Tag-Archive for » communication breakdown «

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 | Author:


My parents, my sister and her husband and kids are currently holidaying here. Last weekend we all visited some of the earth houses, or tulous, of one of southeastern China’s minority groups, the Hakka people. The trip put me way out of my comfort zone: we hired a van and a Chinese driver for 3 days, and so my family was forced to rely on my awful Mandarin to communicate with our driver. I’m still in awe of Mr Jiang’s patience in deciphering my mangled instructions. In a language where using the wrong tone can mean the difference between saying ‘four’ and saying ‘death’, I made mistakes I’m even now shuddering to recall.

Anyway, the tulous are enormous, incredibly impressive structures with outer walls made from a mixture of mud, bamboo strips, glutinous rice and straw. They’re usually circular or square, and feature a single entrance and an interior courtyard equipped with wells — perfect for enduring a long siege! Originally, an entire clan lived inside each tulou. Nowadays many of them are in ruins. Others have been converted into hotels; still others house tea shops, souvenir stalls and little eateries. 

With more than 400 rooms, Chengqi Lou, the ‘king’ of the tulous, is the most awe-inspiring. But my personal favourite is Yuchang Lou, which is kind of like the tulou version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa — all its vertical supports lean in different directions. It looks like it’s been frozen in mid-collapse.

On the last day of our trip, we met a local man in the restaurant of the hotel where we were staying. When he discovered that we teach English at Xiamen University of Technology, he very proudly told us that his daughter was studying there. Then he pulled out his phone, called her and ordered her to speak English to us (I could just imagine his daughter saying ‘Oh Dad, no, please!’). So I started chatting with her and it turned out she’s one of my students! Small world, huh? Once we discovered that, her father invited us to have a couple of drinks with him, Chinese-style. That involves cries of “Ganbei, ganbei!” (‘Cheers’ or literally, ‘empty glass!’), followed by gulping a whole glass of baijiu, followed by holding out your dry glass to show everyone you’ve polished it all off. It was all a lot of fun and, for my family, a great introduction to Chinese hospitality.

Sunday, August 19th, 2012 | Author:


A few days ago, Pazu Kong, the wonderful and very knowledgable travel agent, author (and skilled magician, as my daughters discovered when they met him) who organised our trip to Tibet in 2011, asked me to write some tips he could give other parents interested in travelling to Tibet with their kids. He has included my tips on his list of things to pack/consider before coming to Tibet, and I’ll also reproduce the list below.

For anyone interested in travelling to Tibet (remember, you MUST organise your trip through a travel agent; you cannot get permission to go to Tibet any other way), I would strongly recommend Pazu’s services. He did a great job organising our visit to Tibet and was very sensitive to our needs as parents. You can contact Pazu via his website, http://www.cafespinn.com/.

Some Tips for Parents Taking Small Kids to Tibet…

I guess the number one concern of parents taking their children to Tibetwould have to be altitude sickness. Here are a few tips to help kids deal with it…

  • Don’t worry if they don’t eat too much. Decreased appetite is normal when arriving at higher altitudes. But do make them drink plenty of water. Liquids help with acclimatisation.
  • Explain to your kids that they might feel a little unwell when they arrive in Tibet. Make it clear that they should tell you if they feel headachy or nauseous so that you can get help. But don’t overreact! Our kids were 3 and 4 ½ when we went to Tibet, and other than being a bit irritable at first, they didn’t suffer any ill effects from the altitude.
  • Take things very easy for the first two or three days. Make sure your kids have plenty of time to rest to allow their bodies to acclimatise.
  • Remember to take care of yourself! Altitude sickness can be exacerbated by carrying weights, and that includes carrying your children. We found ourselves really over-exhausted after carrying our kids a lot on our first couple of days in Lhasa. Investing in a stroller might be a good idea!
  • Leave your visit to the Potala Palace for the last days of your time in Lhasa. There are a lot of steep stairs there, and children will struggle with them. So will you, when you end up carrying your kids up them.

Finally, keep in mind that small kids have very different interests than adults when it comes to sightseeing! We’ve found that our children generally enjoy outdoor activities far more than exploring temples. In fact, our youngest daughter was a little frightened by the monasteries in Tibet– the enormous statues, the dimness, the smoky air. The things she enjoyed most in Tibet were playing in the park outside the Potala Palace, having a ride on a yak at Lake Yamdrok-Tso, and running around Barkhor Square with the local kids. The other experience that both children were completely taken with was watching the monks debate in the courtyard at the Sera Monastery — they were absolutely fascinated.

Well, I hope these brief tips help! Enjoy your family holiday in Tibet and please feel free to contact me if you’d like to ask anything else!

–         Karen



Friday, August 17th, 2012 | Author:


Tomorrow we’re taking the train to Kunming. 40 hours, 2500 km! And I bought the tickets myself from a local ticket booking office, lining up with all the locals to do so. What’s the big deal, I hear you say? Well, this is China. Dealing with any sort of office/government department is an exercise in extreme patience and endurance.

It took me 4 trips to the ticket office to get the tickets in my sweaty little hands. The ticket lady didn’t speak any English, I speak execrable Chinese, Kunming in summer is a very popular spot with the Chinese, tickets disappear almost as soon as they go on sale. Especially sleeper tickets.

The first time I went to the office and asked for sleeper tickets to Kunming, the ticket lady told me, “Meiyou” (don’t have). Then she asked me to come back that afternoon and to bring a “Zhongguoren pengyou” (Chinese friend) to help me talk to her. I went back that afternoon with Miss E, my five-year-old daughter whose Chinese far exceeds mine. Again the ticket lady said “Meiyou”. Then she told me to come back the next morning, at 10 am. So Miss E and I did, walking through 35 degree heat from the bus stop to the ticket office only to be told “Meiyou” once again.

But this time, the ticket lady asked me for my phone number and our passport numbers (maybe my determination was impressing her). So I handed over the necessary details and walked all the way back to the bus stop, by which stage poor Miss E was covered in heat rash and complaining incessantly. No sooner did we get to the bus stop then my phone rang and I had my first phone conversation in Chinese. And if my Chinese is execrable face-to-face, it’s even worse when I can’t see whoever’s talking. All I understood were the words “ruan wo” and “er shi er hao” – soft sleepers, the 22nd. So, all excited, I said, “you ma? you ma?” (you have? you have?) and the ticket lady said that magic word, “you” (have). So I gave the phone to Miss E and told her to tell the lady we were coming back right now, and we rushed back through the heat and sun to the office, and emerged moments later with soft sleeper tickets to Kunming! Yay!