A metaphysical barrier was broken today. Did you hear it?
Oh, that’s right, I’m thirteen hours ahead of most of you. So, cross-checking the change in time zones against the speed of sound, it may still be on its way. If you hear a small, otherwise-inexplicable pop, it was me.
And just how did I achieve this small miracle, you ask? By going out for food alone.
It wasn’t the first time I’d gone for food without a Chinese speaker. No, we formed a mobile support group pretty quickly after camp. Left to fend for ourselves, we developed complicated systems of each ordering the part of the meal we were best prepared for. I was the Rice Man. I could get us each a bowl of rice, no matter how many of us there were—up to six. I usually forgot how to say seven or higher. After that, Dave and I would take turns trying to read from our cheat sheet. We knew we were improving when we could at least get the server to respond. We never actually ordered anything that way, but we were communicating. We loved picture menus.
Former things are passed away.
I walked into the Friendly Restaurant with a polite xie xie to the waitress who held the beads for me. Mustering my confidence, I ambled through the crowded room to the counter. I ordered fried rice. Pork fried rice. It was to go. I have no idea whether she understood when I told her I wanted it to go. Chances are, she just assumed since I had walked past the waitresses attempting to usher me to a table. She scribbled a couple characters on an order pad and handed it to another girl to take to the cook. So far, so good I reasoned, and sat down to read on my Palm while I waited for my food.
Changchun has seen its share of foreigners. I know it has. But the stares we manage to collect are beginning to lessen my confidence in that fact.
No one in the room had managed to look at anything but me since I walked in. Now they were inexorably drawn to my seat. One man even moved over to the nearest table so he could be sure to catch everything. By now, the gentleman from whose table I had borrowed a chair was ready to talk. And he did so, much to the delight of everyone in the room. It was an awkward conversation.
Perhaps conversation is too strong a word. It implies two-way communication.
I listened in with the rest of the room as the man plied me with friendly interrogatives, vainly attempting to catch a single word or gesture that could suggest an appropriate response. We were all mystified as to how I would answer his questions. My smile was apparently not the answer he was looking for. I answered the next couple of questions by very courteously informing him in his native tongue that I was unable to understand anything he was saying. He understood. And spoke more slowly to help the poor foreigner. His tones were actually appreciable. Unfortunately, the tones I picked out could only denote which of five possible unknown words he was using. I spoke some English, hoping for an apostolic moment. No translation occurred, though.
Gradually, his fervor slacked. I’ve never watched anyone die, but I have the distinct impression that if I ever do, I’ll have flashbacks to that moment. The gestures grew more and more faint, the volume trailed away, and the eyes glazed over.
It was time for Chinese first aid. I knew he was interested in my Palm since he had leaned over my shoulder to look at it when I sat down. Unfortunately, I knew absolutely nothing to say that had anything to do at all with technology. So, I took a clue from every annoying conversationalist and talked about myself. I brightly informed him I was a foreign teacher from America. He said something and I picked out the name of a college in the area, so I corrected the error and directed him to my college. He smiled, talked for a while, and waited for an answer. I smiled too.
The rice came out of the kitchen in its little bag. I extracted my wallet from my man purse and pulled out the amount of money the server had asked for. The man at the table again decided to help by repeating the amount more slowly, but I had understood—it was under seven yuan.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend look impressed. No, I couldn’t say anything meaningful, but I could get done what I needed to do. Disaster averted, the tension swirled out of the room, leaving nothing but a heightened sense of melodrama. The room suddenly looked a little washed out. I grabbed my bag, shot off a goodbye in the direction of my awe-struck communicant, and moved for the door. Every head followed as I strode down the aisle. I’m pretty sure things went into slow motion for a few seconds as each particle of dust reflected the hazy sunlight washing over the room. I kicked myself for not having my sunglasses with me. Perhaps my Bourne movie marathon with Jonathan was having its effect, but somewhere in the back of my mind Moby kicked in with a funky rhythm and I made for home.
Maybe I should just learn some Mandarin.