Many people fear traveling overseas where signs and instructions are not in their native language. We native English speakers have a great advantage because most countries post signs in English. However, the English translations are not always clear enough to be understood, and many places have no English at all.
Until recent years, getting around China was not easy for international travelers who couldn't read Chinese. Just before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing made a great leap forward in the improvement of English signs and instructions. You'll still see some signs, like the one below, that will make you laugh and leave you confused. In the past these hilarious translations were everywhere, but today most of Beijing's English signs are easy to understand even if you haven't been around long enough to get used to reading "Chinglish."
Today you can easily go almost anywhere in Beijing, guided by English signs and directions. Though some private businesses and a few government agencies still lack professional translation help, most of the English signs you see in Beijing are clear enough to point you in the direction you need to go. The sign below, for example, displays the price for a river boat ride from Xizhimen to the Summer Palace. The English translation is correct and explicable, making it easy for anyone from an English speaking country to understand the cost of a ride.
Some places are better than others at displaying readable English. The airport, subways, public busses and four and five star hotels have reasonably normal English. But if you stay in cheaper hotels or shop in small grocery stores you can expect to see signs and package labels displaying pretty strange English. Regardless of the translation quality, we must give the Chinese credit for an extraordinary effort to accommodate English speaking guests. Back home very few venues care enough to display signs in Chinese.
It's the irony of English speakers traveling anywhere in the world. We make jokes about hilariously mistaken English. We complain when things aren't explained clearly in English. And we look down our long noses at establishments we think are unsophisticated because they can't perfectly imitate the English we're used to seeing and hearing in our own countries. However, back home very little, if any, effort is made to accommodate non-English speaking Chinese. At home and abroad we seem to think everyone in the world ought to speak and write English.
Chinese are among the most hospitable and forgiving people in the world. If we say so much as "nihao" (Chinese for "hello") they applaud our effort. Although many visitors refuse to learn Chinese, local people try hard to communicate with us in English. So, when someone in Beijing speaks to us with broken English, or when a few "Chinglish" signs make us laugh, we must remind ourselves that the English we hear and see here is far superior to the Chinese back home.
If I spot a sign with bad English in a little shop, I can still say, "Thank God for the excellent English signs that helped me get here in the first place." An English speaking person at the front desk pointed me in the direction of the nearest subway station, where I found clearly translated English signs. A website or other advertisement told me which station to get off at and where to walk from there. Excellent English is one of Beijing's features that makes it a convenient and welcoming city for people from all over the world to enjoy!