Figuring out how to get around in China can often be a complicated and annoying process. Often times the signs don’t make any sense (today I saw a road sign that directed you either North or South on a road that was clearly running East-West), and the fact that the road signs are sometimes written with phonetic pronunciations often doesn’t help you communicate where you want to go to a Chinese person, unless you can read all the characters anyway – because without knowing the tones, you could be saying something completely different than what is written.
Asking Chinese people for directions can be an even more frustrating process than trying to navigate by yourself. The fact that China is a “high context” culture (you are always expected to read deeper than the actual words that people say) and that Chinese people are constantly worried about saving face makes the simple question of “how do I get to location A?” much more complex. The most common response to this question is “It’s in that direction” with a tone that suggests the place is very easy to find, combined with a waving of an arm in the general direction, even if the place you are looking for involves turning onto several different streets. I’ve also discovered (the hard way) that even if a person has no idea, they will sometimes still point you in a random direction with an attitude of utmost certainty, in order to save face. The fact that my Chinese is still a bit rusty doesn’t help either.
The best way that I’ve discovered to insure yourself against being the victim of bad directions is to ask several people for directions to the same place and go with the greatest common denominator, and to ask multiple follow-up questions. Here’s an example from when I was trying to navigate my way back to the Hangzhou Train Station by bus. I had just boarded one bus and was trying to figure out to which bus I needed to go next.
Me: “Excuse me, do you know what bus I should take to get to Hanghou South Station?”
Old woman: “You want to go to the train station or bus station?”
Me: “Train station”
Old women: “Well, to get to the bus station…”
Me: “No, the train station…”
Old woman: “Oh… then you want to take the 76 bus.”
Old man next to her: “Yes, the 76 bus!”
Second old man next to him: “That’s right, it’s the 76 bus!”
Me: “ok, at what station should I change to that bus?”
[Old woman looks like she is pondering]
Old women: “You said you want to go to the train station?”
Me: “Yes, the train station.”
Old woman to a middle aged women standing nearby: “He wants to go to the train station…”[at this point they start arguing very fast and I can’t really understand them]
Middle aged woman: “You want to go to the train station? Then you should take the 315 bus.”
Me: “Ok, how do I get to that bus?”
Middle aged women: “Hmmm, how do you get there…?” [Puts her finger over her mouth and looks up, pondering. The old woman starts arguing with the old men. Then the middle-aged woman joins in]
Old women: “You want to take the 76 bus. I will take you there.”
Middle aged women: “No, it’s definitely the 305 or the 315 bus. I will take you there!”
Old man: “Yes, she will take you there, follow her!” [Said with no indication as to which women I should follow]
Second old man: [seeing the confused look on my face] “Do you understand what we are saying to you?”
I vaguely remembered seeing a 315 bus at the train station the day before. I looked at the old women, and she appeared to have lost the argument, because she didn’t object to the middle-aged woman’s offer. So I agreed to go with the middle-aged woman, and a few stops later I followed her off the bus. We walked for a few blocks and then came to the bus station, where a sign indicated that the bus did indeed go to Hangzhou South Train Station. When it comes to giving direction, Chinese people are either not very helpful, or overly helpful. There is rarely an in between. But if you want to get past the generalities in the ‘not very helpful’ stage, you have to be persistant.