We recently met a college student in the Pudong Airport of Shanghai as we were waiting to get through customs. We learned that her university, a famous US school with a campus in Shanghai, had only given her the English address and directions for her living quarters. Clearly, the university was unaware of the primary problem with Chinese taxis: the cabbies don’t speak or read English.

In fact, most cabbies won’t even recognize many prominent place names such as the Marriott Hotel because the Chinese name doesn’t sound anything like the English name. Marriott Hotel, for example, is know as the “wan hao jiu dian” in Chinese. No relationship to Marriott. So you can’t just hop in a taxi and say “Marriott.” Further, if you have a street name transliterated into Pinyin (the dominant system for transliterating Chinese into the Roman alphabet), giving a street name and number is usually not sufficient. Not all cabbies have a GPS system so they require cross streets rather than numbers to find a place.

Fortunately, we were able to write the address down for her in Chinese, including the cross street and the other street the cabbie would need to reach the entrance of the dormitories for this student’s study abroad experience, but there must be many others who face trouble right after landing as they learn that they directions they have aren’t useful. Further, as this student discovered, foreign cell phones may not work here even though the provider claims to provide international service. This student couldn’t call for help because her phone with its nice international plan wasn’t working at all. You may need a new Chinese SIM card. You may be able to buy them at the airport. At least on the night of our return, there was a SIM card vendor at a table just after passing through customs and the baggage claim area.

Before you fly to China, make sure you have the Chinese address for your destination. Also have some Chinese currency or get some from an ATM (best) or currency exchange window so you can pay for your cab fare. From the Pudong Airport to downtown Shanghai, you’ll want at least 150 RMB. To go to the Hongqiao area where we are, you will generally need over 200 RMB (about US$30).