What’s Said When You Don’t Know What’s Being Said


I can remember my first day in Cili.  Or maybe it was my second day.  Regardless of whether it was the first or second day, I can remember one event that I would see repeated throughout my experience.  Mr. Huang, NOT our liaison (despite what we had initially believed), came and picked Jon and I up to take us to the mail office.  Jon had about 8 packages.  I had 0.  So Mr. Huang arrived to take us, and after scraping the side of his car along the gate in front of our house, we took off for Jon’s packages.

When we got there, we were escorted up the back staircase and down a dark, deserted hallway.  Then we were brought into an office that looked like a small room designed to look like a warehouse.  There were boxes scattered throughout and maybe 2 people sitting in spinny chairs.  The people turned, surprised to see us, and Mr. Huang began talking to them.  Richard, who was our liaison, was there to translate for us and let us know what was happening.  Well, that’s what he was supposed to do….

This is the conversation we anticipated:

“Hi, what are you here for?”

“The Americans over there have some packages they need to pick up.”

“Oh, packages.  From America, you say?”

“Yes.  Do you have them?”

“Yes, we keep our packages from foreign countries in the other room.  Let’s go get them.”

* This is the type of conversation that should have taken place.  Or this is the type of conversation one would expect.  No need for complications.  How many foreign packages could they get?  We were the only foreigners in the town…  but that’s not what happened.  On the contrary, Jon and I sat there as a fifteen minute conversation burst to life.  After so long, we tried to imitate the conversation in English with what could possibly be happening:

“The weather sure is nice outside, don’t you think?” asked the worker (Jon).

“Yes, but what about the packages?” Mr. Huang (me).

“Oh yeah.  We may or may not have those.”

“Okay.”

“We need your identification.”

“My identification?”

“And their identifications.”

“Okay.  Here they are.”

“Okay.  How many packages are here?”

“You have the packages.  We don’t know.  Can’t you get them for me?”

“No.  We need to know the specific number.”

…Jon and I got bored.  The real conversation was able to outlast our pathetic attempt at making out what they could possibly be discussing.  Everything was said with a straight face and with an air of importance.  But the thing was…they weren’t saying about one sentence each.  It was almost as if they were exchanging anecdotes.

“Richard, what is going on?”

“They are discussing the packages.”

“Seriously, what can they possibly be saying.  Either they are here or they aren’t.”

They were there.  And we got them.  After thirty minutes of unnecessary conversation.  Throughout the rest of the year, we would constantly fall upon situations that took way longer than needed.  At the supermarket, at the bank, at the cell phone store…anywhere.  I mean, banks in China are always packed, and I don’t think it’s because they have an extraordinary number of customers per day.  It’s clearly the result of a 1,000 word minimum requirement per interaction.

One day I will understand more Chinese.  Hopefully.  And I will understand what it is they can possibly be talking about.

Jon and I would often give very specific instructions.  Brief instructions.  Easy to follow.  For example:  Jon wanted to put American money into his bank account in the form of Chinese money.  After a 30 minute conversation, the money was put into his account in the form of American money that he could not see or access from an ATM.  Why in God’s name would he ever want money that he couldn’t access?  And after thirty minutes of conversation, why wasn’t this one detail discussed.  It wasn’t too complicated.

Oh well.  Until I know more Chinese, I’ll only be able to imagine what is being said.

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