We’ve been in Asia for a couple weeks now. It has been incredible, but it hasn’t been the easiest place to be a tourist. The language barrier is real. There are lots of restaurants and museums and cafes where there is no English posted, and even if there is English posted, many of the people we’ve interacted with don’t speak English. There is a lot of of pointing and smiling and hoping for the best here.
We tend to do okay, even without speaking the language, because we’re pretty okay being uncomfortable. We are fine pointing to things on a menu, and we are getting used to the fact that we won’t understand their response or questions. We are okay with the fact that there is a decent chance that we’ll get the wrong thing. We have come to understand that if we have money, we can usually give it to people and they will give us some service or item in exchange. And about 75% of the time we’ll receive something close to what we were hoping for.
Today has been one of those days, though, when we really have struggled as travelers. Today, we did not get through a single transaction without relying on the kindness of others. Complete strangers have observed our confusion and helplessness and sprung into action. We are beyond grateful to the kind people we’ve come across here in Shanghai. I hope that I can return the favor and be as gracious and helpful of a host to tourists in my home city one day.
Here’s how our day went.
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I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but coffee shops are kind of our jam. No matter where we are, our days always start out with coffee, so we tend to feel pretty comfortable in cafes. Our second morning here, we walked down our street to Seesaw Cafe. The entrance was a little hidden, but we ventured through the alley and eventually walked into to a brightly lit cafe with natural wood siding, exposed lightbulbs and baristas with thick-rimmed glasses; we felt right at home.
I ordered a flat white by pointing to the menu and Kenny ordered an Iced Americano, also by pointing. But when Kenny ordered, something happened that we didn’t expect: the barista asked a question (in Chinese of course). We’ve been to a lot of cafes where there are follow up questions, like for here or to go or what our name is, but this didn’t seem like that.
Quickly, assuming that they were out of ice or for some other reason could not make the iced Americano, Kenny said a hot Americano was fine. But since he can’t say that in Chinese, the barista kept trying to think of ways to ask her question in a way we might understand (while also apologizing, which is something we don’t think anyone in their home country should ever need to say for not being able to speak English to guests in their country).
Eventually, after some back and forth, the man sitting at a table next to the register chimed in and explained to us that she was asking if Kenny wanted more ice or less ice in the iced Americano. A simple question, but even in an environment that we’re so used to, there was still this cultural shift that resulted in a question that we’d never have expected given our understanding of coffee culture. Thank you, sir.
After coffee, we hopped on a train toward Longhua temple. We wanted to grab lunch first and saw a sign for a vegetarian restaurant (posted in English and Chinese) and followed the arrows. However, when we got closer, all the signs on the storefronts were only Chinese and we couldn’t quite tie out the characters on the buildings to the characters on the sign. So we took a picture of the sign and then showed it to a security guard outside the building (a tactic we use quite frequently) in hopes that he could show us the right way in. He pointed us to a door, and we were on our way. Success. Thank you, sir.
Getting in was only the beginning of our struggles. Once we wound our way through a few hallways, we eventually popped out into a busy cafeteria. There were people standing in different lines, getting different meals handed to them and everyone had some sort of ticket. We found the register to buy tickets, but all of the signs were in Chinese. At this point, we weren’t even really sure that we were in the right restaurant or if it was actually vegetarian.
Unlike being in a coffee shop, we were now completely out of our comfort zone. The restaurant was adjacent to a functioning temple a decent distance away from the tourist center of Shanghai. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing except us. In no way did we feel like we had any handle on this situation.
So we wandered around a bit more and began discussing our options, which were basically walk up to the register and see if holding up two fingers would yield us food or just skipping lunch. Out of nowhere, this woman pops up and asks in English if we needed help. I wanted to hug her.
She explained to us that we first needed to buy a ticket, and then we could use the ticket at the window to pick up our meal. She walked us over to the ticket counter and helped us ask for two meal tickets. She asked if we wanted any side dishes with our meal and walked us over to show us the options. She explained to us that since we were late, there was only one option for the meal. She translated our transaction with the lady at the register, got us our tickets, and walked us over to the right line to receive our food. Thank you, ma’am.
After lunch, we went to the actual Longhua temple. We didn’t see a ticket booth, so we walked inside. It was supposed to be a small fee and I felt guilty about not paying, so I made Kenny go back outside to check if there was someone we could pay. As we awkwardly approached the ticket booth, someone behind us told us we didn’t need a ticket, and we could go in for free. We’re not sure why this was, but thank you ma’am.
We spent the rest of our afternoon exploring the French Concession neighborhood (in the rain, because it rains literally everywhere we go). We decided to get dinner at a brewery, thinking that we were really due for a Western meal. We figured at a restaurant that had a menu in English, we could surely point-to-order our way through it. Beer, food, how hard could it be?
When the waitress came up to us, Kenny gestured toward me to go ahead and order first. I pointed to the pumpkin beer and the falafel wrap – off to a great start. But then Kenny wanted to the same thing, and “I’ll have the same” doesn’t quite translate to pointing. So he pointed to the same things and there was some question in Chinese and after some nodding on our part, the waitress walked away. Eventually, a server brought us one beer.
We realized our issue – she thought we just wanted one of each, but we wanted two. We flag her down and try to say that we wanted two of each, but she clearly doesn’t understand and we just look pathetic. Fortunately again, there were two guys at the table next to us who jumped in and tried to translate. They chatted with the server, the server walked away, we thought we were good.
But a few minutes later, the guy next to us asks what we wanted to order. We say another a beer and a falafel wrap. He doesn’t know the word “wrap”. So Kenny and him exchange photos and a brief convo on Google Translate, and eventually the guy flags down a different server and tries to order the wrap. That server says they don’t have a wrap — clearly another translation problem. This continues for about 30 minutes. Us chatting with the guy, who chats with the servers at least five different times.
Eventually, Kenny’s beer comes. Eventually, the waitress comes by when our beers are about 1/4 full and points to the happy hour sign and the beer list to ask if we want another round of drinks before happy hour ends (great service, so she must not completely hate us), and eventually, both of our meals came. Thank you, everyone.
And that was just day one!
Everyday of travel is an adventure, and that is part of the fun. I wouldn’t trade a second in Asia for somewhere “easier”. Everyday we get a little better at recognizing cultural differences, getting through awkward situations, and finding help when we need it. The experiences we encounter and the people we meet along the way are what make this journey so incredible. The kindness and patience of the people we met in Shanghai will never be forgotten.