China A to Z: O is for Overwhelmed…and coping with it

Why overwhelmed?

Firecrackers going off at random times (4:00 am!!?). Crowds of people pushing to get through a door or onto a bus. Cab drivers at train stations and airports and guides at attractions grabbing at you. The bright lights, often flashing…and did I mention firecrackers?


China is one of the places where the phrase “drinking from a fire hose” applies.

In every nation/language there are words and phrases that defy exact translation making it is hard for foreigners to grasp the real meaning.

In China one such word is  rènao  热闹   .

Everyone who comes to China will experience rènao, even if they don’t realise it.  The word is composed of two characters: rè (hot)  + nao (noise) , but it means much more than just that.

from the blog: Jasmine Tea and Jiaozi post Hustle and bustle: its hot and noisy!

What’s a peace loving introvert to do?

When it gets too much take a deep breath and step out of the crowd. I’ve learned that that is often easier than it might seem. Since everyone likes to crowd together sometimes it isn’t all that far to a quiet spot.

Research ahead of time to know what to expect, although, more than once I have read entirely accurate accounts and still been surprised, and carry a map and compass. Chinese people (at least several of the ones I have been on outings with) find their way around by asking around. This seems fine, except that Chinese people, instead of saying they don’t know, will present a hypothesis as if it were an answer. You can go an awfully long way in the wrong direction before your realize.


Is it a maze? an avalanche? For me it’s both.

Chinese is a very different language structurally and there are many words that sound the same. The Chinese people speak at mach 1 and there is often a lot of background noise. It’s easy to miss the little words that tell you something happened in the past, is going on now or is a plan or hope for the future (Is the road closed now? was it closed sometime in the past? or are they going to close it? is an example of how that can matter).

Always carry a phrasebook, camera, and a pencil and paper. A picture (or map) can sometimes be worth a lot more than a thousand words. My post A picture and a phrasebook saved my day gives a good example of how they can be used.

A tip for using a phrasebook:
Even though I know little Chinese, I have made an effort to learn to pronounce things in the most standard way (I have used the on-line course Yoyo Chinese), that way people can usually understand me, even if I can’t understand them. Having good pronunciation helps me use a phrasebook more effectively. I practice with the early pronunciation lessons before every trip.

I make a point of speaking slowly and clearly. People usually respond to that by doing the same.

Cell phones

My life line when traveling alone. Last spring, I got on a bus back to town from the kite festival and it didn’t come back on the road I was familiar with, I called my son and handed the phone to a stranger to tell him where I was so he could tell me where I was and when to get off the bus.

Of course everyone has smart phones now, even me, and many of them have translators. Some quite sophisticated. Chinese people will have phones and use them to communicate with you. I’ve had some fun interactions that way.

Just remember that Google is blocked, and that includes Google Translate and Google maps. I have a Microsoft translation app that seems fine. The search engine Baidu seems very similar to Bing and is a good way to get information, it is mostly in Chinese, but you can search in English and many websites have English language options.

Getting around


The aggressiveness, and, in many cases, blatant dishonesty of taxi drivers is well documented and I have certainly seen it for myself a few times. Using the official taxi stand at a train station or airport is a good start (and it rewards the drivers who follow the rules), but one time at the official taxi stand in Qingdao airport, late at night, we were put into a gypsy cab and he tried to charge us way more than reasonable.

It is a good idea to take a photo of the driver/cab information.

It is awfully hard to cope with that sort of thing at 1:00 am , especially when your day started at 6:00 am the day before and involved a lot of activity and travel.

Always take a picture of the license and cab information. That way you stand a modest chance of getting back anything you leave behind…and it sends a subtle message that you aren’t interested in being taken for too long a ride. I have a couple of cab stories but they are too long to relate here. Just remember that it is okay to be a little rude.

Around town

I take a picture of the road signs by my son’s apartment and the location where I want a cab to stop almost as soon as I arrive, I can show the pictures to a cab driver who is having difficulty understanding me. They can put accurate road names into their GPS and know what the entrance they are looking for looks like.

In conclusion

The “hot noise” is part of the cultural experience of being in China. It can help to have an escape plan and take special care of your basic needs: it is always worse if you are thirsty, hungry or need to go to the bathroom. I find that when I am physically comfortable it is way easier to enjoy the cultural experience.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s