Some of the most rewarding experiences you can have when visiting a foreign country are found when you have a chance to explore places and meet people not on the group itinerary. Serendipitous encounters have a special delight that can match or exceed the grandeur of the Forbidden City or the refinement of Yuyuan. Perhaps what sets these experiences apart is the fact that such discoveries have stories to tell, stories of your own. Of course, there are many stories associated with the Forbidden City, but they belong to emperors, ministers, eunuchs and concubines; titillating as they are, they still belong to someone else.
If you are on a six-month Chinese language study program or a three-year expatriate assignment, you will have more opportunities to go out and about than if you are on a hustle-bustle six-day/five-night whirlwind tour of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Never fear, though! There are opportunities on any kind of visit to get off the beaten path.
So, how can you safely get out there and make your own stories? Here are three suggestions.
Go For a Walk
By far the easiest way to make your own “discoveries” (a la Columbus “discovering” the New World) is to take a walk during a time in your schedule that is unstructured. For sojourners who are in China for months at a time, this could be on a Sunday afternoon; for those on a short trip, this could be an extra 30 minutes between finishing your obligatory pearl store visit and the time you are supposed to get back on the bus. If you have a poor sense of direction, bring a friend and the phone number of your guide.
Just walking around in China will often expose you to things that are different from home and give you a moment to reflect on the observations, unlike when you are shooting by in a motor coach. Look around to notice things like high-end apartment buildings draped with laundry hung out to dry (Chinese people believe that air-drying is better for the clothes, and it certainly lengthens the lifetime of the material), street vendors serving cold noodles or griddle cakes, or the elderly and underemployed playing complicated card games we don’t have in the west.
Often, just a trip around the block will show you interesting things that aren’t “on the tour.” Even the back of the store/museum/historical site you may be visiting can be an eye-opening experience: how are goods delivered (three-wheeled bicycle?)? How is wasted disposed of? What do the people who make these operations go look like? What are their lives like, as compared to the guides and salespeople you may have met inside? You never know what you’ll find behind the cloisonné store!
If you have an hour or two of free time, perhaps before the day begins, you can expand your circuit to a couple miles from your hotel, dorm or bus. In the morning, you can see older people dancing for exercise; people eating savory street food breakfasts; city people of means walking their dogs. When you get back, ask someone who speaks your language to provide some more background information about what you saw; how are morning exercises organized? What are the breakfast foods called? What kinds of people own what kinds of pets?
Rent a Bicycle or Hop on a Local Bus
If you find yourself with a whole day to explore, you can bring a friend or a Chinese cell phone and head farther afield. Two great ways to do this are to rent/borrow/buy a bicycle or get on a local bus.
Many tourist destinations will have bicycle rental stores; if you live in a place without such services, you may be able to buy a bicycle cheaply from a Chinese department store, or even borrow one from a Chinese friend (you would then owe that friend a favor). If you have a specific location in mind, bring a good map or a smartphone with a good internet connection and head out. Otherwise, you can just pick a cardinal direction and go!
If you are in a Chinese city, it will have very good public transportation. While public bus signage is rarely bilingual, that does not need to stop you from taking the bus! Assuming you have a camera phone or digital camera, take a picture of the bus stop sign nearest to where you live. Hope on the next bus, pay the fare, and ride it all the way to its terminal stop. Since many Chinese bus stop signs list all the stops on each route, you could consider jumping on the bus that appears to go the farthest from your starting point. Note, too, if there is one fare for any trip or a variable fare depending on distance traveled. If you do not read Chinese, a tip in this regard is that single-fare routes often list the fare on the sign, while variable fare routes will explain that in Chinese. As long as you can read numbers in Chinese from 1-5 and the character for ‘yuan’ 元, you should be able to guess accurately. At worst, you get on a bus and muddle through payment that should not cost more than a few yuan, no matter where you’re going.
By getting off at the terminal stop, you know you can get back on the bus there and go home; alternatively, you can get back on the bus immediately and then get off at an intermediate stop before arriving at your home/hotel, since intermediate stops in the reverse direction will usually be across the street or at least within a block or two of stops you passed on the way out. Either way, you are less likely to get lost when traveling through neighborhoods for a second time.
Whenever you get off your bike or bus, you can refer back to method 1, walking around. The bike and bus methods allow you to get further away from where most foreigners go, often providing what you might think of as a more “authentic” experience. It may just provide a more working-class experience, but if you have been visiting tourist sites and eating in places where the staff all speak passable English, a working-class environment will definitely be more representative of the lives of the “Old 100 Surnames”, what Chinese sometimes call regular folks.
If you are based in a city, going to the suburbs (in the literal sense, not the white picket fence sense) often means seeing dusty villages or industrial parks. Even in Beijing, you do not need to get far from the city to find yourself in not-so-quaint but very “authentic” villages with roughly-made brick huts. This, too, is a great way to see how the other half lives. By virtue of your having been able to afford the round trip plane tickets to China, you are probably living a very different lifestyle than the folks who live near a suburban bus terminal.
If you are on a trip to the hinterlands, jumping on a bus or a bike can bring you into closer contact with nature. Southwest China and Northeast China are good places to do this, as they have lower population densities than the area between Dalian and Guangzhou, and they are politically stable, unlike Xinjiang and Tibet. In places like Yunnan and Guizhou, you can hop on a bicycle and follow narrow paths through the karst topography and end up in villages that even your tour guide may not know about. Many rural people believe strongly in being hospitable to guests, so don’t be surprised if someone invites you into what you might consider a private setting, like a wedding or a family meal. Even if you’re not a social person, it will make a great story!
“Jiang Taigong Goes Fishing”
So far, we have talked about ways to get out and mostly observe what life is like for different Chinese people. For the more social among you, here is a way to try to participate in Chinese life: use the Jiang Taigong Goes Fishing method.
According to Chinese idiom, Grand Duke (“taigong”) Jiang fished by a stream using a line with no hook and no bait, saying that willing fish will come of their own accord. You can be like Jiang Taigong and sit in a popular park reading a book or writing in a journal. If you are not Asian, there is a very real possibility that, within an hour, someone will approach you to practice his or her English. Keeping in mind that such forwardness is unusual in Chinese society, so someone who does this is already something of an outlier, this could be an opportunity to give English and get an “authentic” experience in return. One note – if a parent asks you to practice English with his/her child, that parent would just be being a good parent, and be less likely to be an aggressive outlier.
If you spend half an hour or more practicing English with a stranger, you have begun the cycle of reciprocity on which friendship is based in East Asia. Now, you can ask for your own favor. You can start by asking for a tour of the neighborhood with background information provided by your new friend. If you have opportunities for further language exchange sessions, you can work your way through eating at a popular local eatery (not a touristy place) and perhaps eventually to having a meal at their home, to see what life in a Chinese apartment is like.
If making friends with random strangers is not your cup of tea, you can achieve the same ends by asking a Chinese person you trust (your tour guide, a hotel manager, a teacher, etc.) for an introduction to someone who would like to practice English with you. Even if you are on a short tour of China, your tour guide is probably able to pull an English learner (him/herself?) out of a hat and take you to a local joint to eat and practice English.
Making friends is the best way to accumulate stories because they are interactive and are imbued with an emotional investment. On top of that, friendship can lead to future stories, too! On your first trip to China, maybe you go to only Beijing and Shanghai, but if you make a friend from Nanning in Guangxi, maybe your second trip to China will be entirely off the beaten path… to Nanning, a small Chinese city of only 2 million people!