we highly recommend Darwin. Refreshing change after visiting several "large asian cities" in a row!

Good luck!

megan said...

Hello--I linked to your site through a friend of a friend, and have really enjoyed reading about your adventures (hope you don't mind!).

I lived in China for two years, including a year in Beijing. If you want any tips on restaurants/markets/sites/etc., I'd be happy to give you some ideas--my email address is megan.panther (at) Have a great trip!


Andrew said...

that comment from candi was so candi.