We have traveled to other countries where we didn't speak the language before, but China has probably been one of the hardest to communicate in, both because less Chinese people know English (although the English seemed to be about as good as in Japan), but also because we were often traveling without anyone who knew both English and Chinese. (In Japan we were often with friends who knew both languages and thus were a huge help.)
One of the downsides of traveling to a country where few people speak English is we don't feel like we got to know many Chinese people. It is also quite stressful, especially if you aren't with a Chinese speaking person, because you can't communicate with anyone without great difficulty. The difficulty is usually not insurmountable, but it often requires creativity. We have mastered pointing, the primal affirmative grunt, counting with fingers, and more complex miming and gesticulating. How do you tell the food stand guy you want a specific type of soup, but without the green peppers on top because they've probably been washed with tap water that will make you sick, and that you only want one bowl of it, even though there are two of you? (Answer: You point at someone else's bowl that's nearby, hold up one finger and put your hand over the bowl of green stuff before he can add it to your soup, and then wait for him to hold up the number of fingers of yuan you owe.)
I have now even greater respect for immigrants who move to a land where they don't speak the language.
This naturally leads to one of the upsides, which is that it's safe to assume that anyone who is non-east-asian (which usually means caucasian/western in china) is your friend, or at least is willing to talk to you. Marisa is a little more talktative than me to new people, but we're both fairly reserved. When traveling in China, though, we found that we were not nearly as reserved because when you find someone you can talk to you have to jump on the opportunity. We've met a number of interesting people on our journey so far.
Of course nobody can be bucketed perfectly, but Steve likes to stereotype people. Here is an exhaustive list of fellow traveler types:
1.) The pre-real-life student or recent-student: This person (or group of people) is typically under 25 and has just finished a degree, may have worked one or two years to save up money after a degree, or might still be a student (often a graduate student, since they have time on their hands to take off and do nothing for a month). This person usually seems to be trying to get his traveling in before taking on real responsibilities. They're often traveling for a long time, e.g. an entire year. These people (especially those who have not worked at all yet) are shocked at the idea that someone would take a $4 cab ride because that's how much they spend each night in their shared dorm housing. Spending $22 on a private room with your own bathroom is a grievous waste of funds.
2.) The eternal student/career-less traveler -- This is a little hard to distinguish from Type 1 (and in fact may be a later stage of Type 1, except that sometimes you encounter people who claim to be students but are >30 years old and spend 4 months each year traveling and have been in school for 10 years. They are usually lucky enough to be from countries that subsidize their education. They don't like to talk about what they'll do 'after school' or at least have not put much thought into it.
3.) The hostel bum -- This is the drunk guy in the bar who bends everyone's ear and seems to have been living at the hostel for years. One wonders how he's paying for it, but at $3/night for a hostel dorm room, $60,000 in savings would last you until you die. China is cheap. Type 3 may be a natural progression from Type 1 and Type 2.
4.) The working professional: Often this person is European, because Europeans get many more weeks of paid vacation a year than Americans (sometimes >5), so they can travel for months at a time. Marisa and I are sorta in this category, except we're taking an unpaid leave. These people can vary in age from 20s to 50s. You could imagine, depending on how disenchanted they are with work, Type 4 may become Type 3.
5.) Retirees: Surprisingly enough, there is a sizable contingent of retirees who stay at 'youth' hostels. It probably requires a little more energy and courage than taking a tour group.
With that said, here's a few people we'd like to remember from our journey in China:
Awhile back in our description of the great wall, we joked about a group of people who we assumed to be russian based on their language and their amusement at buying commie (soviet star) fur hats. (Marisa thought they were finnish, steve thought they were russian.) It turns out they were Polish-Canadian, so we're not sure who was right. (Marisa argues she was closer to being right because they were from a soviet satellite country. I'm not sure if that counts. Was Finland actually in the warsaw pact?) Amazingly enough, the Poles ended up paralleling our journey for more than a week. After the great wall in Beijing, they stayed at the same hostel as us in Pingyao, which was a full 12 hour journey from Beijing. After that, they stayed at the same hostel as us in Xi'an, which is another 6 to 9 hour journey from Pingyao. Not surprisingly, they had the same Lonely Planet book as us, which recommended all this stuff.
We traveled on different days, but ended up having a good time in the hostel bar with them at Xi'an, and they gave us tips about traveling to India, which they'd been to in a previous trip. Another coincidence was we discovered that one of them had been offered a job at Google but turned it down! (This came up in conversation because he was talking about how he didn't ever want to work for a big company again.) These people were sorta Type 4 (working professionals) but were far more interested in talking about their 3 months of traveling they managed to do each year than what they do for a living.
We have a great example of the kind of bonding that comes from finding someone else who can actually speak English. In Chengdu we wanted to go out for hotpot. Hotpot is where they put a boiling broth in the middle of your table on a gas burner, and you drop your own ingredients in to cook it. Sichuanese hotpot is knowng for being very good and also quite spicy. We took a auto-rickshaw to a restaurant area and simply walked to the hotpot restaurant with the most people.
Unfortunately they didn't have an English or a picture-based menu. When the waitress seated us she got very confused by our questions, and it was impossible to order. She next did what we found is a common coping strategy to overcome the language difficulty in China: she found a Chinese *customer* in the restaurant who was eating at a table with some white people, under the assumption that he could translate. She brought this guy over to us, and he started to translate, but then he just said, 'WHY DON'T YOU JUST JOIN US?!??!?! I AM EATING WITH CANADIAN AND FRANCE PEOPLE!' (This particular fellow was very enthusiastic and friendly, although that seems to be fairly normal for Chinese.) After he insisted we wouldn't be imposing, we thought this was a great opportunity, so we went over to sit with them. It turned out that the Chinese guy was in town from Shanghai and was staying at a hostel (not ours), and had just met the Canadian and the Frenchman at the hostel, and they'd all decided to go out to dinner together, so we were at least not unwelcome intruders since they'd all just met each other.
We had fairly nice conversation (for people who had never met each other). The Canadian and Frenchman both worked in Asia (South Korea and Taiwan) and were traveling around the mainland of China for a vacation. The most interesting bit was that near the end of our dinner, Marisa asked the Chinese guy (who was fairly young) what his job was. He told Marisa that right now he is working as a manager at H&M, but that his lifelong dream is to go to the Cornell Hotel College (In retrospect that helped explain how friendly he was). At that point Marisa turned to me and told me what he said, and I said, 'I... went to cornell!' At that point he exploded and insisted on shaking my hand. He shook my hand several times that night and also when we ran into eachother the next day at the Panda Zoo. We also exchanged email addresses, although if he thinks I can help him get into the hotel school, he's mistaken. I did explain that I majored in computer science, and that the one class I took at the hotel school was 'Wines 101', which was pass/fail and was spent slurping alcohol. I thought the Frenchman at the table would be impressed by that, but his facial expressions didn't seem to change from mildly quizzical.
In Chengdu we also met a nice young British couple who fit stereotype 1, as they'd worked for a short time after university before starting on a 9 month trip. We ended up seeing the Panda Research Center with them and also shared Sichuanese cooking lessons to split the cost of the lessons. (Marisa is writing in a separate post about the Chinese interpreter who helped us in the cooking lessons. That wasn't his job, as he's in Tech and simply interpreted as a favor for the hostel owner. He was interesting in his own right.) The British couple is eventually heading to San Francisco, so we even shared our email addresses with them in case they need tips. They were sleeping in a dorm room with an obnoxious guy of stereotype 3 who apparently snores by night and brags about his multiple degrees by day. (He claimed he was an 'engineer', but later said he was a 'doctor' and a 'teacher'. Chengdu is a launchpad for Tibet, and he talked in the bar about his hiking and climbing exploits, but we suspected based on his behavior that the most climbing he did was into the top bunk in the dorm room after tossing down one too many in the bar.) He appeared to be living in the hostel. This is exactly why we didn't get the ultra-cheap dorm housing option.
We've met many more people, but another interesting person we came across in Lijiang in Yunan was an elderly retired woman from Denmark. Although her English was not fantastic, she was extremely talkative, and we ended up sharing a driver with her to visit the famous Yulong Snow Mountain. We observed that she was very good at communicating with Chinese people despite speaking no Chinese. Later she told us that her career had been as a teacher of retarded children. She said many of her students were unable to speak, so she has had to learn how to make rudimentary signs and to mime actions to explain things. There are apparently many interesting differences between common Western gestures and Chinese gestures. For example, apparently holding your crotch in China and jumping up an down does not mean you have to pee. (Actually, we already figured that one out, because Marisa tried it at a restaurant. For some reason they always seem to know what I want when I get up from dinner, so maybe I look more bestially desparate when searching for the toilet.) Another interesting sign difference was that miming putting food in your mouth with your fingers isn't a recognized gesture for eating in China. ('Why is this lady putting her fist in her mouth?!?!?') Instead you have to act like you're holding chopsticks.
Besides those people, we shared some period of time with a number of other people: An American Mesa Airlines pilot who planned to travel to 15 countries in 20 days, an our-age-ish British couple on a 3 month holiday, an 40-something Israeli couple who we shared a bunch of travel tips with, and of course some of our Chinese tour guides that were able to speak English. (We had a particularly good guide in Xi'an who spoke very good English.)