Am I the Translator? DIY Trip to Datong

Crystal Mak
June 29, 2016
Big Buddha

If you had the opportunity to do anything for three days in China, what would you do?

That was the question I asked myself when I was handed our program schedule at the beginning of the summer.  We had one free three-day weekend break in our intensive Chinese program to do whatever we wanted.  I knew China was filled with an exorbitant amount of fascinating destinations, but the more I looked into it, the harder it was to choose what exactly to do.  My friends, Danielle, Ashanti, and I kept pushing back our plans until we had one week before our break.  We finally came to a conclusion where we saw some featured destinations in our dorm hallway, closed our eyes and pointed at one: Datong.

We couldn’t exactly enjoy the planning experience or the days leading up to the trip because we had to study for our first Chinese exam right before we left.  However, once the exam was over I quickly grabbed my stuffed purple backpack, some instant noodles and joined my friends to head off to Beijing Railway Station at 1pm.  Oh, did I mention that we didn’t have our train tickets yet? 

A few nights prior, we booked our train tickets online at, but the site wasn’t too clear about how to pick them up at the station.  So, once we arrived at Beijing Railway Station, we basically stood in every single line and used our broken Chinese to ask people how to pick up the tickets.  Finally, after about 30 minutes of confusion, we found an English-speaking ticket office.  It was like a huge weight was lifted off my chest and I could finally breathe again. 

We bought the hard seat tickets, but the seats actually had some padding so it wasn’t too uncomfortable.  In fact, China allows people to buy standing tickets where they don’t even have seats to sit on.  We saw several people standing throughout the entire trip and there were a few times we actually saw people smoking!

I’d like to say that we were the only foreigners on the entire train.  Naturally, my friends drew some attention and we got many stares and creeper pictures.  There was one point where some people would talk to me speaking really fast in Chinese enquiring about my friends and I struggled to respond.  It then got awkward when my friend Ashanti responded for us and they would stare at me confused.  The girl sitting across from us spoke some English and kept on asking Ashanti and Danielle questions.  We learned that she was from Datong and told us about all the cool places to go and we eventually got her WeChat.  When the train was about to arrive, she was really sweet and called a cab to pick us up so we wouldn’t have to deal with black taxicabs that would rip us off.  She even walked us over to our taxi and told him to drive us to our hotel.

Since we still had no idea how to get to major sites around Datong, we poured all of our problems on those poor doormen to help us solve our problems.  This went on pretty much every time we wanted to go somewhere.  We would tell them our location by barbarically pointing to a picture and they would call a taxi to drive us there.  All of our taxi drivers were really nice and I had the opportunity to build my confidence and speak with them, even if they were just small exchanges of explaining why we’re in China and where we’re from. 

We visited to Yungang Grottoes, the Xuan kong Temple at Hengshang Mountain, Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, the Datong City Wall, and our friend that we met on the train also took us out one night.  While the sites were all beautiful and unique, I think the most memorable part was seeing how my friends transformed from tourists to local celebrities.  Everywhere we went, people asked to take pictures with them and some even let us hold their babies and take pictures with their children. 

Of course, that was only half of it.  Then they would single me out as their translator and ask me questions, some of which I could understand and respond, some of which I couldn’t and I had to uncomfortably shrug or shake my head.  I guess that has been the real struggle for me so far in China.  When you obviously look different, it is easier for people to understand your situation and they are more inclined to help.  In fact, I believe our trip was ten times better because people saw that we were foreigners wanted to be friends with us. On the other hand, if you look the same, people are less likely to notice and are even quick to judge when you ask for help.  This perception that I had of people really weighed over me to the point where I was too embarrassed to speak in fear of messing up that I would hide behind my friends’ foreign features to solve our problems, and I admit I still do that now.  However, in those instances when I did build up the courage to speak, it was rewarding to finally use what I learned in the classroom and connect with my people conversationally. 

Even though asking Chinese people for help really terrifies me, this trip was a great way to get out of my comfort zone!



Crystal Mak

<p>I'm a senior studying Media and Communications &amp; Chinese at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I enjoy traveling, hiking, and delicious food. I am so excited to share all my new experiences in China with you all! Join me as I journey to find the tastiest dumplings, peking duck and noodles that Beijing has to offer while I balance my studies.</p>

2016 Summer 1, 2016 Summer 2
Home University:
University of Maryland+ Baltimore County
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