I was thinking today about the conversation I had the other day with the NYC lady who, at the end of this month, is headed off to China for the first time. She certainly sounded nervous, knowing no Chinese as she does and feeling very panicky at the mere thought of getting lost over there, even though she will be staying in a reputable hotel and has already arranged her SIM card on arrival in China. I re-assured her as best I could. Guangzhou, after all, is a very modern city and boasts a very modern, user-friendly subway that would be the envy of most cities around the world. In addition Chinese people are very hospitable and one really does not have to worry about getting lost in a big Chinese city. There are always people who will help you and signs in English are everywhere. Let me put it this way: you are safer knowing no Chinese and getting lost in a major Chinese city than you are getting lost on your own turf, that is in a major American city. So she really has nothing to worry about, other than perhaps getting ripped off by an unscrupulous taxi driver. Even that though can be avoided by taking taxis stationed at the hotel where she is staying and having the hotel doorman quote the cab driver on the fare.
But I thought back to my first trip to China. Now that was scary. It was 1988, just ten years into Deng’s reforms. I flew over on a Canadian Airlines flight from SFO to Beijing. I remember the flight because NBC correspondent Keith Miller was on the same flight, flying coach, as well as the Canadian Olympic Basketball team. The plane landed in Beijing on a warm July evening. There was an enormous crowd of people at the gate coming out of Customs and not all of them were smiling. There were very few foreigners in China then and anti-American, anti-Western sentiment was palpable. To say I felt uncomfortable would be an understatement. My Chinese teacher in NYC had arranged for me to stay with her husband at their apt in Beijing but I had no idea what he looked like and all I had was a name and address. In those days most people in China did not have private telephones but used a communal phone so if for some reason we did not hook up I had no idea what I would do. Fortunately, after several minutes scanning the faces in the crowd (they were as curious to me as I was to them) I spotted my name on a piece of cardboard in a sea of arms and I knew that must be my contact. Needless to say I was very relieved.
Over the next few days going around Beijing I saw perhaps one or two foreigners, and that is all. Although a lot of people smiled at me, not everyone did, and on one occasion we were refused service in a restaurant because I was American. My host was embarrassed by this but in those days that was par for the course in China. It was not an easy place to be and I was very careful not to get lost. Nowadays when I go to China, I feel like I am home. Imagine that !
But I kind of chuckle when people come to me nowadays and tell me they are nervous because they are going to China for the first time. Believe, me, you have nothing to worry about !