Sorry, I’m new to this! Notices for novice expats?

On my first walk around Mainland China, I should have hung this apologetic public notice on a placard around my neck:

New China Pedestrian Comic

As a new pedestrian in China, I initially looked for official painted crosswalks, waited for the biggest gap in traffic I could see (because no one yielded voluntarily), and then ran across the road at an unpredictably jerky fast-slow pace. A practice no other road-users anticipated and which caused a lot of confusion and honking.

Fortunately, with a little observation, I soon got the knack of stepping out into the traffic-filled roadways, walking at a steady pace, and marveling as the cars predicted my path and opened gaps for me.

Why am I flashing-back to a time I should have notified others of my ‘novice’ status? It’s the fault of this cartoon man’s guilty, sweaty, stupid grin:

New driver notice in Chinese

I pass this ‘new driver’ notice daily in the rear window of a white station wagon here in Hong Kong. He reminds me of my own red-faced — ‘sorry I didn’t realize…!’ — moments.

Thinking back, I can recall several times when a “sorry, I’m new here” notice could have been helpful. Here is but a small sample:

  • Being ‘over-friendly’ during my first weeks of English life and attempting far too much eye-contact with neighbors and semi-strangers.
  • Assuming that check-out clerks would bag my groceries in Holland.
  • Thinking that any Hong Kong Island ‘red’ taxi would happily drive me to the middle of nowhere in the ‘New Territories.’

What about you? What mistakes have you made as a novice expat that could have been softened by an “I’m new to this” notice?


Notes: For those who are hooked on Chinese, I translated the ‘new driver’ sticker into both Cantonese and Mandarin:

新手駕駛: Novice driver (In Cantonese: san1 sau2 gaa3 sai.In simplified characters and Mandarin: 新手驾驶, xīn shŏu jià shĭ)

请多包涵: Please bear with me/I feel apologetic! (In Cantonese: cing2 do1 baau1 haam4. In simplified characters and Mandarin: 请多包涵, qĭng duō bāo hán)

17 responses to “Sorry, I’m new to this! Notices for novice expats?

  1. It took me too long to figure out that in Catalunya, upon entering a shop, one must say “últim?” in a loud, clear voice. Someone will make a gesture in response indicating that they are the last person in line and that you’re after them. I wasn’t getting helped at any bakeries/butcher shops/fruit stands for ages until I picked up on what was going on. (It goes without saying that Spaniards won’t stand in an orderly line.)

  2. I remember my harrowing experience trying to cross a busy street on Nanjing Road in Shanghai near the Bund. Not a wide open boulevard but a common 2 lane traffic street. While dodging oncoming traffic crossing my main concern wasn’t my own personal safety but the lone traffic cop who stationed in the middle of the road directing traffic.

    You see there was no traffic island or structure of any kind for him to stand on. He just stood there in the middle of the street armed with nothing but a whistle in his mouth and a Stop/Go sign in one hand. Vehicles would either whiz by him ignoring his signage or came to a screeching halt inches in front of his lower extremity. The man must be having a death wish or nerve of steel to take that job. I hope he got paid enough for his trouble.

    • That sounds horrific. At times the lack of safety awareness in China is astounding. I aw many air conditioner repair men in Zhuhai clinging to the sides of tall buildings while tinkering with this or that. Some with ropes tied around their waist which a co-worker held on to and some with absolutely nothing. I also often wondered if they received any kind of ‘hazard pay.’

  3. I really appreciate the white “Look Right” and arrow signs painted on the crosswalks on certain major roads in HK… I’ve nearly been run over looking the “wrong way” (of course, I’m used to first looking left-then-right in the US where ppl drive on the right side vs. first right-then-left in countries where ppl drive on the left side!) But that’s nothing compared to the lane-by-lane crossing techniques you bring up in mainland China! Your sign would have been brilliant (bright yellow!) especially since it’s just the opposite of any self-preservation instinct to simply walk steadily across 5 lanes of cross-traffic. I’d always try to look for others trying to cross the same time as me, as there’s sometimes safety in numbers before taking the big plunge!

    • Ha! I also often used other pedestrians to help me figure out how to safely cross the street. And I guess, I also technically used them as a sort of ‘human shield’….

      When I used to live in Zhuhai and would go to either Macau or Hong Kong for the day, I was always astounded that the cars (taxis included!) would wait for me at crosswalks! The culture of road-use changes instantly at that border.

  4. Trying to use credit card in a Swiss Alps grocery store and not understanding why the clerk was yelling at me aggressively in German. (cash society, apparently?). Having to ask a very condescending old British lady how to post my mail since in the US the postman comes to your door to collect it (It’s the big red thing out in the street dummy!). Not knowing how to buy gas in Singapore (my credit card kept getting rejected at the pump because you are suppose to pump then pay not the other way around).

    • Ha! All very good ones! I also fell victim to the “how do I post a letter?” in the UK. The postman gave me a rather sharp look when I asked him if I could hand him letters to be mailed directly.

  5. Guess those “Sorry, I’m not used to cutting queues,” “sorry, I didn’t realize that escalators are just slow-moving amusement park rides” and “sorry, but did you know that when you leave China, you too are then considered a ‘waiguoren'” would be some of the rare items never to host a Made in China label…

    Also, wouldn’t 哇 be a more appropriate sound than 喊?;)

    • All excellent points. Perhaps I could sell “sorry, I’m new to proper queuing” t-shirts to the elderly mainlanders who swarm HK Disneyland.

      Is 哇 better? I’d trust you as I took a shot in the dark on that one.

  6. 多谢 for following my food blog, Jen! If you have a cuisine/suggestion for a post, please let me know. …As long as it’s not Taiwanese. That’s just noooo good. That, and I don’t have many photos of food from there. But they’ve got rad pumpkin milk and sweet potato milk cartons in 7-11s.

    Oh right, so 哇 (wā) refers to “Wow!” (as in, wow! I didn’t know foreigners had opposable thumbs), or a baby crying. Or us pitiable waiguorens completely misunderstanding the anti-rhythm of traffic in China.

    喊 means yell or shout, which is fair play for China, but for the thought bubble, it would need an subject/object. It’s a good one though, even if the left radical means mouth, and the right side means salty.

    • 哇 didn’t seem quite strong enough to me since I was facing oncoming traffic. I was afraid that 喊 meant the word “shout”, but was hoping that the mouth radical meant it was a literal shouting sound. Looks like I guessed wrong. If you have a good suggestion for the character expressing a scream, I’d love to hear it as I can go back and modify the comic.

      Thanks as always for the insights. This is not a topic that comes up in any of the standard Chinese classes I’ve attended!

  7. Having lived in Beijing 9 years, my theory on pedestrian crossings is this: those white lines signal a rallying call to all those needing to cross a street on foot. If we all stick together, only some of us will be run over! Haha seriously though, you have it right – if you launch out across a road and maintain an even pace, people will work around you. Stopping and starting causes mass confusion. When in doubt: whoever is in front wins, unless there is eye contact, in which case the biggest vehicle wins. When crossing the street downtown I often look straight ahead while checking approaching vehicles in my peripheral vision. As long as I don’t turn my head they will almost always stop for me without complaint.

      • Glad you like it! I think there’s a thrillseeker somewhere in me that likes the gambling aspect of being a pedestrian here 😉

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