How Many Body Languages Do You Speak?

“Their body languages don’t look good,” said the commentator, “I don’t think the Sharks can come back and win this game.”

Body languages?

What is he saying? Does he not speak English? I enjoyed a laugh at the expense of the Australian rugby league commentator before I realised two things:

One, he’s a former rugby league player so we should not expect a high standard of elocution.

Two, he has a point. People do speak body languages. Non-verbal communication is essential to conveying a message in any language, and this aspect of communication can differ between languages, cultures and even sub-cultures.

Eye contact

Eye contact is considered essential and important in many ‘western’ cultures. It shows respect to the other speaker plus confidence and trustworthiness. This is not the case everywhere in the world.

In some Indigenous Australian cultures, it is common for people not to make eye contact, especially when a young person is speaking to an elder. The young person is supposed to defer to the older person and to show their respect by avoiding eye contact. Many Indigenous Australian youth, especially those living in more remote communities, are often taught explicitly how to make eye contact when doing mock job interviews.

Pointing

Pointing with the index finger is forbidden in some cultures. Muslims do not point with the index finger, but instead use the thumb on top of a closed fist to point something out. It makes you feel like a politician driving home a point at a press conference.

The Wrist Shake

Raise your arm about 90 degrees, bend your elbow, open your hand and shake your wrist vigorously. You can now demonstrate to people in Brunei and Malay cultures that you don’t know, can’t remember, don’t have…or don’t care. If you’re a student in an English class in Brunei, you can use this to tell your orangputih (white person) English teacher that you can’t be bothered to reply to him in English.

The hand shake

“Shake like a man”

Grip the other man’s hand firmly, look him straight in the eye and shake hands confidently. Do this in western cultures, but not in Malay cultures. Instead, slip your hand softly into the other person’s hand and rock it gently up and down. If you meet the Sultan, or another V I P, you might have to kiss that hand. Just hope your not the 998th person to do so.

Pout

If you don’t know something in the Yolngu lands of north-east Arnhem land in Australia, stick out your lower lip. Still in Arnhem Land, if someone asks you for directions, show them the way by pursing your lips and moving your head in the direction of travel. That’s right, you point with your lips.

In fact, if you grow up in the Yolgnu culture, you will learn how to conduct an entire conversation without words. Two female teachers demonstrated this during a teaching inservice.

An expert had flown in from Darwin to the community of Yirrkala to conduct a training session on how better to teach students with hearing problems, which are very common among Yolgnu children. To help teachers to empathise with students with hearing problems, the expert put headphones on the teachers and told them to communicate a simple message to their colleague – without using sound. The non-Aboriginal teachers stumbled, mimed and laughed their way through a miserably deficient dialogue, while two Yolngu women conducted an entire conversation with body language.

Don’t smile at me!

“Don’t you dare smile at me,” said the teacher sternly, “this is serious. Your behaviour was completely unacceptable. I said stop smiling, do you think this is a joke?”

The student didn’t think it was a joke. As a Chinese boy who had lived in China his whole life, he’d cultivated the habit of smiling or laughing to show shyness, embarrassment or humility. Unfortunately, the newly-arrived British teacher didn’t realise this and continued her reprimand with steam blowing out of her ears and veins popping out of her head.

The head wobble

Does that mean yes, no, maybe? Are you ignoring me, mocking me, agreeing with me. Is it a commitment, a promise that the task will be completed as requested?

I have no idea.

All I saw while working at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, was a head wobble. No matter how many times I saw it from Indian staff, I had no idea what it meant. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes it was a very pronounced wobble.

In my experience, shaking the head means no. In India, however, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes the head shaker did complete the task. I was thoroughly confused most of the times I was greeted with a head shake. One thing I surmised, rightly or wrongly, was that the bigger the headshake, the less likely it was that the job would be done.

Count with your hands

Yi, Er, San…

The first five numbers are easy to display on one hand, but what about numbers 6 – 10? The Chinese have developed a handy system of communicating numbers with one hand when verbal communication is not an option. Be careful with number 8 though, it could look like you want to shoot someone. Also, don’t assume someone is trying to ward off the devil when they reach number 10.

Peace

Body languages don’t just differ between vastly different cultures. Non-verbal communication can also cause a faux pas between speakers of the same language. George Bush Sr provided a classic example. During an official visit to Australia, the then president drove through a city in his official motorcade and offered the crowd the two-fingered peace sign, or what he thought was the two-fingered peace sign. He put his fingers around the wrong way and showed the back of his hand to the crowd. In Australia, holding up two fingers in this way means ‘up yours’, ‘bugger off’, ‘go away’ or ‘piss off’. It’s just one step down from ‘giving the bird’.

Social media

Body languages do not exist on social media. Emoji’s have attempted to replace non-verbal communication across these platforms but they simply cannnot transmit the same level of meaning. Furthermore, even an emoji can have different meaning in different contexts – and I’m not just talking about fruit emojis and their attendant innuendo. I’m referring to seemingly innocent emojis such as the thumbs up symbol.

In my experience, the thumbs up symbol is a succinct way of saying ‘I agree’, ‘everything is ok’, ‘problem solved’…However, a Brazilian friend did not interpret my thumbs up in this manner. In her experience, the thumbs up means

‘I can’t be bothered answering your message’

‘I don’t care enough to write a response’

‘I’m politely ignoring your message’

As the world becomes consumed by mass media and people live more of their lives online, what happens to body language?

Body language is vital to communication. It can involve the use of the hands, the head, the eyes or even the lips. It can be enlightening or confusing, and it differs greatly between cultures and within cultures.

How many body languages do you speak?

Image:www.telegraph.co.uk

Direct Marketing.

Why is there a clown on a bus?

The clown is working. Earning his daily bread. Putting food on the table. He is a mobile busker of sorts. He is taking his product straight to his audience. Advertisers would call it direct marketing, and the passengers on the bus are a captive audience.

The clown performed his 3 piece set for the passengers before we set off for our intended destination, and asked for ‘propinas’, or tips, in return for the few moments of entertainment. He livened up a very boring and monotonous aspect of travel and distracted his audience from the chaotic, smelly, noisy and ugly bus terminal in which they sat.

The clown is just one of the many salespeople who ply their trade on inter-city buses throughout Latin America in an attempt to earn a living in a region in which employment is precarious.

Comida y bebidas

Salespeople will board buses at terminals and offer their products or services to passengers who can choose to make a small payment. Some people will sell staples such as food and drink at a standard price and will rush up and down the crowded aisles trying to entice every passenger in to making a purchase before scurrying on to the next bus and the next one.

Some vendors might stay on the bus. Their sales require more time. They might be said to invest more with their audience. Thus, they will remain on the bus as it pulls out of the terminal and continue their journey until the bus stops at the pick up point on the outskirts of town. At this point, they will thank the driver, alight, and connect with another bus heading back to the terminal and attempt to market their products directly to a new audience.

A Blessing

Other salespeople are not selling a specific product. They instead offer items to passengers. Many of them will place in the hands of each passenger a card with a blessing, a positive affirmation or a religious image imprinted upon it. Once they have given every passenger a blessing, they will walk back down the aisle and collect the cards from those who don’t wish to keep them, or accept money from those who wish to hold on to the blessing.

How much do they earn?

It depends. They usually earn a few coins per card. It might also depend on whether the food and beverage vendor is also prowling the aisle at the same time – it can get quite crowded.

Capitalists call this competition. The free market.

The Pen Salesman

The best sales pitch I ever encountered during my many bus journeys was the pen salesman in Guatemala. He gave the most impressive spiel about pens that I have ever heard. He awarded his pens a value more precious than gold and more vital than water.

What did he say?

I can’t repeat his pitch here. It would be a breach of copyright. At least, I hope he has copyright on his pitch. He should.

Did I need a pen?

No

Did I already have a pen?

Yes

Did I want a pen?

No

Did I buy a pen?

Yes

Advertising gurus will tell you that the best marketing convinces people that they need something that they don’t actually need. I didn’t need a pen, but I bought a handful because the salesman convinced me that I needed a pen.

Not just any pen.

Not just one pen.

I needed a handful of his pens.

A Silver Mine and A Very Unique Nightclub.

A trip down Mina El Eden combines culture with a great night out. The retired mine in the city of Zacatecas is now a tourist attraction which runs educational tours and hosts one of the world’s most unique nightclubs.

Revellers arrive at El Malacate Discotheque via a small train which runs through the 600-metre La Esperanza Cavern inside the mine. La Esperanza translates as Hope in English and many who venture into these parts hope to find their own precious jewel. You might not meet the love of your life, but you’ll have a great story to tell.

History tells us that the original inhabitants of the region, the Zacateco people, knew of the mineral wealth beneath their feet but decided to keep it in the ground. The extraction of silver in the region of Zacatecas, in north central Mexico, began in the mid 16th century and transformed the city into one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the Spanish colonies.

El Eden produced millions of tonnes of silver ore but was closed in 1960 after flooding on various levels, and because the blasting from the mining operations were too dangerous for the inhabitants of the expanding city which was being built on top.

The current tourist attraction opened in 1975 and is one of the region’s most popular sites. It encompasses hanging rope bridges, stairs and models of workers.

A great amount of the silver mined in Zacatecas made its way to the Spanish royal family. Like all royal families, the Spanish crown grew wealthy and powerful off the work of others, especially indigenous people.

Special lighting areas highlight the methods used to extract the silver and the mine also hosts a demonstration of mining and a museum with a display of rocks and minerals.

Guests can hear stories of the adventures and misadventures of all of those who descended the seven levels of the mine, and a visit to this site provides tourists with the opportunity to wear a hard hat and a very fetching hair net.

The city itself is a World Heritage Site and rewards visitors with preserved colonial architecture and Baroque structures. Grabbing a seat on the balcony of a cafe or restaurant is a great way to admire the architecture and to watch the people go about their business.

The famous Mexican independence fighter, Pancho Villa, also marked his imprint upon the city. He captured the town in the Battle of Zacatecas during the Mexican Revolution in the 19th century.

Silver played a huge role in the development of Zacatecas and the state which bears the same name. The world’s largest silver mine, Penasquito, is in the state of Zacatecas and a Mexican slang word for money is ‘plata’, or silver.

Your journey does not end, however, once you finish exploring the underground mine. If you choose, you can continue on the funicular railway. This cable car will carry you high above the streets of Zacatecas from El Grillo Mountain to La Bufa, which is about 660 metres in total. The panoramic views are spectacular.

and you can leave a tip if you like…

Perhaps a donation of plata.

Skulls and Bones in La Quemada

Do you have a fascination with the dead? Do you find yourself contemplating your own mortality or possess a penchant for the macabre?

If so, you can indulge your morbid cravings at Zona Arqueologica La Quemada, an archaeological site in Zacatecas, central Mexico. On an elevated site outside of the city lies an excavation and display of many human skulls and bones.

La Quemada translates roughly as ‘burned or ‘the burned’, and refers to the burnt human remains which were discovered when the earth was moved during the construction of a hacienda on the site. It is also suspected that the settlement which occupied the site was eventually destroyed by fire.

Historical research indicates that the original inhabitants occupied the site between 350/400 AD to 1150 AD, and the site is regarded as the most important historical settlement in north central Mexico due to its architecture. Archaeological digs have discovered the grand columns from the former plaza, a field for playing a traditional form of football and a series of pyramids dominated by the pyramid Votiva, as well as sites for the worship of deities.

And the skulls?

Numerous historians believe the inhabitants engaged in human sacrifice. The Salon de las Columnas is thought to have been a large structure, of which only the columns remain, and historians theorise that this is where various forms of human sacrifice took place.

A short walk from the Salon de las Columnas leads to the Piramide de los Sacrificios, which clearly translates as the Pyramid of Sacrifices.

Detecting a theme here?

Evidence would suggest that human sacrifices were made on this site to please the deities. It does make one wonder how people were chosen for sacrifice.

Were locals persuaded that being sacrificed was an honour – perhaps in the same way that young men have historically been persuaded that giving their life in battle for their nation is an honour.

Were the sacrificed slaves or captives from other settlements or cities?

Did a caste system operate?

This is a source of conjecture and debate. What is more definite is the preserved remains of these people, which are on clear display to every visitor to La Quemada.

La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Mexico is unique. It boasts its own distinct cuisine, its own colloquial language and its own liquor. Musical genres such as Banda, Musica Nortena, Narco Corridos and Mariachi originated in the country and Charreria belongs to the state of Jalisco. It stands to reason then that Mexico would possess its own Virgin Mary.

How is La Virgen different to The Virgin?

La Virgen de Guadalupe has dark skin. In contrast to the white-washed version of Jesus, Mary and Joseph which dominates contemporary conceptualisation of the holy Christian family, Mexico’s sacred mother bears the skin tone of the mestizo people of her homeland.

La Virgen also took physical form in Mexico. Mary immaculate, according to accounts in the Bible, only existed in body in the Middle East, but La Virgen is authentically Mexican.

The popular account told to every Mexican child is that La Virgen appeared to St Juan Diego in 1531. St Juan Diego was apparently an Aztec who converted to Christianity and saw the apparition of La Virgen on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego is believed to have seen the apparition of December 9 and again on December 12, and on one occasion La Virgen requested that a shrine be built on that site in her honour.

As with any report of a miracle, religious authorities at the time demanded proof from the witness. Juan Diego was ordered by the Bishop to provide proof of La Virgen’s presence before they agreed to build a shrine, so she told the young man to collect roses. Juan Diego then fronted the bishop and opened his cloak to reveal dozens of roses which fell to the floor, and, more importantly, an image of La Virgen on the inside of his cloak.

The famous image now appears in the Basilica of Guadalupe which sits on Tepeyac Hill in modern-day Mexico City.

Visiting the Basilica of Guadalupe is a pilgrimage of significant importance for many Mexicans and a cultural experience for foreigners. Many locals, and even tourists, speak of the transformative experience of entering the basilica to witness the unveiling of the image of La Virgen.

I visited the Basilica. I’m reluctant to share my thoughts and reaction to the experience of viewing La Virgen because every person will react differently to a site and an image of such revered religious, spiritual, historical and cultural importance.

The experience should be personal and reflective.

El dia de la Virgen is a celebration and veneration held on December 9 and December 12 in various locations in Mexico City. Why are there two celebrations for La Virgen? Firstly, because La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego twice. Secondly, because It’s Mexico.

The influence of La Virgen is evident in daily life and explains why so many Mexican women are called Lupita. Thousands of Mexican women are christened Maria Guadalupe in honour of the virgin, and are known affectionately as Lupita, even into adulthood. It’s impossible to travel through Mexico without eating at a ‘Tacos Lupita’, ‘Loncheria Lupita’ or a stall selling pozole, enchiladas, burritos or sopitos prepared by Lupita.

Christmas has Santa Claus, and Easter has chocolate eggs and a bunny, so the site of La Virgen at Tepeyac Hill must also succumb to the inevitable lure of commercialisation. Visitors can buy religious iconography in the form of crosses, statues and rosary beads, but also take home pillows, key rings, T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the image of the virgin.

A visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe can be a spiritual transformation, a patriotic obligation, a glimpse into history or an immersive observation of contemporary Mexican culture. Whatever the motivation, it is a worthwhile stop on any visit to Mexico.

Run for Your Life.

“Corre!”

“Corre!”

They screamed

“Run, run.”

The crowds fled in mass panic up and down the narrow cobbled streets of Taxco. Terror gripped their faces and adults grabbed children before rushing them in to any hidden space which offered even the semblance of safety, because what followed the screams of ‘run’ came the most dreaded word in contemporary Mexico,

“Narcos!”

Drug traffickers had infiltrated the annual Easter parade in the small, colonial mountain town of Taxco. Now the attention of the people lining the streets to witness the religious devotees file through the town was gripped by the true rulers of Mexico – drug traffickers.

“Narcos!” they yelled and the word rippled through the town.

“Disparos,” muttered others.

Gun shots had been heard.

My heart instantly leapt a beat and I was swept along in the mass hysteria. I ran up the street towards the main square before colliding with people rushing away from the main square. I discarded the bag of snacks I had prepared for the anticipated night-long Semana Santa parade and I followed a large group of petrified locals running…somewhere.

I can’t get caught.

What will they do to me?

The we stopped.

Startled onlookers were now fleeing towards us, scanning the street for danger and safety. At the same time, religious devotees plodded up the streets praying and whipping themselves or carrying life-sized crucifixes. The blood streaming down the backs of the men shouldering heavy bundles of thorny reeds served as an omen to the people now attempting to outrun the most dreaded force in Mexico.

The macabre imagery incited even more panic in the minds of the crowd and they sought refuge wherever they could find it.

I knew I had to stop running and that I was too far from my hotel to make it back to safety, and simultaneously wondered why I thought my hotel room was safe. Narcos baulked at nothing to win their turf wars and protect their profits.

I then noticed people ducking into buildings, any building they could reach, before closing the door rapidly behind them and imploring their children to hush and avoid detection. No one wanted to become another statistic.

A slither of light shone on the darkened street and I saw a door left ajar for a fraction of a second. I dashed towards it just before it was closed and ducked into a dimly lit room occupied by numerous families and frightened locals.

Murmurs and whispers surrounded me and the one word which surfaced in every hushed utterance was ‘narcos’. A tense conversation then began between two people disagreeing over whether to leave the light on or to plunge us into total darkness. In the dim light I detected white powder on the floor and some of the benches, and I was immediately reminded of the white powder which fuels the drug wars and the narco terrorism throughout Mexico. Except this was a different white powder. I was in a bakery.

The discussion then turned to whether anyone else should be offered refuge in the tiny room. If there were a dozen people packed into the bakery, it was definitely a baker’s dozen.

The overcrowding heightened the tension. A sentry of sorts peered through the faded glass window onto the streets and attempted to update us on the situation. He struggled to distinguish between the hectic scene before him, which was still nothing more than a blur of screams, shouts and rapid footsteps.

The only discernible figures, which even the rest of us could make out from our hiding spot further into the bakery, were the slow-moving shapes. The devotees lugging the crosses and flagellating themselves in a public display of piety, splitting apart their blood-stained skin in acts of self harm.

Cofradias wore long cone-shaped hoods which have been appropriated by the KKK. Barefooted women bent double with horse hair clothing and barbed-wire-like belts pricking their skin.

Shirtless, faceless men cradling crosses ambling through the streets with their feet chained to the rest of the gang had no hope of outrunning ruthless and nimble drug traffickers. Perhaps this is why they didn’t bother, why they continued their holy pilgrimage, perhaps in the surety that a death at the hands of evil during a holy display of devotion would ensure entry into heaven. Perhaps this was the ultimate proof of their faith.

And to think, only moments before, the most incongruous sight on that evening in Taxco was the young women in short skirts tottering past the devotees in high heels ‘al rumbo a la fiesta’.

The participants clearly believed their acts of devotion would please the lord and persuade him to save them from the insidious and indiscriminate crimes of the ‘narcos’, because they trudged on wards through the streets shielded only by their prayers.

Did they know that Narcos would administer pain far worse than anything the devotees could inflict upon themselves – and send them to meet their maker much sooner.

Chaos reigned outside the bakery until one of its prisoners suggested we leave. He claimed we were no safer in here than on the streets, and that being crammed in like sardines made us an easier target. This sparked another tense, hushed discussion but noone moved. Children became visibly more anxious and petrified parents did their best to calm the young ones, while all of us wondered what kind of carnage had been perpetrated on the streets.

A young man forced his way into the bakery. A frenzied look covered his face and most of us instinctively raised our hands.

Take our money, take our watches, phones, whatever you need, but just leave us unharmed. Leave us alive.

“Esta bien, no soy narco,” he reassured us, and we lowered our hands.

We were comforted by his clarification that he was not a narco, but the children were startled anew by the mention of the word and parents blasted the young man for his insensitivity. Everyone was on edge.

I don’t know how long we sheltered in the bakery, but at some point the mood changed. Screams and shouts became conversations outside. Footsteps sounded measured and the sound of prayer filled the air once again.

Hesitantly, one of our party squeezed the door open and surveyed the scene. It was safe. The streets had returned to normal and we filed out of the bakery slowly, wishing each other good luck and good night.

I saw the parade continuing. The mood had changed but the piety remained.

I wandered up towards my hotel and asked a passer by what had happened. Where were the narcos, who had been shot, where were the dead bodies?

“Fue una chispa en las cables de luz,” he explained.

There were no narcos, no shots fired and no dead bodies.

An electrical surge had caused sparks to fly from an overhead electrical cable. Nothing more.

Dios Mio!

Image: Luis Villasmil

Pizza…with garlic bread and a heart check.

I was starving. I wasn’t very happy either. I’d just hopped off my second crammed, smelly, humid bus ride after returning to Chengyang from Qingdao where I’d tried to renew some paperwork.

Hours and hours of sitting and waiting in noisy government offices, being herded from one counter to the next and trying to understand the officials with my rudimentary grasp of Mandarin had taken its toll on me.

All I wanted now was some food.

I walked towards a local restaurant bursting with noise, locals and cigarette smoke, then past another and another offering the same menu and the same atmosphere. After my battle with officialdom and my lengthy, arduous bus rides, I couldn’t quite face a noisy, smoke-filled restaurant and more exposure of my linguistic shortcomings.

Pizza

I saw the sign and settled on this venue for lunch. China might not be known for pizza, and Chengyang is more famous for Korean BBQ than for Italian fine dining, but my mood demanded something familiar and filling.

I poked my head through the door and was welcomed by the friendly owner and the sight of some locals enjoying a hearty meal.

This’ll do, I thought

I gestured and pointed my way through my order and had communicated to the owner that I desired garlic bread and a supreme pizza. Exactly what constitutes a supreme pizza in China I wasn’t quite sure, and I didn’t care. I was hungry.

The garlic bread arrived and disappeared simultaneously. I didn’t register its taste or texture, just its journey to my rumbling stomach.

With my appetite partially sated, I surveyed the small restaurant and observed a primary school child struggling through her homework, a young couple exchanging loving glances and another young couple glued to their phones. The remainder of the patrons were locals happily devouring their pizza and chatting to the amiable owners.

Just before my pizza arrived, I noticed something odd. Something I’d never seen at a pizza restaurant, or any restaurant. One of the owners, and a middle-aged couple, were locked in a serious but amicable conversation, which ended when the couple appeared to give their consent.

I was intrigued.

The owner moved toward the kitchen with a determined posture, and disappeared. He emerged a few minutes later with a contraption of some sort. Obscured by the comings and goings of the restaurant I couldn’t quite make out what he was carrying, and only noticed the diners roll up their sleeves.

I then saw the owner attach his contraption to the arm of the husband. It was a blood pressure monitor. Exactly the same as the ones used in doctor’s surgeries. The owner was measuring the couple’s blood pressure.

Why?

I wasn’t expecting gourmet pizza and I wasn’t expecting a Michelin hat at a local restaurant on the outskirts of Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Still, I didn’t expect this couple, and subsequent diners, to be having their blood pressure checked, AFTER they had finished their meals.

What was it about this pizza?

Before I could contemplate this conundrum any longer, my pizza arrived.

It looked OK, but should I eat it?

Does it induce heart flutters, high blood pressure, a stroke?

Why were the owners testing the blood pressure of people in a restaurant. Do they do this every day, is it part of the service?

My mind was racing so fast that it made me hungry. It seemed I had no choice.

I took a bite and it was…edible. Very greasy and cheesy, but edible.

I managed to fit in mouthfuls of pizza between moments of doubt, and I clearly lived to tell the tale.

I wasn’t, however, offered a blood pressure check.

And I didn’t order desert.

Image: Chad Montano

Famished in Gulangyu.

I nearly went hungry in Gulangyu.

I was feeling rather peckish so I wandered into a local restaurant. It was full so I assumed it must be good.

I took a seat and perused the menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu contained pinyin and I could read the letters, instead of having to just guess at the meaning of the Chinese characters.

By this stage of my journey through China I had learned to point at a menu and say

“Wo yao Zhege”

“I want this”.

When I did this with menus comprised entirely of characters, I had no idea what I’d ordered and I was served some interesting dishes. To this day I still don’t know what I ate.

It’s one reason I sought out the Uighur restaurants in China. No, not out of political motives. It was because these restaurants served heaped plates of cheap, tasty food, and because they had numbered pictures on the wall which I could point to and say,

“Wo yao Zhege”

At one of these restaurants, the friendly young son showed me his homeland on a world map, and I showed him where I had travelled from. Then he explained that he didn’t actually speak much mandarin, as it was not his first language.

“Tha’s ok,” I replied, “neither do I”

At this particular restaurant in Gulangyu, however, I was confident that I would know what I had ordered and was about to consume.

Would I opt for jirou or nuirou?

It was normally a choice between chicken or beef, much like meals on a plane. At least, it was for someone as linguistically hampered as I.

Having decided on the chicken, I now had to get the attention of the waitress. I’ve never been very good at this and still feel a little uncomfortable doing it, no matter where in the world I find myself. But, my stomach was calling, so it had to be done.

I knew that it was uncommon to signal with the hand or a raised arm in China. I thus tried to meet her eye. This was hard in a restaurant full of hungry visitors who had her running this way and that, taking multiple orders at a time – and not writing them down. She raced between tables and to and from the kitchen and appeared to be the only staff member on duty. Most likely, she was the only family member on duty.

I tried to politely and subtly catch her attention and order my lunch, but it wasn’t working, and with every passing minute my stomach rumbled more impatiently.

Then it occurred to me. The only way to complete my order was to do what everyone else was doing – just yell it at her. Shout your order across the room, over the din of a busy restaurant, even with a mouth full of food. There is little time for niceties in a country of one billion people.

But how was I to do this?

How could I make myself understood with my rudimentary vocabulary and stunted pronunciation? How would she even hear me?

I was devising a strategy when she approached my table to take my order. I think she either felt sorry for the ‘weiguoren’ who had been sitting dumbfounded for at least ten minutes without ordering – or she wanted the table for someone else. After all, if I wasn’t eating, I was costing the owners money.

Thus she approached my table and frantically asked me what I wanted, while three other tables were demanding more food and ‘pijou’ – beer. I stuttered and stumbled through a few words of mandarin but she didn’t understand. She asked again and I couldn’t make myself understood any more clearly.

Then she walked away.

My third attempt was no better than the first two and she simply couldn’t wait. It wasn’t her job to guide me through my Chinese language learning journey with patience and understanding. It was her job to serve the surrounding patrons who were yelling orders at her with growing frequency and impatience.

Now what do I do?

Will I go hungry?

If I can’t order a meal, how do I eat?

Do I go to another restaurant and risk the same outcome?

Do I got to a corner store and buy a packet of biscuits or two-minute noodles? If I bought noodles, how would I heat them?

My mind was racing and my stomach rumbling.

Just then, my saviour arrived. A young Korean woman arrived at the table and observed my plight.

“Do you speak English?” she asked

“Do you need some help?”

Yes, clearly

So, a young Korean woman took my order in English then translated it into Chinese, and I did manage to eat. I also had some company for my meal.

I felt inadequate and embarrassed. Not just because I’d failed to order a simple meal, but also because I had to be saved by a Korean who used her second and third languages to order for me.

I enjoyed my meal because my new found friend had managed to order a particular sauce as well as the ‘ji rou’ and ‘fan’ – chicken and rice. On a previous occasion, I had ordered beef and rice, and had received just that – strips of beef and white rice. It was bland to say the least.

I didn’t go hungry and enjoyed a tasty meal in good company.

Without the language of the host country or region, it is possible to travel, but it does detract from the experience. If I hadn’t been saved by a friendly Korean, I think I would have found some way to eat – I hope so.

It did make me wonder, without a mastery of mandarin, what is one to do in Gulangyu?

One would most likely wander the pedestrian only island and admire the mix of Chinese and European architecture which distinguishes this small island from other cities in China.

Gulangyu was actually an international settlement and became a busy, open port in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars. Today it is more heavily populated with interntational tourists and locals, who pop across for a day trip or a weekend on the ferry from Xiamen.

The warm weather and salty air also lend the island a distinct atmosphere, and it is pleasant to wander around the island and watch the fisherman at work, and appreciate the role of the sea in supporting the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

An ascent to one of the lookout points affords a view of the island back to the skyscrapers of Xiamen.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is steep. Surprisingly steep. We all know the wall for its length, its historical significance and the fact that it can be seen from space, but its difficult to appreciate its steepness until you actually visit.

The winding fortification snakes its way over hills and mountains along China’s northern border and is traversed via paths and steps connecting each of its guard posts.

Walking up and down the paths and steps at the Badaling section of the wall is hard work, especially when northern China’s summer heat combines with Beijing’s famous air pollution to constrict the lungs. However, a leg and lung busting mini-hike is worth the effort because it allows the visitor to separate themselves from the hordes of tourists who descend upon one of the world’s most famous landmarks every day.

In actual fact, you don’t have to venture too far from the main entrance at Badaling to escape the crowds, and on a good day you may find you have the wall to yourself for a moment.

At this point you can contemplate the construction, appearance, history and significance of the wall.

Struggling up along the sections between the guard posts prompts visitors to wonder what it must have been like to have been stationed on the wall as a guard hundreds of years ago.

Would guards have lived in a constant state of fear of attack from enemy invaders? Somehow I don’t think this would have been the case at many sections of the wall. The topography alone would have thwarted any genuine attempt at invasion, and the height of the wall would have allowed the guards to see the enemy from miles away. The scale of the wall surely removed the element of surprise from most enemy combatants and this must have been a deliberate feature of its design.

It seems that boredom would have been a major threat to the guards. Staring into vast nothingness for hours and hours, day after day, and having nothing to do even when their shift ended – if it ever did.

I also wondered how they ate. If they were stationed on a remote part of the wall, were they provided with a set amount of rations sufficient to sustain them for the duration of their ‘shift’? Where and how did they cook? Where and how did they go to the toilet?

Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They did it in the guard towers, just as certain visitors are still doing today. Tourists left little reminders of their visit in most of the guard towers, which might explain the presence of this sign.

Regardless of how the guards fed and entertained themselves, or stayed sane, a posting to a remote section of the Great Wall was probably not a highly-prized assignment.

The guards fared better than the builders of the wall,, however. It is a well-documented fact that the workers who died during the construction of the wall were buried inside the wall.

The views are impressive and expansive, at least they would be if the haze of pollution cleared long enough to enjoy them. One has to wonder whether visiting in winter would afford better views as the summer haze would have dissipated. Either this or making the effort to visit other sections of the wall which a re further away from big cities and their choking pollution.

Other sections of the wall can be visited from Beijing. They are said to be in various states of disrepair, but are less crowded than Badaling. There are of course hundreds of section of the wall still standing along China’s northern border, and these could in theory be visited with time, money, a strong grasp of mandarin and a sense of adventure. Walking the entire wall required all of that and seemingly a solid grasp of logistics, because the wall is made up of many unconnected sections.

Would you do it?

All this for one family?

The Summer Palace in Beijing is a grand conundrum. It is an enormous private residence built for one family, in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.

Various emperors and royal families have occupied the site since construction began on the palace in 1153, and each ruler added their own personal touches to the area. The result is a tourist attraction that is large and interesting enough to occupy an entire day of exploration.

The lake itself, Kunming Lake, occupies 2.2 square kilometres and dominates the palace. These days, of course, it is not reserved solely for the royal family and visitors can enjoy the lake and the grand historical buildings.

Locals gather at the palace for recreation, relaxation, eating, drinking, socialising and challenging each other to games of chance and intellect.

Chasing the sun

A palace named in honour of summer should rightly be bathed in sun, but the severity of the air pollution in modern day Beijing means that the sun is rarely spotted in all its glory. A constant haze hangs over the imperial palace and makes rare appearances to remind locals and visitors that the earth’s life source does in fact exist.

The photo below indicates the first glimpse of the sun in Beijing since the Ming dynasty.

The palace is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world and it certainly invites contemplation and a picnic. It is a dream location for photographers who could spend, days, weeks or months capturing its natural, architectural and historical beauty.

Closer inspection reveals amazingly intricate detail and craftsmanship on every edifice which is painstakingly preserved.

Boating is a great way to experience the lake. Being so vast, the lake takes a long time to circumvent on foot, so numerous waterborne craft are available. Boat tours in elaborate boats with dragon motif are available, and tourists can hire small pedal-powered craft to carry them from shore to shore. Be advised that the lake is quite large, and if the wind picks up it can be hard work to get back to your starting point.

The famous marble boat is not going to set sail anytime soon.

History

A visit to the Summer Palace is a journey through history. Many rulers and their families have taken ownership of the site, including Kublai Khan, and their influence on the palace is documented in the archival displays found throughout the palace.

Winter wonderland

Somewhat ironically, the Summer Palace looks spectacular in winter, when the lake and the buildings are blanketed in snow and locals take to the lake with ice skates.

The Summer Palace, a fine day out in Beijing.