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May 2, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon A Time in China

In the summer of 2002, after four semesters of Mandarin, I went on a school-sponsored trip to the PRC with a few of my classmates. Going back over my notes from that trip as transition devices for a piece on software piracy in China, I'm reminded of so many great stories that unfortunately won't fit there.

But they'll fit here. And if self-indulgent tales of my cultural tourism can't drive everyone away, I don't know what will.

Right now, I speak Mandarin badly, but back then I was merely very, very awkward. It didn't matter. Almost everyone I met in China was tickled pink by the white boy mangling his sentences. Sometimes to excess. I used to wander around on my own, practicing. One pair of elderly women in Xi'an couldn't stop laughing long enough to give me directions to the bank.

My sugar fixation was also a source of much linguistic amusement. In China, as in much of Asia, the American and European habit of adding sugar to tea is viewed as something between freakish and offensive. And I like a lot of sugar. The cook at Xi'an Jiaotong University treated my habit with amused condescension, pointing me to a box of cube sugar off the side, where I would guiltily scoop up six or seven cubes and take them back to my room in case I wanted tea at night.

I learned how to ask, clumsily, if the waiter had sugar available--"Qing ni, you mei you tang?" I would ask, carefully pronouncing the rising tone on the last word, in case I might accidentally ask for soup or a hallway instead. The servers often ignored me anyway. I would turn to Zhang Laoshi, my professor, to confirm my pronunciation, and he would agree that I'd asked correctly. Looking back now, I wonder if they just didn't make the connection. "Why would he want sugar?" "Who knows? He was asking how to get to the bank earlier. It was hilarious!"

Before we left the country, I remember trying to buy a candy bar from the hotel gift shop. Using a system of cunning gestures, pantomime, broken Mandarin, and panicked grins, the girl behind the counter and I managed to negotiate the actual transaction, up until the point where I would have to pay. "How much?" I asked in Chinese--one phrase with which I'd become quite fluent. She replied with a couple of syllables, but I couldn't quite follow her. "Shenma?" She repeated herself, but I still couldn't understand it. Was this a Beijing dialect I didn't know? We went back and forth four or five times, until finally one of the American-born Chinese in my group took pity and told her to use Mandarin. She'd been trying to say "seven" in English, and we'd just been talking right past each other.

When people start freaking out about translated versions of the Star Spangled Banner, or other nationalistic cultural detritus, I like to imagine those people trying to buy a candy bar in Beijing. Who cares about the language barrier, about different cultures? These aren't insurmountable obstacles, they won't kill you. It's the national anthem being translated, an ode to a flag flying over the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's the thought that counts. Translate it all. Take it. Make it yours. Above all, don't hesitate to laugh about it. A sense of humor will get you far, in this country or in another.

Now what's a guy got to do around here to get some sugar for his tea?

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