Language and Communication
Who speaks English?
A vast majority of Chinese people will not speak any English. Why not? The same reason so few non-Chinese can speak good Chinese - it is hard to learn and not widely taught by experts.
In four and five star hotels you will find that receptionists, managers, head concierge and some wait staff can speak English. Less expensive hotels might have few or no staff who speak English. However, don’t let that put you off lower budget hotels, because for many itineraries these save a lot on the cost. You can usually manage to get things done if you are patient and they want to help.
When someone wants to communicate with you it is amazing how much can be said without words. Language can be a major roadblock in China but it can also lead to some interesting encounters and momentary friendships. Below are a few examples of how we have coped with different situations without speaking a word of Chinese.
However, that being said, learning a few useful phrases in Chinese before you come to China can make the difference in your experience. Rather than just buying a phrasebook, consider taking a few lessons online to really help you grasp the language.
Getting Meals on Your Own
When you're on tour for a while, you might get tired of having every meal catered for you. It is nice to go out on your own, without a guide and be free to eat where you want and order whatever you like. This can take place in a hotel restaurant, where language will not be a problem. Western chains offer a distraction from Chinese food so a latte at Starbucks, a burger at McDonalds or a dose of Pizza Hut are easy options in major cities.
But if you're feeling like checking things out on your own a bit, then walk out of your hotel (remember how to get back and take a hotel card...) then turn left or right. Find a restaurant you like the looks of (often the busy ones are best). Staff outside may be already trying to convince you to go in and sit down. You can ask for an English menu, especially around hotels catering to foreigners they might have one. You can photograph the strange English words on the menu while waiting for your food. In a local restaurant it is not rude to point out dishes neighboring tables are eating to order it as well if it looks good.
Another option in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are fine or trendy dining. There are areas of town aimed at westerners and trendy Chinese who want to go out, shop and dine. This can be a fun evening out on your own. Beijing being a capital city with diplomatic staff from all over the world has great cuisine.
In tourist parts of town you will find restaurants with English menus so it is possible to go out and enjoy dinner.
Taxi about Town
When you leave your hotel the doorman often can advise your taxi driver of your destination. Having your destination written in Chinese, whether in a guidebook, magazine, business card or scrap of paper, then many drivers can get you there. Also a phone number can help. When you finally want to come back to your hotel, just be sure you grabbed a card from the front desk with your hotel name, address and phone number in Chinese. You can get in a taxi after dinner and drinks, hand them the card and be escorted home.
Another tact is to get in a taxi and call someone on your mobile, even the hotel/restaurant you are going and ask them to direct the driver. A GPS can be useful, help you see how far you are from your hotel and that your driver is headed in the right direction. You can mix taxi with subway, as the signs are in English and the subway is safe and quick. It can also be another experience on your China tour.
How a good Guide helps
A good guide makes a lot of difference since they are essentially your personal assistant and translator. From getting picked up at the airport, checking into your hotel, ordering dishes according to your tastes, acting as a shopping consultant and being a friend, a guide can completely change the experience for you. Teamed with a driver your guide will take you efficiently from place to place, sort out tickets and take care of your problems. Not to mention they will teach you about Chinese history, culture and the sights. We select our guides very carefully to make sure they can do all these things well.