Last month I travelled to China … more specifically …the lower south west corner between Hong Kong and the top of Tibet. I didn’t do an organised tour or have an English guide, just travelled and hung with a friend, an ESL teacher in Ronggui. Travelling away from tourist centres minus the local language is challenging, though my friend had a few carefully selected words and some key phrases. Unfortunately, like most languages, the same word can mean different things, depending on emphasis and tone sequence. It’s pretty much a social faux pas waiting to happen for us two mono-language ‘tourists’. Our attempts to find a place to eat or a local ‘attraction’ had the potential to yield a cultural collaboration of mutual happiness and laughter or a cultural meltdown, it was an endless lucky dip.
Watching my friend’s carefully annunciated attempts invariably caused ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’ or ‘She sells sea shells’ to kick start in my head. Thanks Miss Ball, those elocution lessons really paid off. We did have a phone app but it refused to work on a pre-paid and we couldn’t satisfy its desire for a good hotspot. In the main we set out like Columbus, trusting that past the row of designer shops sitting opposite the crumbling facade of a once grand building, or across the lines of screaming traffic (where pedestrians give way to cars even at marked crossings) we would discover something worthwhile, something quintessentially Chinese, something that reminded us of the ancient ways, the long history and the beauty that is embedded in modern China. And we weren’t disappointed.