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The Most Culture Shock I Ever Had – Getting completely lost in China

Getting lost in a foreign place is somewhat of a hobby of mine. Although, when you’re trying to get somewhere, it’s possibly the most frustrating thing on earth. And ….

Thus, I make it a point to not need to “get somewhere” as often as possible. But on the other hand, I was meeting up with a friend.

It was our first time in China…

What did I expect? It’s hard to remember now. But I never heard of the town Jingzhou… so that must mean it’s small. In fact, a chinese girl we were talking to before we left never heard of it either. Must be real small.

But in China, maybe it was a small town. Only 5,600,000+ people. Clearly such a small town wouldn’t require any planning at all.

Besides I wrote down my friend’s address (who we stayed with for 2 weeks).

It wasn’t until we go to the airport in Wuhan and went to get the bus for the “small town” to the west of the big town did I realize that my English characters were utterly useless.

“Bus. To. Jingzhou.” Except I’m pronouncing it more like “Jing zow” instead of “Jing-Joe”. I’m sure I wasn’t even that close.

The man at the information/bus desk outside the airport didn’t really understand. Then like clucking chickens, I tried every possible american abomination of the word “Jingzhou” with him repeating every single word with a confused inflection.

Finally, his eyes widened and it clicked. He turned me and said, “為什麼在世界上你就需要去荊州”.

I’m not sure what he said, but he said it with confidence.

He ran outside motioning for us to follow and put us on a bus. Well, a van… And he did everything for us. I handed him money and he took the proper amount and gave me change and then told the bus driver, “這些失去了無知的外國人需要去荊州”.

When the bus took off, I assumed we were heading to Jingzhou… but how could I know?

This is where it gets good, if you can call it that.

We were informed via hand signals that we had now arrived at our desired city and now we just had to simply get to my friend’s house. So we walked off to a stand of taxis and one greeted me ready to go. But when I handed him the address it was apparent he knew not where it was.

What kind of taxi driver can’t read an address?

The confusion drew a large number of taxis to help. Or rather, the foreigners drew a large crowd of people. Tons of people ready to meet us. There we were surrounded by people very curious about us but with no way to communicate.

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The address was on a spare scrap of paper tucked in a notebook. But when another loose peice of paper fell out and floated like a leaf, before it could hit the ground a man snatched it up and took of running.

Upon realizing that it wasn’t anything special, he returned the cooking recipe scratch paper and everyone laughed at the embarrassed man. Everyone except me it seemed.

Still no one was able to read the english characters and none of the taxi drivers were able to help. But like a celebrity avoiding the paparatzi we had to get away from the overly interested and eager crowd after realizing no one could help.

Taking a guess as to which direction the university would be, I started walking. “Surely, he lives in the nice part of town”, as if there was one. And everything was getting to me. Every sidewalk we strolled down was decorated with giant strings of hanging fish. There were no trash cans, only piles of trash on the street.

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And the part that was most freaky was how interested every single person was to see us. Heads were turned. Camera phones were used. And the freakiest part, people followed us. And I don’t mean their heads followed us, I mean they walked right behind us. Around corners, down alleys, under hanging fish.

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Meanwhile, I got to see my first Chinese market. Now I’ve seen markets with cow heads, pig heads, entire birds, etc… But never a giant mesh bag of bull frogs, still alive. Never had I seen a plastic kiddie-pool full of eels or fish. Never had I seen a man beat a fish against the sidewalk.

And I was so busy staring at some of the odd creatures I’d never seen that I had barely noticed the hanging dogs I almost walked into. Judging by fur still left on the paws, this one used to be a greyhound and the next a pit bull.

But being lost and followed, today, nothing was striking me as interesting.

The following thing just inflated my fear of whatever I was afraid of. Our backpacks full of basically everything we’d own for that year were on our backs. Despite not normally being scared of theft, it didn’t add comfort.

But it dawned on me that by the grace of God, someone we met in Chicago had a spare Chinese calling card they gave us right before we flew out to China. There would have been no other way I would have known how to work the pay phones.  But this calling card could be inserted in all pay phones, and I had my friend’s number in our notebook.

“Look a pay-phone across the street! We’re finally saved!”

But upon reaching the payphone we realized the buttons were missing. Or another time the reciever was missing. Another time there was no dial tone and it just didn’t work. Mostly, every phone we saw lacked metal.

So we went back to the Taxi search. Finally a taxi looked at the address carefully and decided he did recognize the name of the street.  “Finally we’re saved!” The street he took us to had a sign that indeed had similar English characters but not the same characters. It was similar though and was a pretty good guess for not knowing English. It would be like blueberry vs blackberry, except they weren’t english words just characters I recognized.

Defeated again we stood under the street sign when I went to put the change in my hand into my wallet. My wallet?

My wallet had apparently fallen into the seat of the taxi and I took of like a cheetah chasing a gazalle… except in the midst of Chinese traffic. Finally the driver noticed the man running at cheetah like speed. I don’t mean to brag here, but it was super human running speed. Usain Bolt kind of sprinting but more impressive as it involved dodging cars.

Luckily the driver saw me, the only non-vehicle in the road, and pulled over. My wallet lie in the seat where I had been sitting.

But that’s just a side story. Back to us at the Chinese blueberry road, or whatever. We stopped in a gas station and the person summoned the English speaker. It wasn’t great English, but good enough to work for IHG’s Ambassador phone line and for that, we greeted her with a hug.

“How I help you?”

“Do you know, where the Un-i-ver-si-ty is?”

“You go to this light and you, you go, go…”

“Right?” I said filling in her signing.

“Yes! And then go over river on, on…”

“A bridge!” filling in with slightly too much eagerness.

“Yes. And take right.”

You get the point…

And so we walked but even if the direction had worked out for us, it dawned on me that even if we got to the University finding his apartment would be another issue. We must call.

At this point it was dark. Seeing as we arrived in the morning, how did it get dark so soon? Unbelievable. We hadn’t gotten anywhere!

Now freaked out on a completely dark alley I saw my favorite 5 letters in the world. Hotel. Surely a building with such English characters would have an english speaker. Plus, it was lit and I wanted to get off the dimly lit street with again another payphone missing anything metal.

The check-in ladies told us to wait in the lobby as they went to get their boss. It was a fancy hotel in the way that anything would be fancy in poor China. If you’ve been, you may know what I mean. Like crappy and nice at the same time. It was huge and marble and yet no temperature control. Its fancyness was best displayed by having the most number of neon lights outside. And with the most diverse colors. True luxury. So it was the nicest place I had seen all day, but I can’t honestly say it was as nice as something fancy in the US – like a Motel 6 or something.

They brought us hot water as we waited on the couch. “Boy, we must look real pathetic and cold if they brought us hot water.” I told Carrie. And while both were 100% true as it was November, the next day I learned that the Chinese only drink hot water as… it’s apparently better for you.

This tall, well-dressed woman with decent english came out and while I didn’t greet her with a hug I explained that we were lost and needed to call out friend. She got out her phone, dialed his number and when he answered in English (my friend is American) she handed it to me.

Then it was apparent that I had no way of describing where we were and her english wasn’t that great. So my friend went and got a Chinese friend. I put the hotel manager on the phone and he put his Chinese friend on the phone. Shortly, they were on the way.

I was so relieved. Beyond words. And yet at the same time, I felt like we failed. It felt like a time I got in trouble and sent home from school early. Waiting shamefully for daddy to come get me. Although of course he didn’t see it that way, the wanna-be world traveler did.

Still when they arrived (with their kids and all) I had never been so happy to see anyone. The kind of joy my grandmother described in seeing Jesus one day was suddenly understood in seeing Colonel Pratt under the neon colors of this fancy hotel. His face glowed red. And then Yellow. And then purple, teal, violet, bright orange. All best complimented when all combined. We hugged and then split into two taxis.

For whatever reason the experience was so shocking that I basically didn’t leave their apartment the next day. At all.

With Colonel I learned that it was harmless and the following-us-around thing was just curiosity. In a park adults would come up to his kids playing and get real close and take pictures. “Um… there’s some dude looking at your kids!”

“Yea, it’s okay.”

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It’s not okay! Follow a 7 year old in the states and you’ll get decked and locked up. He told me that being the only black people in this Chinese town meant that a lot of people wanted to touch their hair. You and I may not understand why this isn’t incredibly strange, but Colonel learned to accept it.

They are just super curious. That’s it. In a town like JongZhou, they’ve never seen anyone that doesn’t look just like them. For many, that’s completely true. They didn’t grow up with the same diversity I did. And what’s sad is that because of Hollywood crap, they think all Americans are like celebrities.

Thus, when the guy took off with my paper, I can see it wasn’t with any harmful motive. It’s more like how excited I would be if I got to hold Brad Pitt’s toothbrush!

In a mall while we were looking at stuff all of a sudden, between us and over our shoulders a man’s head appeared. Without turning his attention Colonel said to me, “Drew, you know this guy? Is he a buddy of yours?”

Eventually, I could joke back, “Hey Colonel, I think this guy recognizes me from my blog.” (Which was even funnier because back then the unique visitors was usually around 1 – my own computer).

It was funny getting to see my friend Seth in the middle of China. We got to do a trip with a good friend from home to do Shanghai, Yanghshuo and Hong Kong. When we got to the train station in Guilin (near Yangshuo), well as we walked you could feel every head in the room turn. Hundreds of people waiting on the floor as there were few seats and every single head followed our walking.

“I think people are looking at us.” He whispered.

“Yea, who is that?” I replied messing with him.

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But don’t misunderstand:

I now love China. It has the highest mountains in the world and the tallest buildings in the world, the biggest cities, the biggest population, the tibeten platuo to beautiful beaches. And while the culture is very different, that’s why travel is cool. Ancient culture, ancient history and yet super modern cities like Hong Kong.

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You don’t have to do things the way we did- busses and trains and cheap hotels. They also have some of the nicest hotels in the world. Brandnew super modern and super luxurious hotels are all over.

Never the less, this was a historic day in our travels for how defeated we were.

You live, you learn.

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28 Comments

  1. Great story. So nice to hear about actual travel experiences, both the good and bad. So many blogs are caught up with gaming airlines/hotels in the most exotic locations, and they skip the whole point of why you even got on that hunk of metal in the first place… to explore the world! Not saying I don’t appreciate the airline/hotel stuff, but great change of pace!

    Reply
    • Thanks Adam,
      I think in this hobby, it starts as an avenue to a goal… and then it becomes the goal itself. :-p Kind of like anything I guess, like making money.
      But for us, this is what it’s about. 😀

      Reply
  2. Thanks for sharing your adventure. Glad everything worked out for you guys, I can only imagine how scary that whole experience must have been!! But hey, now you get a memorable story out of it :)

    Reply
    • Someone had a quote that said bad travel experiences make the best travel stories. It’s probably true. lol

      Reply
  3. Your story takes me back 25 years to when I visited China—-all those people staring was really hard to get used to!

    Reply
    • You get used to it I suppose… Pretend your a Chinese celebrity. jk

      Reply
  4. how did you get the quotation in Chinese ? very funny the way the taxi guy said it Chinese. hahha

    Reply
    • Of course, I don’t know what the actually said, but I imagined and then used translate.google

      Reply
  5. Great story Drew. I have a few stories that are VERY similar from traveling with my wife and seven year old son through China. Love the site!

    Reply
    • Thanks Shawn

      Reply
  6. Great story. The hot water thing is funny…it’s because your glass (or the water) may not be sanitary enough by western standards. Thus the boiling water kills bacteria. On my first trip to China – a business trip which was shortly after the Olympics – my colleagues took me out to show me around Beijing. We went to a local “hot pot” restaurant. Like you say, the walls were made of some nice stone, but it was mostly absent of any decoration so it had that luxurious but stripped look. It was the first half of January, so very cold outside and the inside was lacking real heat – maybe 55-60F. Each table had a propane tank and a burner. The chairs had a bag – you put your coat on the back of the chair, then covered your coat with the bag to prevent it from getting food smells. We ordered beers and when they poured it into the glass, they slowly rotated the glass around so that the alcohol had a chance to fully coat the surface. I asked why they do that, then they told me about ensuring cleanliness. The food was good and from quite interesting cuts – sheep’s tail was one that I remember. They also had me try duck tongues which came out on a plate arranged in a nice little mosaic pattern – but (in my opinion) tasted like day-old rubber chewing gum. The trip was a great experience though – they treated me like gold and were showing me the Olympic venues and a few of the major sights. They were very proud of their city and China. Like you, I learned very quickly that I needed to have people write addresses in Chinese for the taxi drivers – especially outside of the bigger cities. It is very humbling to be in a situation and realize that you are the only one who speaks English.

    Reply
    • We didn’t make it that far north that trip, but I can only imagine how cold it must have been. But ya know, they aren’t even allowed head in Hubei or south (I mean in their houses… which we spent a lot of time in). So no wonder they love Hot Pot so much.

      Interesting table experience. But I for sure remember my first time at a dinner with the spinning table of fish heads and what not. And I pretended to not know how to use chop-sticks, put one in each hand, and every one stopped me with urgency… not picking up on the humor.

      Anyways, yea, the right language is important lol. Did the same thing in Ukraine too. Fool me twice…

      Reply
    • If you get the chance to visit Chengdu, go for it. We had an office there and I was glad to make the trip. They are trying to become the Silicon Valley of China. Lots of smart young people working in software or other startups and some of them speak English. Chengdu is also home to the world’s pandas and they have the world largest panda research center that is worth a visit. There are also some mountains and a giant Buddha nearby. Oh, and as the capital of Sichuan province, you will get some amazing spicy food that has complex flavor profiles and not just heat. To my dismay, I have not found an equal outside of China.

      Reply
    • I’ve heard lots of great things about Chengdu and will totally consider it next our on our potential trip. I’d like to see Tibet and that could be a gateway. Plus maybe I can get some tech partners. :-p

      Reply
  7. Great story. I got once lost in Brazil, in the middle of nowhere, Just got off the bus at the wrong stop on the highway. A good Samaritan took me into the town, and then another one drove me to the bus station. Sometimes, great travel experiences originate in misery.

    Reply
    • That’s awesome. I love when that happens. It’s a bit stressful but when you rest in bed that night, you know it’s a miracle you go where your going… and that it was an adventure. Love it.

      Reply
  8. Well told, with great pictures. One of those things that is very frightening at the time, but a great memory that you’ll tell again and again. I concur. The people who pick a destination based on which airline’s lie-flat business class goes there, or which hotel chain’s loyalty program has a promo going are missing a lot. I enjoy your practical tips on maximizing loyalty programs too, but as a means to an end – seeing fascinating destinations.

    Reply
    • Thanks Dave. Was just talking about that yesterday. In the end, the places with the best experiences can’t be reached by lie-flat seats. I’m convinced. I mean, different strokes for different folks… and I’ve had a ton of fun in big cities, like NYC last night. But seriously, it’s truly missing out. As my friend John said about going to Maldives, “grow a pair. Go to Havana. Telling me about places that are easy to go (if you pay) is nothing. Tell me about places I’m not allowed to go.”
      I thought it was an interesting thought.

      Reply
  9. Great and interesting post but proofread before posting.

    Reply
    • lol, with all the money I make from this site, I should hire a better editor.

      Reply
  10. Great story! But dude, almost losing the wallet? Unforgivable.

    Reply
    • Yes, but never again. And for the record, I’ve never been robbed, struck with any crime, or left behind anything (except I lost one charge who knows where and a jacked on Thai Airways… but that’s minor). It turned out well. Sorta. 😀

      Reply
  11. Couldn’t this have been avoided with a cell phone?

    Reply
    • I suppose. We didn’t have one at the time. And most people don’t have international plans.

      But really, it’s kind of a story of a dumb mistake. And despite traveling without plans all the time… I feel like I kind of froze and didn’t make much of an effort to borrow one.

      And to me, it was just a crash course into a poor chinese town.

      Reply
  12. awesome story. I am really pleasantly surprised by just how friendly/helpful people are here in asia. I only spent a layover day in Beijing and people were so smiling and helped me find where to go, and where had “best” noodles/dumplings, and a good shop for Chinese herbs.

    2 days into Thailand it’s the same. Today I got on the wrong train (luckily an earlier one); the conductor had the other train behind me (the one I was supposed to be on) stop and pick me up at an unscheduled stop. Later when getting to a bus station via tuk tuk, this station worker met me right as I got off, told me which counter to buy the ticket at (yes, it was the right price) and what gate to wait at. I can’t imagine anyone doing that in the US and I am a native english speaker!

    Reply
    • Feel exactly the same way.
      Although I was totally culture shocked, there was certainly no danger. Although this is a story of a stupid mistake that had a lot impact on me, we have 100 stories of strangers helping us. Stories of this taking us in their home for dinner, or walking us an extra block or two to get to the right bus. All the time in Asia we had tons of friendly people.

      Thailand is even another level of friendly because not only is it part of the culture, tourism is their economy. They want to treat tourist well. Has odd dynamics too, but certainly makes easy travel.

      Reply
  13. Great story, I have passed through Jingzhou, nice walled town, quite the challenge for first-time China, I love your adventures and attitude.

    Reply
  14. I lived in China 4 years. Rule #1: always have the address written in Chinese.

    Great story! We’ve had some similar experiences as backpackers.

    Reply

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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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