Communication can be an onerous business when travelling or living in China. While young people tend to have at least a smidgen of English, most of the Chinese population speak none. The result of this is that travellers often get very adept at their own brand of sign language/mime. Unfortunately there is only so much you can communicate by pointing and gesticulating, no matter how good you are at charades. Thankfully, in the modern era, when all else fails we can turn to technology in the shape of phone apps.
There are many, many different apps for translating Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese. I use Baidu Translate (available on the googleplay and apple app store), which has a voice recognition feature (though it sometimes has difficulty understanding my dulcet Irish tones). There are also learning apps which give you an opportunity to learn a few simple phrases, my favourite being Chinese Skill. There’s even a flirting section to get to grips with on there. Great fun on a night out.
Most good translators have a downloadable dictionary so you don’t need to be connected to the internet at all times. Nevertheless, it works much better if you are of course, and without internet it is very difficult finding your way around without digital maps. Since you can’t drag your wi-fi down to the shops, you are going to need some internet data. And that means a Chinese SIM card.
China Cell Phone Provider
You’ll perhaps not be shocked to learn that you can’t just saunter into a corner shop and purchase a SIM card over the counter. The Chinese government would never have that. Many of the mobile phone shops require that you have a Chinese ID card to buy a SIM. That rules out anyone who is not a Chinese national. Only a couple of providers will allow you to set up an account using an international passport.
The best of these for price and availability is China Unicom. They offer various plans at very reasonable prices. I’ve been told prices rise considerably after the first year but you can cross that bridge if you ever come to it. You do not have to sign a contract per se. It works by charging you more for the first few months and you get money back as you go along. In other words, you can leave when you want.
When purchasing your SIM card I strongly advise you to bring a Chinese friend who can speak the language if at all possible. Barring that, if the shop assistant doesn’t speak English you can use their phone to communicate which will doubtless have a translator. In Beijing and Shanghai there is more chance of the locals having some English.
Keeping in Touch with Home from China
You will not be able to make international calls with your cell phone as this function is blocked. ‘Why?’, I hear you ask. Just why. Asking ‘why’ in China is about as useful as asking ‘when’ in Mexico. It is what is because it is. I have been informed by my colleagues you can get the restriction unblocked and it may not even be that difficult. But I have never bothered to find out. There really is no need to spend good money phoning home in this day and age. If phoning home from your cellphone is important to you, ask about unblocking the restriction when you purchase your SIM.
Skype is not banned in China but does not work well there (does it work well anywhere?). To keep in touch with friends and family at home have them download WeChat. This is a Chinese app that is really very good. Actually it’s excellent. If I could buy shares in it I would because I honestly think it’s going to take over the world. You can do almost anything in terms of keeping in touch from phone calls, video calls, videos, groups, chats and pictures and it’s really easy to use. Best of all, it is fast. Almost every Chinese person you meet will have it too, so it’s a great way of collecting contact details. Phone numbers are so last century.
One small word of warning. Although WeChat will not agree to the Chinese government monitoring conversations outside of China, WeChat interactions are monitored inside the country. In other words, all your communication whilst inside the country will not be private. If you must plan a revolution, I’d advise you to do so on another platform…
There is another popular Chinese app which does the same thing called QQ. Unfortunately, the International (English) version is terrible. It has one star on Google Play for a reason. I set up groups for my students using this app and i had to bow out of them as the app became unusable for me. Avoid like the plague. Apple’s FaceTime works well here too but I still think WeChat is better for speed.
So there you are. Short and sweet. Like most of my conversations in China. But these apps should be sufficient to get you around most verbal interactions in the middle kingdom. Any more suggestions? Let me know below.