One of the difficulties of speaking to someone in a foreign language is that they are speaking in a foreign language. Hey: if you spoke it, it wouldn’t be foreign, would it?
Traveling to Huang Shan, the famous “Yellow Mountain” scenic spot of China, has been a case study in communicative perplexity. I was a bit stressed about figuring out the train; that was no problem. So I figured once I got there, easy: just follow the instructions my hotel sent me. “Tell the cab driver (or show him this message) and he’ll bring you to the hotel.” The message was in Chinese, which I could read (for once), so I told him in Chinese, then showed him it, and he had no idea where this place was. So he took me to the tourist center, said a bunch of things that I did not understand at all, and said “adios!” (Well, maybe not that exact word.) And I’m out 145 kuai, about $20, and still have no idea how to get to my hotel.
So now I’m wandering around without a clue; a friendly taxi driver tells me I need to take the cable car, and pulls out a map. I point to my hotel, he points to where we are, and some helpful woman decides all problems will be solved by her repeating the term “cable car” 7,481 times.
Then he tells me he is going to take me to the cable car—fine—I ask how much, he tells me a number. After a very long drive, I’m at the cable car. He tells me a different number, but also finally takes pity on my dumbass tourist soul and takes me in to buy a ticket. (Ultimately, I paid him the full amount and a tip—rare here—because he was about the only person I met today who made any sense in any language.)
So we go in and the woman at the counter says I need to buy an entrance ticket and a cable car ticket. I say okay; how much? She says you need to buy an entrance ticket and a cable car ticket. I say okay; how much? This happens several more times, then a Chinese couple steps in between us to buy their tickets. Finally I convince her that I have been convinced and she sells me the tickets.
I get on the cable car. The map says to go down to my hotel. The cable car is going up. I am confused. I ask the guy running the car; he says, pretty much, “Yep. Cable Car.”
I get to the bottom somehow, by going up, then ask a security guard where my hotel is. He points. I finally get there. I’m out a lot of money, have walked quite a way with my suitcase, and am certain this is not the approach used by the other guests at this hotel. Sure enough, a woman—checking in at the same time—speaks English; she tells me there is a bus from the train station, and another bus from the tourist center, that bring me right there. I would have suggested to the hotel manager that this might have been made clearer, but talking to him, as you shall see, turned out to be its own linguistic carnival ride.
I ask the manager where I can get something to eat. He tells me the hotel restaurant is closed. I ask where else I can eat. He says (he is speaking English, I’m combining English and Chinese) that people only eat in the hotel. I ask if all the tourists at Yellow Mountain eat in his hotel restaurant, he says they have to eat at their hotel restaurant. This starts to become a bit surreal, and this guy seemed fairly unconcerned that he is making no sense in any language. I gave up. (Later, I ended up eating at the hotel restaurant, and it all seemed to be some evil experiment exploring free will and determinism. And noodle soup.)
So I am finally checked in, and hungry, but I need to go see the sunset. Which is magnificent. My pictures probably do not do it justice.
To top off the evening, I go into the little hotel store and ask if they sell tea. I ask this in Chinese; the woman looks at me as if I have a fork sticking out of my forehead. I repeat it in Chinese, then in English, then hand gestures, then Chinese: she finally gets it. She tells me to go to the restaurant. I tell her I want tea to drink in my room. She seems to think this is quite possibly the most insane idea anyone has ever conceived. On my way back to my room, I ask the woman at the desk if there is a place to buy tea. She tells me to go to the restaurant. I tell her that I want tea to drink in my room. She says there is tea in my room; I say there is one package and I would like some more. She seems to think this is quite possibly the most insane idea anyone has ever conceived.
If only I could have remembered this suggestion from the Qing Dynasty:
That plaque is from a site near where I live, called the “Twin Pagodas.” It is very old: originally from the Song Dynasty (960–1279 c.e.). Some is gone, some is damaged, some is repaired, some is still there. A very cool little place to visit that doesn’t get many tourists.
And a few random points.
When I came to Austin from having lived in Chicago, I went to the student union for a bagel and a schmear. Fairly standard and often quite well done in Chicago. In Austin, the bagel had cream cheese already in it; the server wrapped it in plastic, and then microwaved it. Texas: it’s a whole ‘nother country, nu? I was happy to see these in Suzhou—these were the first I’ve seen in China, I think—but I’m also a little worried about how they are treated in China.
I also went to hear a paper (on Mengzi and the Ethics of Care) that was advertised as being in English, although it was in Chinese. The speaker was an American but he spoke excellent Chinese (I’m a little less sure about the excellence of the argument he presented.) I understood a lot of what he said, but not much of what the questioners said after his talk.
I shall conclude this entry with two pictures; next week’s entry will be a lot of pictures of Huang Shan and, let us hope, no 通讯故障.