Trips and Tales: Part 131
If you think you are lost; you are probably close #2
The walk into the Hutongs is a trek into a parallel dimension, one where an alternative choice of existence seeps through the various courtyards and alleyways into which SD treads, with footsteps – now audible – stepping out of the chaos and breaking the calm.
Sadly the reins of progress are held by those in that other Beijing behind her, one still railing against history as if the ghost of Mao Tse Tung still hovers with an eye to progress at all costs. It is questionable whether these peaceful side-streets will endure against the futurist onslaught, but for now they seem solid enough as this westerner infiltrates the persistent past, armed with luggage and the talisman of a Chinese boarding-house address, written in the native language of course.
Then there’s her handy map, and the desire to establish two critical points of reference with the locals. “You are here,” and the place you need to be is there, just around the corner. Well, that’s the ideal.
In quiet courtyards of board-games, eating and conversation, SD finds the inhabitants remarkably friendly and approachable. Encouraged perhaps to mirror the respectful manner presented by this inquisitive stranger now in their midst. A politeness invited by the very atmosphere settling comfortably upon the air – if a person has the mere modicum of sense to perceive it. And yes, as the boarding-house is no doubt around-here-somewhere, the locals probably know the deal with quizzical foreigners anyway. An advantage.
Demeanour may be the key of course, or one of them. For those who think that any foreign language is just LOUD English with exaggerated gesticulations; SD has valuable insight. “You have to communicate, not talk-at someone. The Chinese language is very tonal,”she says, “so they take into account the tone of your voice (and similarly) how you present yourself, your body language.” She may have a point. It is, after all, a society in which certain rules and rituals apply in an overall decorum that we simply don’t do here. Our default position is not just to deliberately ignore such things, more-so: to be completely unaware that they exist in the first place!
Oh dear, how to present yourself as a loud, ignorant ‘Big-Nose’ (that’s what they call us) in one fell swoop. It’s another instance when ‘just be yourself’ is still the worst advice ever.
SD is winging it with the absolute minimum of Chinese language – written or otherwise – just the map, that address (in Chinese), and a whole load of politeness. Progress is being made. It seems it can be done, though to enter the country without knowing at least ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is frankly ridiculous. No excuses.
She finds that politely pointing to a map and quizzically showing the written address is good enough to get her point across (exercise: practice miming ‘quizzically’). Demonstrably so: she’ll find the boarding house within 10 minutes, whereas others later-met are destined to take over an hour and to subsequently look upon her ease with amazement.
It’s counter-intuitive but SD will later say that “It’s really easy approaching someone knowing that you don’t speak their language and they don’t speak yours”. I can only speculate, but it seem to be something to do with establishing a mutual baseline where all that vocabulary stuff – the finesse of conversation – is right ‘out the window’; we don’t need to go there. It’ll be just about pointing and stick-men, the odd smile or shake of the head. A handshake. No expectations. Easy stuff.
More next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 132) Arrival Beijing #21
[Photo by glennji]