By Jonathan Lee
A half smile. A nod or an emphatic shake of the hand. Maybe a finger or two. A swift gesture with the hands. Shrugs of the shoulders. Drawing symbols in my palms. A fuller smile as progress is made. Sometimes a laugh. This is the language I have come to speak in Zhuhai. When I step into a shop, when I wander the streets, or when explore an alleyway I can no longer rely on my English to guide me. I find my way with images, sounds, odors, and textures. Street signs are nearly non-existent, and in my rare encounters with one, it is nearly impossible to divulge its contents. Maps can even be more disconcerting. Oriented in different manners with varying levels of accuracy, they are often a step behind a world that is constantly adding to itself, reorganizing itself and reevaluating itself.
I must rely on my own senses to orient myself – use what I observe directly to triangulate in this city. Every day I expand and revise a mental map of this community we live in through brute force. Every day there is a new block to explore, a new shop to entertain, or a new alleyway to investigate. In these spaces I encounter a different China from the dinners and banner exchanging ceremonies that I have become conditioned to. Here are people working day in and day out to support their family who may live just upstairs, or hundreds of miles away.
While making my mental maps, I’ve come into contact with many of these people. There are the middle-aged men playing Chinese chess on the sidewalk, or the older ones playing mahjong in the shade. Oftentimes stares are exchanged. Sometimes we exchange nods – a courteous acknowledgement of each other’s existence. But the funny thing is even a nod can be ambiguous here.
I remember one of the first times I dined at a restaurant here. It was breakfast, and I was nearly finished. One of the waitresses came up to me and beckoned towards my empty dishes, motioning that she wanted to take them. I nodded, but my affirmation was lost in translation. Rather than taking my dishes, she a bewildered look crossed her face as she slowly backed into the kitchen. After a moment, she returned and watched from a distance – possibly waiting until I got up to take my plates. However, I had plenty of time that morning to relax and had no intention of getting up any time soon. Eventually she just waited until I was turned away in conversation to dash up, nimbly collect all my discarded dishes, and whisk them away into the kitchen. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at how we had misunderstood each other. I suppose body language – something I had taken to be generally universal – could actually cause confusion if used in without the proper social cue.
I’ve had other occasions to laugh. The night I moved in with my host family, they took me out to dinner with their business partner and her son. Since I was the guest of honor, they had me choose the food. I had no idea what was offered at the restaurant or what was good, so I requested “hot food” – just something like soup to warm my belly. However, my family interpreted the “hot food” as spicy food. In an effort to be hospitable, they ordered the four spiciest dishes on the menu. Before long we were all downing the water, tea, and wine in an effort to quench the fire in our throats, and passing around napkins to stem our noses, which were running from the spicy food.
After we had recovered, my host father ordered a final dish as part of my orientation to Chinese culture – bean curd with odor – an old favorite of Chairman Mao. When I first saw the name on the menu, I had felt a sense of foreboding, which was compounded by the odor that accompanied the dish. I took a piece, as did my host father, but we were alone in tasting this dish. Everyone else thought it better to sit this round out. As I fumbled with the chopsticks and raised the bean curd to my lips, I could feel everyone at the table watching me. I put the bean curd into my mouth and something happened to my taste buds that I can’t really describe in words. In shock, I laughed, and found the whole table laughing with me, during which we agreed that it was an acquired taste. The laughter was cathartic, and what we needed to break the ice that formed part of the cultural barrier between us.
The next Monday was my first time walking back to my host family’s apartment from school. Leo, my host brother, was still at school doing after school classes, and my host parents were both still at work. After climbing four flights of stairs, I came to our apartment and experienced my first test as a member of my host family – getting into our home. I managed to unlock and open the exterior security door, but I couldn’t open the interior door – the key refused to move. I tried calling my host father to figure out what I was doing wrong, but my phone kept shutting off – perfect timing for low battery.
Thoroughly confused, I walked back downstairs, extended the building, and went to the guard house at the front gate of our apartment complex. A bit of pantomiming and pointing at my dead cell phone was enough to get the guards to let me use their phone. I called my host father, who said he was on his way and told me to meet him at the front gate.
While I was idling at the front gate, the one guards decided to be hospitable and strike up a conversation with me. However a friendly gesture soon turned problematic. The guard said something, a series of syllables and tones that flowed past me into the night. I could only shake my head and answer “I don’t understand.” He repeated the sentence, slower this time, but that made no difference. Again I shook my head and answered “I don’t understand.” This occurred about a dozen more times before he pointed to himself and said something, and then pointed to me and repeated the first sentence again – my name; he was asking for my name. I answered “Jonathan” as I pointed to myself, but he seemed not to understand. In no time I had pulled out my sketchbook so that he could see my name. He wrote his name first – a series of strokes that coalesced into two hasty characters. I then wrote mine – a series of haphazard capital letters: J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N. We both stared at what the other had written – apparent chicken scratch – and shared a laugh at how hopeless we were. We not only spoke different languages; neither of us could discern the other’s written language. Until my host family arrived, we amused ourselves my communicating through a series of gestures, pictures, and the occasional empathetic laugh. Now all the guards recognize me when I enter the complex and greet me with a friendly “Nǐ hǎo! Hallo!”
As someone who cannot speak the language, who is an obvious outsider, I am brought into to continuous cultural collisions with the community around me. When these collisions occur, it is the people who inhabit this community that help me through. Like two wanderers, we support each other as we wade through a hazy landscape, drawing a map to some unknown mutual understanding. And with each hesitant footstep – with each mark – there is a laugh.
Oh, and about the door I couldn’t open. Turns out I was using the wrong key. That, too, was a reason to laugh.