Lost in Translation

by Andrew Stein

Although I knew I was traveling to a foreign country where English was not an official language and not spoken everywhere, I expected more English-speakers than I found. As a result, over these two weeks in China, I began to perfect the gesticulation dance so integral to my survival. Traveling with an English map is the first step to any successful day in China. Street signs include English text, even if just the transliteration of the Chinese characters, taxi driver’s respond well to pointing to locations on a map and running my finger underneath the Chinese characters of where I want to go, and most tourist maps even included a city subway reference. With a map and an idea of where I wanted to end up, I could successfully arrive at most places. In other cases, however, when communicating with non-English speakers, as comes with trying to perfect any art form learned through trail and error, I had my fair share of errors. These are a couple, but by no means all, of my more memorable errors.

One of my first days in Beijing, I ventured out to find some dinner, and ideally, I wanted to find food to take back with me to my Beijing hostel family. I found a place that looked promising. It looked like a good restaurant with a menu full of photos so that I could have some expectation of how my food would look. I have been lucky that most Chinese menus abide by this photo philosophy, a useful tool whether or not the menu also included English. I walk into the restaurant and immediately try to convey that I want to take the food to go. Quickly realizing that my English isn’t going to get me anywhere, I start playing charades while repeating the words “box”, “bag”, “to go”, and “take away” out loud.

Two words. Big picture. I make a box with my hands. No reaction. I mime carrying a bag. They start getting more excited, and run over to me with a menu. They point at exotic dishes in the menu. I look at the door, perform the door-opening motion, and start walking in place. They start pointing to more things on the menu. I shake my hands indicating I want a clean slate and want to start over. I point at the door a couple times. I now realize that I’m the dinner entertainment for the rest of the restaurant’s customers. All eyes are on me. Realizing this game was not to be won and the sand in my charade’s hour glass had all fallen, I point at a chair to sit in.

I take a seat, they give me a menu, and after a minute or two of looking through the novel that was this restaurant’s menu, I find a chicken dish that looks safe and delicious. I order this, rice and a beer. My server immediately begins to laugh, a reaction that happened often at my expense not knowing what I was supposed to in most situations. He walks away and I hear chatter between the restaurant staff. They continue to say “chicken” between stretches of Chinese vocabulary. This is when it hits me that I had them on the completely wrong track and that they thought through all my gesticulating, I was trying to convey some sort of dish or animal that I wanted to eat. Even though “box” and “bag” sound nothing like “chicken”, I can see the humor in the situation in that they might have thought I was trying to mimic a chicken’s walk or something similar. I then understand why they were pointing to dishes in the menu as I was making a fool of myself. In the end, the dish was great, and I ate it as the majority of the restaurant continued to stare at me.

On another occasion, which was less comic and more common, I ran into communication difficulties trying to find my hostel in Hangzhou. After arriving via high speed train, which traveled at a speed of 350 km/hr, I buy a map and find a taxi, in which I point to the address of my hostel that I have saved on my phone. Not yet being well-acquainted with Hangzhou, I cannot place my hostel’s location on my newly purchased map. The taxi driver drops me off just far enough away from the hostel to make the last short walk a true challenge. I get my barrings on the map and even find my general location. Unfortunately, when searching for a very specific location, only understanding my general location wasn’t going to get me there. Based on the English instructions from the hostel, I knew that it was on a small side street off the main street where I was currently standing. This small street, however, was not visible due to the map’s high-level resolution. I walked up and down the street a couple times and then unsuccessfully tried to ask a couple people for help. I quickly realized I was no longer in a big city and even fewer people spoke English in Hangzhou, which is a much smaller city of only several million people.

Eventually, I stop and stare at my map while leaning up against a near by light post. After about 10 minutes, an attractive girl approaches me speaking disjointed, but very understandable English. I am not sure if I am more excited that she was helping me or that she is a cute girl who decided to talk to me, but either way, I stay focused on trying to navigate to my hostel. She says that she was already late for something and only had a quick minute to help me. She then asks a couple people around us for directions and we run around until she figures out where I need to go. I was confident that I am now at least pointed in the right direction down the street. We part ways, and I am left on my own to find an alley on the left side of the street at some undefined distance ahead. This task I had learned how to do. I keep asking people around me to direct me towards the alley, and eventually, once I pass it, someone will respond by telling me its behind me. After a fair amount of searching, I finally find my destination, where the staff speaks great English, there are other foreigners, and there are people to show me exactly where we are on the Hangzhou map.

That all said, now that I’m at the end of my Chinese portion of this adventure, I find myself feeling very comfortable in China.