Decoding China

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Back in 1998 I was leading a study abroad group to China, Nanjing University to be specific. We had been in the country for only two or three days. I was eating lunch in a small restaurant just off campus when I noticed three of my students enter. They didn’t see me, so I just observed what happened. They entered the restaurant and stood just inside the door. I knew what they were thinking—they were waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a table, just like in an American restaurant. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could see they were getting impatient and maybe a bit frustrated. I also observed the two waitresses working in the restaurant. They seemed equally perplexed. One said to the other, “What are they doing just standing there?” The other replied, “I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.” What my students did not understand is that in small, informal restaurants like this you simply find an empty table without waiting for someone to show you. In other words, there is no host or hostess. They assumed that eating in China was the same as eating in the U.S. These students had pretty good Chinese having studied at the University for 4 to 5 semesters. I knew they had the linguistic capacity to order a meal and do whatever else they needed in a restaurant. But they still didn’t know the “rules” or “codes” involved in eating at a restaurant in China. It’s not as simple as it may seem, even if you know some Chinese.

This experience impressed upon me the importance of cultural knowledge. To get things done in China requires a whole set of knowledge that goes far beyond linguistics. In fact, one could argue pretty persuasively that cultural knowledge will get you farther in China than linguistic knowledge alone. This book is the result of several years of research on how to get things done in China; how to make sense of the Chinese world; how to decode China so it makes sense for a foreigner.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I am happy to announce that my book, Decoding China: A Handbook or Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China is now available for pre-order. It is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and there are links on the right side of the main page of this blog under Books. It will be available in April.

Who is this book for?

I think this book would be a great benefit to students going to China to study, students doing internships in China, people going to China to live and work, independent travelers in China, and even armchair travelers. It contains all the information I wish I had when I first started traveling to China. I think it will even be valuable for those who have been living in China, even for several years. Basically, this is a book for those that want to go beyond the tourist or typical expat level of understanding. This is a book for those who want to live, work, or study independently among the Chinese. It is for those who want to blend in, not stand out.

Here are just a few topics covered in this book:

Which train should I take? Deciphering the train class numbering system.

Characteristics of hotels in China.

How to make sense of a Chinese menu.

How to buy and make sense of cell phone plans in China.

How to use the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter.

How to open a bank account in China.

How to barter like a native.

Self study learning strategies.

How to select a Chines study program.

Making sense of Chinese “face” relations.

The concept of guanxi explained.

What kinds of gifts should you give.

How to deal with culture shock.

Strategies for staying healthy in China.

Send me a message if you have any questions.

The Art of Bartering 讲价 jiǎngjià

Chestnut vendor in the city of Huai’an in Jiangsu Province

China can be an exciting place to shop, especially if you are willing to barter for a good price. In many markets, especially outdoor markets, prices are often not marked and can be negotiated through bartering or haggling.  

The disadvantage of being a foreigner in China is that as soon as any vendor sees a you coming, yuan signs will light up their eyes. When you ask how much something cost, the vendor will probably jack up the price as much as ten-fold or more, knowing that foreigners are often eager to spend money and usually are clueless about how much things should cost.

Bartering is to be expected at most markets, outdoor shopping areas like at tourist sites, some produce and meat markets, and anywhere where prices are not marked. Sometimes even when the price is marked you may try to talk them down. Bartering is not acceptable in department stores, convenience stores, large discount stores, restaurants, and other such places. While you do not barter at hotels, you can ask for a discount. This is typical in the off-season and many hotels will give you a discount just for asking. You can ask for a discount by saying,

可以打折吗?kěyǐ dǎzhé ma?                                     Can you give a discount?

(给)便宜一点吗?kěyǐ (gěi) piányi yīdiǎn ma?         Can you give it for a bit cheaper?

Jade dealers at the Chaotiangong Confucian temple in Nanjing

 Strategies for successful bartering 

1. Plan on using cash

It’s a good idea to have the exact amount you plan to pay in your pocket. It never looks good after a hot bartering session to pull out a thick wad of 100 yuan notes, especially when you have talked about how little money you have. It’s also a good idea to come equipped with your money in small denominations. Many vendors are unwilling to break large bills, nor are they eager to give you any change back.

2. Pretend that you are not that interested in the product

If the dealer knows you really want the item, she has the upper hand. So look at the item skeptically, notice and verbalize negative things about the item, walk around looking at other things, then casually go back to the item you would like. Next, offer a price well below what you are willing to pay. Remember that bartering is a two-way deal. Not only must you be satisfied with the price, but the seller must be satisfied as well. If you start low, then you are willing to go up in price, which the seller will expect. No vendor will sell something at a loss; they will always make sure to make a profit on all their deals.

 3. Offer a price well below what they are asking

The vendor will likely scoff, act disgusted, give you some line about how he or she has a family to support, and so on. Don’t take anything personally. This is just part of the script or game. They will probably say that they could never sell it for that low. They may even act offended at your offer.

 4. Walk away

The is an essential strategy. Simply start walking away. Remember, you have been pretending that you are not all that interested in the item anyway. The vendor will in most cases call you back, and offer a slightly higher price than what you originally offered. Now the real haggling begins. Continue to feign disinterest, that you could take it or leave it. Counter with another price lower than his. This may go on for awhile. The vendor at some point will refuse to go any lower. When this happens, tell the vendor to forget it (算了 suān le) and walk away again. Either the vendor will call you back again and offer a lower price, or he will let you go. At this point you need to be willing to walk on and find another vendor selling what you want. If you go back at this point, the vendor will know that he has you, that you really do want the item and probably won’t leave without it.

Selling bananas in Nanjing

Remember that this game is well known by everyone shopping in China and is expected behavior on both sides. Some people hate bartering and would rather just pay the asking price, and will get ripped off. Learn these basic bartering strategies and your dollars will go much further, and you’ll have a good time shopping.

Selling fruit off the back of a truck

Trekking in Shangri-la: Over the pass to Shudu Lake

Shudu Lake (蜀都湖 shǔdū hú)

After a pretty restful night at Mr. Tian’s guesthouse, we had a breakfast of instant noodles. We also spent time boiling water and filling our water bottles for the days’ trek. Mr. Tian was amused that we were bringing so much water. We each had about three liters in Platypus water bags. He told us the trek would be about 6-8 hours and we would be climbing up and over a more than 13,000 foot pass.

As we were anxious to get going, Mr. Tian told us how to get to the bridge that crossed the river and where the trail began. He was getting his horse ready when we took off. We planned to wait for him and his party if we were not sure which way to go.

The guesthouse was up on the side of the valley, so we had to wind down through the village to the river. The farmhouses were clustered together with fields of barley between them. As the village was on the slopes of a mountain, many of the fields were terraced. We passed several  racks used for drying barley.

Along the way we met an old man taking his pigs out to the pasture for the day. He didn’t speak a word of Chinese, so there was not much communication other than some smiles and waves.

After winding our way through the farmhouses we found the bridge crossing the Niru River.

Niru River bridge

After crossing the bridge the trail passed two large piles of mani stones. We decided to take a break here and wait for Mr. Tian and his clients. Niru Village is in the background. While waiting, the old man with the pigs herded his pigs into a nearby pasture.

photo by Michael Paul

After waiting for awhile, Mr. Tian and his clients showed up. One was a young American guy from Brown University who was doing research on the economic effects of the National Park on Tibetan villages in the area. He had three young Chinese students with him that were serving as research assistants. I believe they were from Yunnan University. The American guy carried a large, cumbersome backpack, but the Chinese guys just had little day packs. The horse carried the rest of their gear. We chatted for a few minutes, then Michael and I took off. We found out very soon that even though the horse was carrying most of their things, they were hiking very slow. Michael and I are both experienced backpackers, so this was nothing new to us.

Looking back at Niru

The trail swithbacked up the side of the mountain for about 2 miles before turning into a side canyon. High up on the mountainside we had a good view of the Nanbao pastures across the valley. It would have been really nice to be able to hike up there, but that will have to wait for a future trip.

Nanbao pastures from across the valley

Turning into the side canyon

The trail up this valley was green and lush. We knew we were headed up to a 13,000 foot pass, but we were having a hard time picturing it with all this lush greenery. Occasionally a Tibetan with pack horses would pass us on the trail. In the Mountain West region of the United States where we live, anything above about 10,500 feet is rocky, barren, and devoid of almost all plant life.

After a couple more miles we came to some small pastures. On the edge of one of these pastures was a log cabin, just like you might see out the Western United States from pioneer times. We decided to take a break here and wait for Mr. Tian and the others. There was a crudely written sign on the front of the cabin saying visitors were welcome to stay there. Mr. Tian later explained to us that there are similar cabins scattered throughout the mountains for yak herders to stay in when the weather turns bad. It did not look like the cabin would keep much out, but I suppose it would be better than being outside in a storm.

The trail soon left the valley and began climbing steeper again. It switchbacked up a steep mountainside to another higher meadow area.

High mountain pasture (about 12,600')

Finally, after about five or six hours of hiking we arrived at the pass. And we were very surprised to find it as lush and green as the surrounding valleys we had passed through earlier. We later learned that in this area of Southwest China there are several long, deep river valleys that run South to North. Warm, moist air and storms from tropical Burma and further south keep these valleys wet and green. Burma was less than 75 miles from here.

A cabin on the pass at 13,057' (3980 m)

We rested here taking in the fine views. Mr. Tian spent some time digging for medicinal roots.

Mr. Tian digging for medicinal roots

Mr. Tian and the others were razzing us for carrying so much water. Ironically, about 2/3 the way up to the pass, they were all out of water, and sheepishly asked us for some fluids. We had a couple bottles of Chinese sports drink that we were able to share with them. Maybe that’s why they were so slow.

A yak hanging out in the cabin at the pass

The trail descended quickly off the pass and back down into the forest. The lower we got the more yaks we began to see. Once we were out of the forest we could see an immense sea of pasture down below us. This was an important Winter pasture area for the Tibetan yak herders.

Hiking down to the pasture

The pasture was huge, stretching for miles in each direction. There were herds of yaks scattered all over the pasture. We learned from our Tibetan driver that most yaks are actually hybrids—a cross between cows and yaks. They seemed pretty docile, just watching us as we walked past. There were also more rustic cabins dotting the area.

On the far side of the pasture we came to a couple log structures that looked like they were intended to be stores, but were deserted, and in a state of disrepair. It was obvious that they had never been used after being built. It seemed as if this area was gearing up for tourism, but the infrastructure was not there, and maybe the tourists had just not shown up yet. There were no roads into this area and anyone wanting to come would have to walk or ride a horse for at least half a day or more.

We asked a local Tibetan if there was anywhere we could buy something to drink. He pointed to a cabin a little ways off with smoke rising from it. We walked over there and entered the cabin (Tibetans do not usually knock). Inside, the cabin was dark and smokey.  There were three men and a woman sitting around the fire talking and laughing. The woman jumped up when we entered. Surprisingly, of all things she had for sale, she had cans of Pepsi. We each bought a can and went back out to the other cabins where our packs were. While resting there a couple Tibetan kids wandered over to see the foreigners. They didn’t say much. I don’t think they understood much Chinese, and our Tibetan was much better.

After resting up for a short time, we continued on our way. It was getting late and Mr. Tian told us that there were tourist busses at Shudu Lake that could take us back to the National Park entrance. He believed that the last bus left at 4:00 pm. We really wanted to get on that bus, as we were really hungry now. For the whole day we had subsisted on some coconut cookies, some peanuts, water, and Pepsi. We wanted to get back to Shangri-la and a proper meal.

The trail headed into a nice forest on the far side of the pasture, then began climbing again to a low pass. Once over the pass we could see the lake and pastureland below.

Looking down at Shudu Lake

We hiked pretty fast down the hillside to the marshy pastures below. We wanted to make sure we made that last bus. Once we got down to the pasture below, Mr. Tian unloaded his horse and began to set up camp. He was staying there for the night before returning to Niru the next morning. The pastures around the lake were full of wildflowers, Tibetan horses, and yaks. It was really wet as well. At times we would sink up past our ankles in the wet marshy grass.

Mr. Tian and a Tibetan friend setting up camp

It was a really beautiful and tranquil place. We had a pow-wow and discussed if we could possibly stay there at the meadows for the night. We were also making some contingency plans if we missed the last bus and had to spend the night there. We had warm clothing, but no sleeping bags. We had travel sheets (like a thin cotton sleeping bag), but that would not provide much protection. We also did not have any food. We could certainly survive a night and there were plenty of empty cabins around. We vowed that if we ever returned we would have lightweight camping gear with us, and plenty of food. We would have loved to stay longer and explore the area, but it was not looking like that would be feasible. Our first priority was to head across the long, marshy pasture to the far side where there supposedly was a parking area and tour busses.

The going was laborious as the ground was very wet. The grass was tall in places, and large, dense tufts of grass further slowed us down. The closer we got to the lake, the wetter the ground, but that was also the more direct route to where we needed to go. By the time we got across the pasture we were soaked from the knees down.

There was a large parking area, restrooms, and a visitors center. Fortunately, there were also several large coach busses there waiting. We climbed aboard a bus, relieved that we made it in time. The American young man and his Chinese companions arrived a short time later.

We learned that the way Chinese manage National Parks was quite different than what we were used to in the U.S. These large tour busses took tourists through the park, occasionally stopping at scenic areas where the tourists could get off and look around. Everyone then got back on the bus and rode to the next scenic spot. There were no camp grounds and no private cars. But were Tibetan camps around as this area has been an important yak grazing area for hundreds of years.

When we arrived at the entrance to the park, we were met by park officials who demanded we pay the entrance fee, which we thought was pretty steep for what you got. We were actually hoping we could by-pass the fee as we had entered the park through the back way, but there was no persuading them.

Getting back to Shangri-la was our next objective. Most all the busses were chartered for tourists and did not have room. We finally found a guy with a minivan who, for a price, agreed to take us to Shangri-la. It was about a two hour drive back to the city.

When we got back into town, we found a room at a small hotel, then headed to a nearby restaurant and had a large and satisfying meal of Chinese and Tibetan food. It was a very long day and the end of a very memorable trip. We have plans to return to the area but have not made any definite plans yet. Next time, we will be better prepared.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about this adventure.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Niru Village

After our breakfast of yak cheese, Tsampa, yak butter tea, and curdled milk, we hiked down off the bluff and back onto the road to Niru. It had rained during the night so there were mud puddles all over the road. It was a beautiful cool morning. After hiking for about an hour, we heard a truck approaching. We stepped aside as an old open bed truck pulled up. Standing in the back was the Tibetan girl we had breakfasted with, along with a dozen or so other Tibetans. They were all on their way back up to the mushroom fields. We climbed into the back of the truck and rode with them for about a half hour bumping and pitching along the rough road. When we reached their turn off, we climbed out, thanked them for the lift, and continued our trek.

We were really hungry. The previous day we had only eaten a bowl of instant noodles, some snacks, and a light dinner of stir fried squash and potatoes with our gracious hosts. This valley was certainly much less developed than we anticipated. Our original plan was to hike up into the high mountain Summer pastureland where the local Tibetans herd their yaks. This was looking unlikely as food was proving to be difficult to obtain. The locals were not used to seeing foreigners, or any outsiders for that matter, and were thus hesitant to offer assistance. A farmer we had met the previous day told us that they were developing this valley for tourism with guesthouses, stores, and so on, but that time had not yet arrived.

Hiking the road to Niru Village

Late morning we arrived at an area identified by a sign as 关门山 guānmén shān. This translates loosely as “Close the door Mountain,” probably referring to the narrowness of the valley, seemingly closed off by this rocky peak. The valley narrowed to just a hundred yards wide or so. To the left was a towering rocky peak seemingly blocking off the canyon. Just as we arrived at the base of the peak, the road turned sharply right. The river raged through this narrow part of the canyon. Another turbulent river flowed down from the mountains on the right joining with the Niru River. A narrow bridge, about the width of a single lane crossed this tributary. The river was so high, it tumbled just inches below the wooden bridge.

关门山 guānmén shān "Close the door Mountain"

Unknown tributary flowing into the Niru River

We had studied some old black and white photographs from the legendary Joseph Rock on one of his expeditions in the late 19th Century. This area seemed to match some of his photographs. There was a small shelter here where we took a break enjoying the roaring of the rivers.

We still were not quite sure what to expect in Niru Village proper. I think we still had hopes that there would be a store, and maybe even a restaurant where we could fill up. All we knew is that the kids told us it was about a five hour walk to the village.

Once we passed through this beautiful narrow canyon, the road began to climb. We climbed steadily for about two hours before the valley began opening up. At a high point on the road, we came to two large piles of mani stones.

Mani stones are usually flat rocks on which is inscribed the six syllable mantra om mani padme hum. This mantra is associated with the bohhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Mani means “the jewel” and padme means “the lotus.” The exact meaning of this mantra is tricky to translate. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has interpreted it as,

“. . . the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[…]”

This is the mantra often mumbled by Tibetan Buddhists as they finger their prayer beads. It is said to be an indication of your devotion and brings merit to the individual. These stones sometimes form entire walls, or large piles and are often found along pilgrim routes, at junctions, overlooks, or other places considered auspicious. Devout Buddhists will circle these stone piles clockwise while chanting the mantra.

Mani stones

More mani stones

We took another break at the mani stone piles. While sitting along the road here a tractor with a couple individuals in the back, headed down the valley from Niru Village. We later found out the local school teacher was in this tractor heading to a funeral. We had hoped to speak with him about the education situation in the village, particularly the teaching and learning of Chinese among the Tibetans in this area.

In the early afternoon we finally arrived at the head of the valley and the small village of Niru. It was a lovely cluster of farms nestled among high peaks.

Entering Niru Village

The primary school was here at the head of the village. It provided schooling for all the kids up and down the valley. There were dormitories where the kids stayed during the week, then returned home on the weekends. We were disappointed that the teacher was not around, but we knew this was a distinct possibility since is was August and school was not in session. This is the school where the Tibetan kids we stayed with attended. They told us that all the kids in the school were Tibetan. They did learn Chinese in school, but Tibetan was the language of instruction.

Niru School

Just past the school we came to a dirty old wooden building. A couple people loitered out front. They informed us that this was a store. We entered the dimly lit ramshackle building to find a very basic store run by an older Tibetan woman. The only food available was instant noodles. We each bought two bowls, as well as some bottled water and Chinese sports drink.

The Niru Store

Outside the store a guy told us that there was a guesthouse just a short way up the valley and that he would give us ride in his tractor. It turns out that he was the brother-in-law of the guy who ran a very rustic guesthouse.

We were relieved to learn that we may have a bed for the night, and readily hopped into the back of the tractor trailer. In a few minutes we arrived at the guest house run by a man named Mr. Tian, a Han Chinese. In fact, he was the only Han Chinese person in this village of 658 resident Tibetans. He was originally from Tiger Leaping Gorge and had married a Tibetan woman from the village twenty years ago and had been living there ever since.

Approaching Mr. Tian's guesthouse

Mr. Tian and his wife were separated, so he ran this place on his own, and it showed. It was quite dirty, with rotting food laying around, dirty dishes scattered about, and in general disrepair. We were not complaining though, and Mr. Tian was a pretty interesting guy. It was a typical Tibetan wood-framed house, a courtyard on the ground floor for the animals, up a steep ladder/stairway to the second floor living quarters, and storage on the third floor. Inside the living area was an open fire pit for cooking. On one side of the main room was a row of single beds with basic frames made of 2X2’s. The beds had thick foam mattresses and appeared to be pretty clean.

Inside the guesthouse

The guesthouse courtyard from the second floor.

The proprietor, Mr. Tian

Mr. Tian told us that for about the past year, since the road was built, Chinese tourists were beginning to arrive. He had hosted one foreigner the year before. In our wandering around the village we found another guesthouse that was very large and newly built. There was one seemingly pretty rich Chinese family, parents and two kids, staying there.

Mr. Tian owned a horse and lead treks up to a waterfall and a lake in the area. In fact, he told us that he had been hired to lead three Chinese students and a foreigner up over a pass to Shudu Lake the next day. This is where we were headed as well, and he said we could tag along if we like. He told us we would never be able to find the trail without his help.

That afternoon we wandered around the village a bit. We also found the road/trail to the Summer pastures, called 南宝牧场 nánbǎo mùchǎng. According to Mr. Tian, it was a good eight to ten hire hike from the village up pretty steep trails.

The track leading to Nanbao pastureland. The pastures are the green swaths high in the mountains.

As much as we wanted to hike up there, we had so little food, and nowhere to buy more, other than instant noodles. And by this time we were really hungry. To go up there would be at least a three day trip: one day up, a day to explore, and a day back. We also were not too sure of our route over the mountain pass to Shudu Lake and back to Shangri-la.

Later that afternoon a couple of Mr. Tian’s Tibetan buddies showed up to hang out. I’m not sure what they did for work, and they were pretty reluctant to talk about it. They had passable Chinese. In fact, Mr. Tian’s Chinese was pretty heavily accented, not much better than the Tibetans. One of his friends carried a long, curved dagger on his belt. This is pretty typical of the Kham Tibetans in this area. They are also known for their horsemanship skills as well.

That evening Mr. Tian offered to cook us a meal. That morning he had picked some wild mushrooms. Then he went outside and picked fresh Sichuan peppercorns from a bush in his yard. Our meal consisted of stir-fried mushrooms with the fresh Sichuan peppercorns. (This area of Yunnan was literally right on the border of Sichuan Province). I had never eaten or even seen fresh Sichuan peppercorns. They are most often dried and are dark brown in appearance. This dish was pretty good, albeit there was not much. However, he used way too many peppercorns and by the time we were done, our mouths were literally numb. In Chinese cuisine there are two kinds of spicy, the regular spicy that we are used to, called 辣 là from the word 辣椒 làjiāo, meaning “chili pepper.” The other kind of heat is called 麻辣málà or “numb spicy.” This numbing spice comes exclusively from the Sichuan peppercorn, which is not a chili pepper, nor technically a peppercorn. It produces a pleasant (to some people) tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth.

Fresh Sichuan peppercorns

Freshly picked wild mushrooms

It was nice to have a meal, but it was pretty small and we were still hungry. We planned to get up the next morning and hike along with Mr. Tian and his clients up over the pass and down to Shudu Lake. This lake is within a new Chinese National Park called Pudacuo National Park 普达措国家公园 pǔdácuò guójiā gōngyuán. From there we hoped to hitch a ride back to Shangri-la.

Niru Village farmhouses

High peaks above Niru which also marks the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces

TO BE CONTINUED. (One more post to finish this series)

Trekking in Shangri-la: Up a remote river valley

We had a vague research plan. In fact, we were treating this trip as a sort of reconnaissance, to check out the area, and hopefully make some contacts. We are both interested in Chinese dialects, language contact, and Chinese language education among China’s ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans. We hoped to make contact with some rural schools to see how Tibetans are learning Chinese. The first challenge we encountered was finding information about the river valley we wanted to visit. I had heard about the Niru Valley from a former student who had spent a short time there the previous year. A remote place like this does not appear in the Lonely Planet Guide or any other guide. Searching online also did not produce much. We finally found a hand drawn map from a Chinese blogger who had visited the region. The information was scant, but better than nothing.

We planned to hike up this valley past the village Hongxiu (at least that’s what we had heard) to the Tibetan village of Niru. We hoped there was a school there and that we might be able to meet the teacher, even though school was out for the summer. We also hoped to interview some locals and talk to them about their experiences learning Chinese. But more than anything we wanted to see some natural, remote, and wild parts of China. We had both spent plenty of time in big Chinese cities and had seen all the big cultural sites many times.

The evening before we left we went down to the entrance to the old town where drivers and their minivans congregate. We talked to a few guys until we met a guy we liked. He was a Tibetan who was born and raised in Shangri-la. We negotiated a price for him to drive us to the village of Luoji.

Our Tibetan driver and his mini-minivan

The next morning we met him and we began our journey. Minivans in China are not like minivans in the U.S. which are actually quite large. These are tiny little vans, and yet they still can seat up to 6 or 7 people. Luoji is an ethnic Lisu village several hours drive southeast of Shangri-la. The Lisu are an ethnic (non-Chinese) group that have lived in Yunnan Province for hundreds of years. In fact, there are more ethnic minority groups in Yunnan than any other place in China.

The road to Luoji started out as a nicely paved two lane road. We first climbed up out of the Shangri-la plain, then began descending into a deep valley. For the first two hours we climbed up and down switchbacked roads through very green and lush countryside. Occasionally there would be a village on the hillside with terraced farmland. We also passed a ranch with rustic buildings with livestock.

Our driver was delightful. He had a high school education and had pretty good Mandarin. My experience is that the more education a person has the better their Mandarin is. I have spoken with plenty of people in rural areas of China that had very rough and broken Mandarin. (It is secretly gratifying to talk to Chinese that have worse Mandarin Chinese than I do). We really enjoyed talking with him as we drove. He told us all about his education, particularly how they learned Mandarin Chinese as children. He told us all about his family. He was married and had two daughters, of which he seemed very proud.

After about two hours, the road began to deteriorate. It went from nicely paved blacktop to a type of crushed rock road, to a dirt road full of pot holes, and deep muddy pools. It was pretty rough going for about an hour and a half or two hours.

After about three and half or four hours we arrived in the small village of Luoji. The main road ended here. At the end of the road was a small restaurant, a guest house, and a small store. We had bought some things in Shangri-la so didn’t bother buying anything. When we got out of the minivan, we were met with stares. It was as if they had never seen foreigners before. They even seemed a little spooked. We were anxious to get out of town, so to speak, so we paid our driver and bid him a warm farewell. He had never been to Niru but he pointed out the way.

Luoji was much lower in elevation than Shangri-la, probably by at least three thousand feet. It was much warmer down here in this river valley. Shangri-la had been very pleasant and cool, being over 10,000 feet in elevation. We were surprised it was so warm here.

With all our belongings in midsized backpacks we set off down a narrow dirt road. We felt a sense of excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation at the unknown. We really did not know what to expect up this valley, but we hoped to meet some rural Tibetans, see some beautiful unspoiled country, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. We had read a Chinese blog report that there was a rustic guesthouse up the valley in an area called Hongxiu Village, but we were not sure where it was. We assumed we would be able to buy food at stores, or eat at small restaurants. In Shangri-la we had bought some crackers, coconut cookies, some instant noodles, and some peanuts. We each carried two quarts of water. We did not bring any camping gear as we planned to stay in guesthouses along the way. We were also hoping to hike high into the mountains above Niru to some high mountain pasturelands where the local Tibetans grazed their yaks in the summertime.

The road just outside Luoji descending down to the river

The trek begins

Three hours later we are sitting by the side of the road, hot, sweaty, and already running low on water. The road out of Luoji dropped down into the bottom of the valley and crossed a river, then switchbacked up the other side for a couple miles. It was steep going for quite awhile. Once we got to the top of the gorge, the road turned left up into the Niru Valley along the Niru River. At this point the river was far below us at the bottom of the valley. Across the valley picturesque farms dotted the mountainsides and side valleys. It was very idyllic and looked like something out of a coffee table book.

We were told by some locals in Luoji that the road to Niru was built the year earlier. Up until that time it was not much more than a trail. In several places the road is washed out, or covered by rocks from small landslides. Occasionally a jeep or truck passes us. We are sitting taking stock of the situation. We’re running low on water but there is a small creek running down the mountainside and across the road. We fill our bottles and treat them with purification tablets that I carry in my first aid kit. That should be good for a few more hours. We certainly were not expecting this kind of heat.

Collecting sap

After another couple hours we come upon a small cluster of wood frame houses. We are again running a bit low on water, so we decide to see if someone can offer us some water. We leave the main road and head down a small side road that leads to the farmhouses. Almost immediately a mangy dog appears barking ferociously. We both instinctively reach down and pick up a few rocks. A few well-aimed throws sends the dog on his way. We heard stories of the fearsome, and huge Tibetan mastiffs. We approach what looks like a very old wood frame house. There is a woman in the yard washing clothes in a large metal washbasin. We greet her in Chinese. She turns and yells something in a language we do not understand. A young teenage girl appears from inside the house. She speaks Chinese, as most school-age kids in China do. They are Lisu and her mother does not speak Chinese. We ask them if there are any stores around. They say the only store around is back in Luoji, so we ask if they can give us some water. She invites us into the house, so we drop our packs outside the front door and enter a dimly lit, very rustic house. It is made entirely of wood, the floor, walls, ceiling. There are three chickens wandering around inside. There does not appear to be any running water or plumbing.

The young girl gives us each a cup of boiling water and we sit and chat. She is in middle school and says there is a small school nearby that teaches all the kids in this part of the valley. She tells us that most of the kids are Lisu or Naxi. She has okay Mandarin, though it is accented. Her mother sits by smiling. They tell us that they have never seen foreigners before, except on TV. After about fifteen minutes we thank them and take our leave.

A bit further down the road, we come across another cluster of houses. We wander around a bit, until we find someone and ask them if there is a store nearby. A young girl runs off, returns a few minutes later with an middle aged women who shows us to an old building that looks like it used to be a store. Inside the floor is littered with boxes and trash. She rips open a few boxes until she finds one with bottled Chinese sports drink. The expiration date is a year old, but probably can’t do too much harm so we each buy two bottles. It looks like a type of guesthouse was build here but nothing came of it. It was deserted. Their Chinese was pretty rough so we didn’t spend much time there. We thanked them for the drinks and continued up the road.

The entire day the road gradually climbed up the valley. By afternoon the road had dropped down to the bottom of the valley and we were hiking along the swift and roaring Niru River. After another hour or so of hiking we came to a gate over the road with a sign saying “Niru.” We had finally arrived. This was the beginning of the Tibetan area. At the top of the sign was Tibetan writing with large Chinese characters below. We were pretty tired. We had been hiking for about eight hours and had covered probably 15-17 kilometers. But we were disappointed that no village appeared, only occasionally farm house along the road or across the river. The homes here though were distinctively Tibetan.

Tibetan farmhouse

We began to get a little concerned about where we might stay for the night. It was getting late and we were tired. A few minutes later we approached a Tibetan farmhouse with a tattered sign advertising a guesthouse. The sign was all torn up and half of it was hanging down to the ground. It didn’t look too promising, so we decided to walk on a bit and see what we could see. Every time someone would pass in a car we would ask how far it was to Niru. We got everything from two hours to seven hours so we really did not know how much further it was to the village proper. Another few kilometers up the road we met a farmer on the road in front of his house. It looked like a newly built house and was nicer than any of the other farmhouses we had seen along the way. We chatted for a bit, and asked him if we could stay at his place for the night. He said he could not house us, but didn’t really give any reason. I think he was kind of scared of maybe getting in trouble for housing foreigners without proper permission. He told us that this valley was gearing up for the tourist trade but was not ready yet. He said there had been some tourist here, but they were all Chinese, never foreigners. He gave us some boiled water so we could make our instant noodles for dinner. No one has heard of a Hongxiu Village.

And so we sat on the side of the road eating our noodles wondering how far it was to the actual village. We sat on a log eating, a few black pigs rooting around in the brush behind us.

Foraging pigs

Michael’s stomach was acting up so he headed up the hillside into the woods to take care of business. I sat alone enjoying the peace and quiet that I was so unaccustomed to in China. Dark clouds were moving in from up the valley and it looked like it might rain. We had no camping gear, did not know how much further the village was, and could not find anyone around to take us in. Most of the Tibetan farmers that we had seen would wave to us, then quickly disappear.

As I sat there two kids, a teenaged girl and boy, came walking down the road from up the canyon. They were very surprised to see a foreigner sitting there on a log eating a bowl of noodles. Our conversation went like this.

“What are you doing here?”

“My friend and I are heading up to Niru. How much further is it?”

“At least four hours on foot. It’s too late to get there today.”

“Are you sure? We heard it was pretty close.”

“No. We just came from there. We walk this road all the time.”

“Do you know anywhere we can stay for the night around here?”

“You can stay at any of these farms around here. Anyone will take you in.”

“I don’t think so. Everyone seems to be afraid of us.”

They both burst out laughing. They are both Tibetan, but give us their Chinese names. (I am intentionally not using their names here because, though the chances are remote, I do not want to risk getting them into any trouble). Many Tibetans have Chinese names, which sometimes are transliterations of their Tibetan names and sometimes are just made up Chinese names. You cannot translate an English (or Tibetan) name into Chinese, so if you want a Chinese name, you get a native to help you pick out a Chinese name. She is fifteen years old, he is seventeen, and she is actually his aunt. They have just returned from ten days in the mountains picking wild mushrooms. Their families have a cabin up in the mountains where they stay with a couple other families, picking mushrooms. They had come down into the valley and sold their mushroom crop to a buyer who would then sell them in Shangri-la. They were returning home for the night to clean up. She would then head back up to the mushroom camp, and he would stay at home, while his mom would head up to the camp.

They offered to help us find a place to stay. So we headed back down the road, from where we had come. When we would arrive at a farm, they would shout out (in Tibetan) to the residents. They knew everyone all up and down the valley. No one seemed to be around and they were perplexed. When we arrived at the farm with the tattered guesthouse sign, they shouted out to a women in the courtyard of the home. She looked up, saw us foreigners, then quickly disappeared into her house She would not come out no matter how much the kids called out. They were both very amused by this.

The supposed guesthouse

Finally, they suggest that we just come home with them. I tell them that I don’t think their mothers would approve of them dragging home two middle-aged white foreigners. They laugh again and assure us it will be fine. They tell us that their mothers have never seen foreigners before and will really enjoy it. I continue to resist, until the boy finally says, “I’ll call my mom and ask if its okay.” To our surprise he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and proceeds to call his mom. We cannot believe that there is cell phone coverage up this remote valley. The girl explains that there is pretty good coverage all up and down the valley. Cell phone coverage all over China is pretty good, but we did not expect it up here. The conversation with his mother is all in Tibetan so we cannot tell what is said.

Michael with the Tibetan kids

In fact we have both studied a little Tibetan before this trip, but we learned very quickly that we were learning standard Lhasa Tibetan, and the dialect spoken in this area was quite different. So our efforts did not help us too much, except for some basic greetings. Our driver also taught us some basic phrases while we were driving out to Luoji.

He tells us that his mom said it was okay for us to stay the night at his house. Michael and I look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and gratefully follow them down the road. We hike back down the road for two or three kilometers, before leaving the road and crossing a rickety bridge across the river. We then follow them up a very steep, narrow trail up a mountainside to the top of a bluff where there are two traditional Tibetan houses surrounded by cornfields. The first house is where the girl lives, and the second house is where the boy lives. We all proceed to his house. These houses are similar to the ones we had seen in the outskirts of Shangri-la, though they are much smaller, and more rustic.

The boy's house on the bluff

There is a high wall around the house and a gate that opens into a courtyard. The courtyard is covered to depth of about 18 inches with leaves and branches. This is to absorb the animal waste. There are several small black pigs there as well as several chickens. We walk across the small courtyard, and up a steep wooden stairway to the second floor and into the house. It is post and beam construction, made entirely of wood. The floor is rough wooden planks, burnished smooth by countless footfalls. There are no glass windows, just one small opening, a out two feet square, with a wooden door over it. It is very dark inside, only illuminated by two large, but very dim bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It smells like wood smoke. His mother greets us warmly, a broad smile spreading across her wind burned face. It is obvious that this woman has spent her life working in the outdoors. No fancy headdress or colorful clothing out here in this remote area.

On one side of the room is the open fire for cooking. There is a large steel wok in a kind of frame over the fire. Next to it is a steel woodburning stove that they use for heat in the winter. The only furniture in the room are two low wooden platforms that are used for sitting.

They are all quite excited to have guests, especially foreigners. The mother gets busy cooking a simple meal. It consists of stir-fried potatoes with just a little salt, and some stir-fried squash and some yak cheese. It is very simple, but much appreciated. They cook over an open fire indoors. Above the fire is a woven platform where cheese is stored.

Reaching for some cheese from the storage rack above the fire

A nice hunk of smoked yak cheese

Above this is a hole in the ceiling where the smoke mostly dissipates into the third floor storage area. This is where they store grain, corn and barley, yak hides, chili peppers, and so on.

Ladder to the third floor storage

They grow corn and squash. They collect wild mushrooms, raise pigs and chickens, and rely heavily on yaks for butter, cheese, meat, and their skins for clothing and tents. Smoked and dried pork hangs from the ceiling. The men are with the yaks in the high summer pastures. In fact, the fathers are away most of the year with their yak herds. The boy’s older brother is with his father and the yak herds.

There is no running water in the house. They collect water from a nearby creek, and store it in a large, probably 30 gallon barrel, in the corner of the large room. There is no bathroom. At one point I have to go and ask the boy where I should go. He laughs, as if this is a ridiculous question, and simply says, just go anywhere outside.

As rustic as these farmhouses are, they all have satellite television, and solar hot water heaters with cisterns on a high platform. So there is hot water to wash with.

The girl is a sophomore in high school. She boards at the high school in Shangri-la during the school year. She has very good Mandarin Chinese. She tells us all about her schooling, even pulling out some of her textbooks. She also studies English and shows us one of her English textbooks, but she cannot really say much in English. The boy only attended through primary school. As a result his Chinese is heavily accented and we sometimes have a hard time understanding what he is saying. But he is very patient with us, and laughs often.

They are very gracious hosts, and allow me to take lots of pictures of them and their humble home. Realizing that I have a camera, they want me to take pictures of them in their formal, traditional dress. They run into one of the two bedrooms, off the main room, and return with a pile of brightly colored clothing. They proceed to dress up in their traditional clothing that they wear at weddings and during the Tibetan New Year celebrations. They are beautiful and all hand made. After taking photos of them, they insist that we try on the clothes as well. They are very amused and laugh when we try on their these traditional clothing. We laugh along with them as we contemplate what we are doing, and the good luck that has brought us here. The black robe I try on his made from yak wool and is heavy and thick. The hat is made from fox fur.

We have a very enjoyable evening visiting with them. It’s getting late and they need to get up early in the morning. In fact the boy’s mother is getting up at 2:00 am to head up to the mushroom picking camp. It is a ten to twelve hour hike up into the mountains. The girl prepares to go home and tells us that we need to stop by in the morning before we leave to have some fresh milk from their cow. She is very proud of the fact that they have a milk cow.

They prepare a bed for us by pushing the two wooden platforms together. They throw a wool rug over it, with a couple more heavy wool blankets and a couple pillows. We have travel sheets that we use as well. It is a very hard bed, but we are grateful to have a place to sleep. When they turn the lights out the room is absolutely pitch dark.

Our bed for the night

The mother is up early, re-stoking the fire and making yak butter tea, then she is off. Later that morning, around 7:30, the boy is up re-stoking the fire and preparing breakfast for us. We have traditional Tibetan tsampa, which is really just barley flour, yak cheese, and yak butter tea. In some Tibetan areas tsampa is made by mixing barley flour with yak butter tea to form round dough balls. For many Tibetans, this is their primary diet, along with lots of butter tea. In this area the barley flour is eaten raw accompanied with butter tea. You just grab a pinch of flour and pop it into your mouth, and wash it down with tea. Yak butter tea is made with hot water, yak butter, salt and tea leaves. It is very strong, and most westerners have a difficult time getting it down. The tea is prepared in a wooden cylindrical churn. It wasn’t the most appetizing breakfast, but what a unique cultural experience. We were profoundly grateful to be having this experience.

Making yak butter tea

A Tibetan breakfast

After breakfast, we pack up and head next door. We meet the girl’s mother, and her 90-something year old grandmother, who has been blind for the past twenty years. No doubt cooking over a fire indoors for many years had something to do with that. The mothers speak just a little Chinese, but the grandmother only speaks Tibetan.

The proudly serve us each a large bowl of milk. To our surprise it is very sour and full of curds. We sip it tentatively. Michael leans over and says he’s going to hurl if he has to drink any more. I’m trying not to laugh. I guess I have learned to mentally shut out gross things and just put them down. But I admit, the sour, curdled milk is pretty bad. After a short visit, we thank them, and head down the steep trail, across the river, and back onto the road. They assure us it is only about a four hour walk to the village of Niru. It turns out that this whole long section of the valley is technically Niru village, but at the end of the valley is the cluster of homes that constitute the village proper.

TO BE CONTINUED

How do you address someone in China?

This may seem like a rather simple question, but it is important, and differs from how we address people in the US. In China, hierarchy is an important part of social interactions. That is, who you are and your position in relation to others determines to a large extent how you address them. This is why, in China, that individuals will always exchange business cards when first meet so they know how to address each other.

Terms of address, or how you address someone, depends on your level of familiarity with the person and the formality of the occasion.  Below I describe various ways to address people.

1. Surname + title

This is the most formal, and safest way to address someone. In Chinese, surnames always come first. This kind of address is appropriate in all formal occasions and whenever you are addressing someone in a position superior to your own or to someone older than you. For example, if you are a student, and your teacher has the surname 王 wáng, you would address her as:

王老师 wáng lǎoshī          Teacher Wang

Or if your boss is a manager, and is surnamed Zhang 张 zhāng, you would address him as:

张经理 zhāng jīnglǐ            Manager Zhang

2. Full name (姓名 xìngmíng)

Unlike in the US, it is very common to address a person by their full name. It does not sound strange at all. Even people that know each other well, may address each other by their full names if they are in a more formal setting. Husbands and wives will even use their full names with each other when they are in public. This term of address is common in the workplace among colleagues, as well as at school with Chinese classmates.

You will most likely use these two terms of address with the vast majority of your Chinese contacts.

3. Given name (名字 míngzi)

You have to know someone pretty well to be on a first name basis. This is quite different from the US where you can meet someone for the very first time and refer to them by their given or first name. In China it takes quite a long time to get to the familiarity level to call someone by their given name. This term of address is reserved for in-group individuals, such as friends, classmates, and co-workers that have a similar social status as you.

4. Nickname

Just as in the US, nicknames are reserved for those with whom you are very familiar, such as family members, close friends, and close colleagues. Nicknames in Chinese are often given based on physical characteristics, or personality traits. These kinds of nicknames are called 绰号 chuòhào or the more colloquial term 外号 wàihào. Here are some examples of these kinds of nicknames:

小胖 xiǎo pàng             “little fatty” for the chubby person

四眼王 sìyán wáng      “four eyes Wang” for the guy that wears glasses

书呆子  shūdāizi          “bookworm” for the person that always has their nose in a book

A Chinese associate of mine explained to me that her nickname among her friends growing up was 老五 lǎowǔ. This name came about because she had four close girlfriends and she was the youngest. In Northern Mandarin 老 lǎo refers to the youngest member of a group. Since she was the youngest of the five, they used this nickname. You could also use this term for a relative. For example, if you had three uncles, you might refer to the youngest as 老舅lǎojiù or your youngest aunt as 老姨 lǎoyí.

Some nicknames are terms of endearment, and are often a variation of a person’s name and are called 昵称 nìchēng in Chinese. I had a friend who was a bit older than her group of friends so they gave her the nickname, 姐姐 jiějie, “older sister” and called her 冯姐姐 féng jiějie(her surname was Feng). Another friend was named 吴小琪 wú xiǎoqí and her parents and grandparents called her 琪琪 qíqí.

You are quite safe addressing Chinese with surname + title or by their full name. Be careful about using given names or nicknames. Relationships in China form and develop much slower than in the US and it may take quite a bit of time to get on those very familiar terms with someone.

One final note: in the US you will undoubtedly meet Chinese who will introduce themselves with their given name, either their Chinese given name or an English name. What do you call them? The rule I generally use, is that if you are speaking Chinese with them, I go by the Chinese practice of calling them by their surname and title or by their full name. If you are speaking English with them, and they have an English name, go ahead and use the English name. If they do not have an English name, I am uncomfortable calling most Chinese by their given name, even if we are speaking English.

No thank you’s, please.

typical Nanjing breakfast

Politeness and courteous language is another area where beginning (and even advanced) learners of Chinese stumble. If you don’t know how to act in a given situation, then you have no choice but to fall back on how you would behave in a like situation in your own culture.

In the United States we are conditioned to be polite, and nice to everyone, from family members to complete strangers that we will likely never see again. This politeness includes using lots of please’s and thank you’s. When learners of Chinese fail to understand how and when to use this kind of polite language they fall back on practices ingrained in their own cultural upbringing. Americans in China notoriously overuse the expressions 请 qǐng and 谢谢 xièxie. They go around saying 谢谢 xièxie to everyone regardless of their relationship with the person. I have personally observed students making a transaction on the street with a peasant selling mangoes. The exchange went something like this:

请问,芒果多少钱? qǐngwèn, mángguǒ duōshǎo qián?

Please may I ask, now much are the mangoes?

The seller was visibly uncomfortable and probably perplexed, and maybe a bit amused. After the transaction was made, the student responded with:

谢谢,谢谢。 xièxie, xièxie

Thank you, thank you.

This kind of behavior is so natural to an American that it is hard to think it could possibly be inappropriate. But most Chinese would find this behavior odd, even strange. To make matters worse, practically every beginning level Chinese language textbook simply translates 谢谢 as “thank you” and 请 as “please” with no further discussion about how and when to use these expressions appropriately.

In China the use of polite language is different. Chinese society is governed to a large degree on hierarchy. That is, you act differently with people above and below your position or status in society. For example, it would be very unusual for a Chinese person to thank a store clerk with a 谢谢 after making a purchase. The same goes for the clerk—they would not use this expression with a customer. The Chinese would likewise not use these polite words with people they are close to, such as family members, friends, and colleagues. With people close to you formal language is not appropriate unless you are intentionally trying to sound sarcastic or distance yourself from the person. Polite language like this is reserved for formal occasions, often when dealing with someone in a social position higher than yours, such as your boss.

typical department store

In recent years there has been a campaign by the Chinese government to clean up their courteous language or improve their verbal hygiene. Erbaugh (2008) reports that as early as 1980 the Chinese Communist Party promoted the use of five courteous phrases, 五个礼貌的词 wǔge lǐmào de cí, based on the impersonal Western-derived phrases, “hello,” “please,” “sorry,” “thank you,” and “goodbye,” with the Chinese equivalents 你好 nǐ hǎo ,请 qǐng ,对不起 duìbuqǐ ,谢谢 xièxie ,and 再见 zàijiàn. The fact that the government would promote the use of these phrases in everyday encounters is pretty good evidence that they are not commonly used by Chinese with Chinese.

With increased exposure to the West and increasing numbers of foreigners traveling to China, these kinds of phrases are heard with increasing regularity. Many Chinese who have regular interactions with foreigners understand that these courtesy words are expected and so they use them. But you still seldom hear them used among Chinese. As learners of Chinese we should strive to behave the way Chinese expect people to behave, linguistically and behaviorally. The Chinese should not have to adapt or modify their behavior to communicate with us.

In conclusion, here are a couple reminders.

1.  Save your 谢谢’s for formal occasions. Resist the urge to thank people in informal contexts such as at restaurants, stores, street markets, etc. You’re not going to offend any Chinese but not saying it.

2. Likewise, save your 请问’s for more formal occasions. Just because you are asking a question does not mean you have to begin with 请问. For example, at a market, if you want to know the price of something, just ask directly.

Erbaugh, Mary. 2008. “China Expands Its Courtesy: Saying “Hello.” The Journal of Asian Studies. Volume 67, Number 2.