In 2007, I travelled to Shanghai, China – the land of Kung Fu, ready to be bowled over by the AWESOMENESS of the dragon warriors and emperors. I was thrilled! Shanghai is a lovely city – great infrastructure, beautiful scenic places with the Huangpu river flowing through the city – dividing it into two parts – Pudong (east), and Puxi (west)
The Chinese people were helpful and friendly. Within a week, I had made great friends with Chang Jie (name changed). In Chinese, family names are written first, something which often causes confusion among those from cultures where the family name usually comes last.
Chang – Family name (like Maitra), Jie – Given Name (like Arindam)
In other cultures, he would be called Jie Chang.
In addition to confusion with names, understanding the language was challenging. Chinese folks speak two main languages – Mandarin and Cantonese. In Shanghai – they spoke Mandarin. We usually traveled from our hotel to office using the address written on a sheet of paper and showing it to the cab driver.
Within 2 weeks, my wife was scheduled to join me. My wife’s flight was to arrive at 4:30 AM in the morning, and I had promised to be there to receive her. That fateful night, an over-eager, well-groomed and thoroughly prepared Arindam stood at the gate at 3:15 AM , waiting for the cab.
In my mind, the day before, I had done all the arrangements to pick my wife up from the airport – I had requested help from Chang to help me book a cab to arrive at my flat at 3:30 AM. Chang had even verified twice during the day. Travel to the airport took about 45 mins, and I had enough buffer time – considering that she would need to pass through customs and get her baggage.
Above all, I had cleaned up the MESS that I had created in 2 weeks of my stay.. A picture perfect CLEAN room – a Arindam look-alike “Kung Fu Panda” on the clean bed… wow!
I have always been a clumsy guy – extremely dis-orderly with a reputation among my family of NEVER reaching on time for any event – a reputation I was not proud of. “All that’s gonna change starting now! Will bowl her over with my awesomeness :-)” – I thought
My thoughts were interrupted with a cab coming up and stopping along side. I looked at my watch – exactly 3:30 AM… I entered the cab, and the cab driver smiled at me..
“Airport” – I said.
The blank look from the driver, brought me out of the “awesomeness dreams” and into my senses – I did not know the Chinese word for airport. You needed to know the EXACT chinese word to be able to explain to the driver where you were going.
I tried one more time – “Airport, Airport”.
Blank look again!! “ Wǒ tīng bù dǒng” (I do not understand.) – the cab driver said, and looked at me with the “I DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE SPEAKING” expression.
“Now what?” – I thought to myself, quickly evaluating the options I had. 3:30 AM in the night, not another person in sight, no cellphone – and struggling to make the driver understand where I needed to go – not the “picture perfect” night I had hoped for.
Blank expression gave way to confusion. My gesture obviously made no sense.. A snake “taking off” with a motor-cycle like sound – yeah.. De-code THAT!
Similar objects – maybe that will work… what’s similar to a plane.. A bird.. I stretched my arms, and swerved them like an eagle.. Now it should be simple, I hoped.
“Ben dan” – he mused, and let out a smirk… (I later learnt it meant stupid)
“Dumb charades” was always a popular game among a group of friends – maybe that’s an option. I sucked at it – but, maybe that was worth a try… I made a gesture of breaking the word up into two, and then blew air from my mouth to signify “AIR”.
“Bai Chi” – he said in an agitated tone, a motor-cycle borne snake followed by swerving eagle followed by blowing air from the mouth, all this at 3:30 AM in the morning, NO wonder he thought I was retarded. (Bai Chi – means retarded)
Alright – let me explain to him differently. I stretched my arms wide with the index finger pointing upwards and signified two points – hoping to show the starting point and the destination.
“I want to go from Lung Yang Lu” – I said shaking my left hand index finger, “To the airport” – I finished shaking my right hand index finger.
He seemed to understand for a moment, then back to confusion. As I studied his changing expressions, I realized the MESS I had created now.
The driver understood “Lung Yang Lu” – the place where I lived in, and nothing else in the sentence… he obviously thought I was STUPID to be wanting to GO TO Lung Yang Lu because that’s where I was…. I stayed on Lung Yang Lu.
“Something.. Something… something” – he said a long winding sentence this time, more agitated now at having to deal with this retarded stupid moron at 3:30 AM – continuously gesturing with his finger pointing down indicating that “THIS PLACE IS LUNG YANG LU, you silly fool”
Ideas were running out… and frustration creeping in. This is far from awesomenss!! I was stranded, and again I will not reach the airport on time!! Again, for the umpteenth time. What do I do? Who can help? Who?
“Jieee Chaaaaang…” I almost blurted out, “How do I get to you?” – I trailed off, feeling helpless without a mobile phone – not able to call my good friend Jie Chang.
The cab driver let out a BIG smile – “JiChang ” – he exclaimed, as though he had suddenly realized where to go and put his foot on the pedal, and the cab started off… I could only hope that he was going to the “airport”. I did reach the airport, only to find my wife waiting.. I had been late, AGAIN!
I later learnt that “Jīchǎng” is the Chinese word for airport. Throughout my stay in China from that night onwards, I always had the “destination” written down in English and Chinese whenever I had to travel to any place.
Have you had experiences of being stranded without knowing the local language? Share your STORY… NOW!