When You Can’t Understand Someone

Who’s speaking a foreign language, and it’s an inconsequential interaction (like at a street-corner) your first task is to determine whether they uttered a statement or question. If a statement, you can just smile and nod. If a question, you have to come up with a reply!

How Non-Native English Speakers Respond to "Thank You"

They almost never say "You’re welcome."

I usually got:

"Don’t worry"

"It’s ok"

"Oh, thanks"

I suppose "no worries" is the more natural expression for "don’t worry" but still, "you’re welcome" is the best response to "thank you."

What Does it Mean to "Go Shopping" When Traveling?

For the life of me I can’t understand what people mean when they “go shopping” while traveling.

In Beijing I heard a middle-aged American guy talk on the phone to another buddy who was in Beijing: “I did some shopping this afternoon….yeah tomorrow we can review the board presentation and then do some more shopping.”

Guidebooks have recommendations for “shopping” and my hosts often point me to “good shopping areas.”

What on earth are they shopping for? Even though I haven’t bought a single souvenir anywhere, I do understand people like physical keepsakes from countries they visit. Fine. But what else? Clothes? Toys? How do you have room for these new goods? The “best” shopping countries like Japan and Hong Kong are also more expensive than the States, so why mess around in a foreign currency? And in cheap places like India or China, it’s likely a fake.

Anything I would want to buy I could buy from home, either at a store or online.

Maybe it’s supposed to be an “activity” — they don’t really buy anything, but it’s part of the social experience. If this is the case, I can only think back to what George Castanza said to Jerry Seinfeld while lying in the hospital bed, “Kill me Jerry, kill me now.”

Supporting the San Francisco / California Brand Abroad

In Munich there’s the "San Francisco Coffee Company".

In Hong Kong there’s "San Francisco Steakhouse".Img_2060

In Mumbai there’s "San Francisco Jean Company".

Almost everywhere there’s California something — California Fitness, California Style, The California Hotel, whatever.

Let’s face it: San Francisco and California are luxury brands that make millions around the world yearn for The Good Life. Img_2044

WTF is a "Smart Restuarant"?

Since June I’ve been reading way too many guidebooks.

One of the things which always amuses / annoys me is how travel guidebooks need to keep inventing new adjectives. For example, “Nestled behind the Great Gate are a bunch of smart restaurants that make for a good pit stop.”

I have no idea what a smart restaurant is. Well placed? Well lit? English speaking staff?

The quest for meaningful adjectives plagues everyone from Lonely Planet to food describers to the average Joe trying to write a paper. This reminds me of my old post on all the ways a premium cheese company describes cheese (“subtly earthy” or “pungent” or “complex”).

Here’s a writing hack to jump start your descriptions: take an adjective, make it an adverb, and then combine it w/ the target word. “Startlingly cute”, for example.

Be American Goddamnit!

When you go somewhere you may think it’s you who’s supposed to get the cultural experience, but what happens is the locals (rightfully) treat it a two way street. This is why I’ve posted earlier that it’s sometimes advantageous to speak English to a local because they want to practice.

In Asia, more than Europe, I’ve had people tell me, not in so many words, “Be American Goddamnit!” Drink Coke. Go eat at McDonald’s. Be a giant. They have their own stereotypes and perceptions and they want to see me fulfill them, or at least address them. Or they think what I want more than anything is all the stereotypical American stuff.

On the other hand, as an American overseas, you’re trying to assimilate the local culture and in many ways leave behind those traditionally American mores. But by doing this you’re depriving the locals of very Americanness they want to see (maybe for sheer amusement!).

Interesting tension.

A Few Hours in Bangkok

I spent a few hours in the Bangkok airport and thus accomplished one of the most important parts of traveling which is being able to tell someone you’ve been to a certain country. Yeah, I’ve been to Thailand. Cool place.

Quick thoughts:

  • As you taxi on the runway you see signs which say "Long Live the King". Tons of signs with that phrase and a picture of the general. I can only assume it’s the general who led the recent coup. What a lovely poster for visitors to see over and over.
  • Thai Airways gave a flower to each woman on the flight. Can somebody say s-e-x-i-s-m? 🙂
  • Saw a sign for a "Muslim Prayer Room" in the airport. I knew I had arrived in SE Asia.
  • As we waited in line to board the flight to Mumbai, I found myself standing next to an American lady. After we both observed the chaos which substitutes for a queue, she remarked, "Do you think it’s asking too much for people to form a line?" I responded that in China, at least, queuing is far inferior to the mob approach.
  • Thailand definitely seems like the hot tourist destination for rich western tourists who want beaches and a little exotic spirit.


Switching Languages Mid Sentence

I observed something really interesting involving language the other day in Shanghai. My friend was speaking with his friend in Hong Kong and he spoke sometimes in Cantonese, sometimes Mandarin, sometimes English.

“Hello” and “Goodbye” were in English.

Blah blah blah blah

“Is everything ok?”

Blah blah blah

“Ok, keep me posted”


I asked my friend why “Is everything ok?” was said in English and not Chinese. At first he said he didn’t know, he just switches based on whatever phrase comes to mind when he’s talking to a multi-lingual person. Then, after a bit of thought, he said, “We don’t have a good phrase for ‘Is everything ok?’ in Chinese. In English, you can say it casually and not offend or sound intimidating. It’s a nice phrase. So I used it.”

What a luxury! I did that with Spanish, too, when I was using it more. When taking notes in class, if there was a Spanish equivalent that was shorter I’d use it instead of English (e.g. “entre” instead of “between” or “sin” instead of “without”).

The Battle for Armrests on the Plane

Many parts of flying are predictable for me. The exit row seat. The fight to not check my bag. I was reminded this afternoon on my flight to Beijing of another classic battle: the armrest.

Suppose there are four armrests and three seats.

Three key factors:

1. Are you the first to sit down? If you sit first you will have first mover advantage.

2. Are you in the middle seat? This can either screw you or help you. In a best case scenario you get both arm rests, but this is rare. You will probably end up with one, or if you’re submissive, get none. All in all the middle seat is risky — unlike the window and aisle, you are guaranteed nothing.

3. How physically intimidating are you? Let’s face it: this makes a difference. On my flight to Dalian I had aisle seat and old Chinese woman in the middle. I got the armrest to the aisle plus the one on my other side, that technically she could have fought for. On my flight to Beijing a spry 20-something secured his armrest early and I only mustered about 20% of the armrest when he reached up to turn on his light.

It’s a jungle out there.

How to Dominate a Buffett Line: Use Your Fingers

I hit the buffet line in restaurants as hard as I hit the boards in basketball.

When I’m overseas and food is scarce (not many snacks) I always enjoy a good buffet. Fortunately the breakfasts provided by the hotels so far have provided buffet breakfasts.

One trick of the trade for dominating buffet lines: use your fingers. I have no idea why people feel like they must use those prongs or forks to grab food from each of the fifty different plates. It would take hours if you used a prong for each bin of food.

So this morning, as a nice Japanese woman pondered the overwhelming array of bread choices, I swooped in from the right side, plucked one of the pieces of bread without touching any other piece, and before she turned her head I had already piled eggs on my plate from a different counter.

Be covert, but never forget that Champions Find a Way.