Posts Tagged ‘Drivers’

Language Lessons

Posted: August 7, 2011 in Life, Travel
Tags: , ,

My Chinese has been getting a lot of exercise. Coming to 西安, my speaking command of the language was somewhat adequate, though much could be improved with my reading and writing. Having to practice every second of the day has helped my fluency in Mandarin; hopefully it will be a noticeable difference to my Chinese speaking friends and family when I return home.

Ordering food in a restaurant has never been that difficult, you simply point at the pretty picture, and say “I want this”. At Dairy Queen, I can never remember the words for vanilla soft-serve, so I always just go to the counter and ask for “the ice cream that costs 7 RMB”. That usually gets my point across. The local drinks than I enjoy – 酸梅汤 (plum juice), 蓝马课 (Landmark, a fermented pineapple soda), and 白开水 (room temperature water, not the boiling hot water that Chinese normally drink) have all made their way into my regular vocabulary, and I’m normally able to get what I want.

Taking the bus is a little trickier. Each bus stop has a name, and the signboard at each stop lists the various destinations that a certain route will take you in tabular form. Even with a map in hand, the names can be very cryptic. The same street can have multiple names, depending on whether it’s north, within, or south of the old city wall. I’ve learned to read the names of all the stops that I frequent, though many times it’s been easier just to ask for help from a local.

I’d say that I probably understand about 80-85% of the Mandarin that’s being spoken around me. However, there’s always that 15-20% that I just don’t quite pick up, whether it’s vocabulary that I’m not familiar with, or the distinct northwestern accent that people have here, as opposed to the southern accented Mandarin that I grew up with. The funny thing is, if I approach someone, tell them I’m an American and speak only in English, they’re usually more than happy to help me. Foreigners are exciting, and helping one discover China seems to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of them. However, if I converse with them in Chinese, when they say something I don’t understand I’ll have to stop them and ask them to explain what they mean. At this point, they just look at me like an idiot, trying to understand how someone can reach 21 years of age without a working knowledge of the language that I supposedly grew up with.

Other times, people take meeting me as an opportunity to practice their own English. Most of the time it’s taxi drivers. Over my previous two weeks, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers about everything from weather and food in China, to philosophy and the education system in the USA. I once had a driver hand me a pen and paper, asking my to transcribe the words he told me into English, so that he could practice them when he got home. We got through “mid-Autumn festival”, “girlfriend”, and “break-up”. Apparently he was planning something, I’m glad I could help.

Internet at my current accommodations are non-existent, I have to walk about a mile to get to a coffee shop and hijack their WiFi. Yes, it is in fact a Starbucks. I could be sitting at any corner in Seattle right now, except for the fact that the clientèle is completely Asian. Actually, scratch that, I could still be in Seattle.

After a day touring Beijing, I took the overnight train to Xi’an, the Ancient Capital of China during the Tang dynasty. This is my second day here now, and I’m beginning to get settled in. But more about these two cities later. Right now I want to introduce you to my new step-by-step guide, “How To Not Get Killed While Crossing The Street (or: Look Both Ways Even When Crossing A One-Way Street)”. This is the text-only guide, the photo-supplement will be uploaded at a later date.

Step 1: Find a street you would like to cross.

Invariably, this will be an 16-lane street. What I mean by this is that even though lines on the street clearly separate 8 equally spaced sections for vehicles to motor through, drivers need to account for the CDLC (Chinese Driving Lanes Coefficient). The CDLC starts at 1 during 1-4 am, then increases once morning hours commence. The coefficient saturates at 2, when it is no longer physically possible to fit more cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, mopeds, stray cats, stray dogs, loose children, and feral chickens into the width of tarmac. Multiply by the number of lanes actually present, and you’ll have the number of cars that can fit abreast in the road.

Step 2: Step off the curb onto the shoulder, and look both ways.

Just looking from the sidewalk is useless, as every other Chinese pedestrian will also step into the street, preventing you from seeing anything other than a sea of black hair. The more you lean precariously forward into the street, the more you’ll be able to make like an Olympic sprinter once you see a glimpse of empty road that is wide enough for one (and only one) person.

NOTE: Make sure you’re looking for somewhere without a crosswalk. The black and white delineations are read as lane dividers to Chinese drivers, and the opportunity to fit 20+ cars in a single stretch of road causes them to accelerate.

NOTENOTE:  Look both ways even when crossing a one-way street. Directionality of roads has no meaning to motorcycles and bicyclists.

Step 3: Make sure there are no buses.

This step is imperative. The standard method for a bus in Xi’an to pick up and drop passengers on and off is to put on the clutch while at cruising speed, and allow the coasting bus to slow down on its own. Then, veer towards the curb, open the door, and allow (push) passengers to hop on and off when the bus’ speed is below 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour, since we are in Rome). Since you’re already in the street, the bus will think you’re a passenger wanting to get on, and intentionally steer towards you. No need to worry about taxis: they don’t stop for anyone unless you stand in front of them in the middle of the road.

Step 4: Take a deep breath. A DEEP breath.

This increases your visibility. As the majority of the Chinese population is extremely skinny, breathing in will widen your body enough that you could possibly be two Chinese people. Drivers are less likely to hit two people crossing the street than they are to hit a single bachelor (like me).

Step 5: Walk at an extremely disjointed and erratic pace.

This part is exactly like the game Frogger. Except there are no logs that are safe for you to stand on. Don’t be afraid to go backwards as well, sometimes this is necessary to facilitate general forward movement.

Step 6: Lower your head and push when you reach the other side.

The other side of the street has an equally large wall of people trying to cross the street the other way. Push hard, and don’t be ashamed. If you don’t, someone behind you will gladly take your place, shoving you back into the street. Make sure your head is lowered, so that umbrellas don’t poke you in the eye.

NOTE: Umbrellas are open at all times of day, regardless of weather or heat. I think it’s a genetic predisposition.

Step 7: Buy a lottery ticket.


Now that I’ve covered pedestrianism, stay tuned for the next installment governing public transit. And maybe the weather, too.