Finding My Way In Urban China

Before setting out on our adventure to China the thought of traveling to a foreign country where I had no understanding of the language was daunting. Immediately upon landing in Shanghai, however, I was struck by how easy it was to navigate the airport as an English speaker. Not only were there English translations on most signs (which is fairly typical in American airports as well), but also there was signage throughout the airport explaining where to go that made use of symbols rather than written language. At that time, it wasn’t clear if such wayfinding would be isolated to the airport, or characteristic of urban areas. As I found throughout the trip, wayfinding in China is much more prevalent than I have experience in the United States.

Each subway station we visited in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing had all station names written in Chinese symbols as well as using Roman letters. This made the stops easy to navigate. In addition, once in transit, announcements were made in English as well as in Chinese. In many subways, light up maps indicated what stop you were approaching and which side the doors would open on. Less frequent were indicators showing when the next train would appear, but trains came so frequently that I never found myself wishing I had one.


What I found most interesting was how signage was used to help people traverse the often enormous subway stations. For example, giant arrows affixed to the floor pointed out how to transfer to different subway lines, and each subway exit had signage detailing what you would find above ground at the stop. All signage for a particular subway line matched the color assigned to it on the system map so it was easy to quickly identify where one needed to go. Such wayfinding stood in stark contrast to my experience with public transportation in the United States where as a native speaker I struggle to understand the announcements blaring from bus or subway speakers.


Overall, I found it surprisingly easy to navigate the public transportation systems in the three Chinese cities we visited. Often in the evenings groups of students would choose to venture out on our own, and I never found myself concerned that we would get lost or fail to find our desired destinations. On the whole, I found the Chinese public transportation systems even easier to navigate than those in many American cities. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for visitors or those with limited English speaking abilities to find their way in many American cities and am certain that my experience in China made immeasurably easier by the prevalence of wayfinding.

-Catherine Derbes


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