Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Following Someone Else's Dream: Just to Communicate?

Vol. II, No. 4

These aren't my feet, but I wish they were!
I need to make a confession. Despite having left behind the world of banking and all its glitz, I still love a fine pair of shoes. Really love. I'm talking Prada heels (like these pictured at right), velcro army boots, or maybe red sequined Converse low-tops, which I wore to my wedding. So, naturally, when we arrived in Shanghai, I was either in heaven or hell, depending how you look at the circumstances of no longer being able to afford what one used to be able to afford.

So, anyway, whilst "window-shopping" one day (an idiotic term for a totally unfulfilling activity), a pair of shoes stopped me dead in my tracks. They were orange snakeskin loafers with a thick yellow fluorescent (yes! fluorescent!) gummy sole.

"How much?" I asked the saleslady.

She answered in Mandarin that they were about the equivalent of seventy-five dollars, adding, "But your feet are too big."

"I see," I said, not really seeing at all, and not appreciating her directness, but thrilled with the price. After all, I wear an American size 8, which is not exactly dainty, nor the opposite.

And here's where things got funny - for the rest of the day.

"Will bigger shoes arrive at your store in another shipment?" I asked, painstakingly translating individual word by individual word, using an app on my iPhone to trace Chinese characters onto a screen. But the saleslady just laughed at me; she'd understand none of the gibberish I'd spoken. Then she had an idea.

"Speak into my phone. I also have an app," she instructed. So I did, speaking into her phone slowly and clearly, asking again when the big shoes might arrive. It was a surreal moment, communicating with someone using two different languages, and two pieces of electronics, neither of us looking at each other, but instead at our phones.

"When will the last farm soften?" the app repeated back to us, and we both gave up, me in fits of laughter, the saleslady bewildered. I left behind the shop and my orange fluorescent shoes.

Later that afternoon, my husband and I ventured into downtown Shanghai for lunch. As you can
Seeking a restaurant in Shanghai
probably imagine, there was no shortage of restaurants in this bustling Chinese metropolis. But it was lunchtime, and there was definitely a shortage of seats. So we chose the only restaurant we could find that had a spare table, and I set about ordering for us.

"Please, I want to order a small parking meter for the baby," I said to the waiter. I'd tried to order a small bowl of rice, but I'd somehow managed to, well, not. Eventually, of course, I got my bowl of rice. Not many people successfully order small parking meters at Chinese restaurants.

Finally, the baby gets her rice

Of course, this probably all seems comical, and it was. Mostly. But by this time, we'd been in China for a week or so, and I was no clearer communicating than when we'd first arrived. I've studied Mandarin for a year, and I work for Sinovision, a Chinese television station. Could I really not order a bowl of rice?

It began to rain, hard, and we found our way to the underground, stepping over and into enormous puddles, drenching all three of us in the process. Back at home in the French Concession, I opened up my Chinese app and studied a few more characters, waiting for the rain to let up. Once it did, the glitter of the sparkling city had wilted, and in its place was a soggy, dripping early dusk that breathed a chilly wind that felt more like October than summer.

I went for a walk, admiring the eclectic fashion sense of, and I mean this, absolutely everyone. Fishnet stockings paired with a jersey singlet, funky haircuts shorn on a bias, someone wearing an army jacket with epaulets of lace. I stopped into a Japanese restaurant to pick up some take-out dinner. It was crowded. The line behind me was impatient. I tried to order udon, first in Mandarin, then in the five Japanese words that I remember from having lived in Tokyo. The counter chef only shrugged his shoulders. People behind me, even the ever-polite Japanese, were getting impatient. And I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'll tell you anyway: I started to cry.
Exploring the Bund in Shanghai

Biting my lip really, really hard, I pointed to some noodles, and put up two fingers. I paid my bill, hurried out the door, and cried in the rain that had begun again. This was ridiculous, I know, but everyone has ridiculous moments like these when traveling to a place you can't communicate effortlessly.

To comfort myself, I stopped into Mr Donut for a cruller. Nothing says comfort food like the cruller.

"Sir?" the guy behind the donut counter said to me. "Sir, are you okay?"

And that was all it took, being called 'Sir,' by someone trying his best to communicate on his turf in my language, to force me to get over myself.

Patricia Sexton is the author of "LIVE from Mongolia!", the true story of a woman chucking in her Wall Street career to become anchor of the Mongolian news. She's also the host of Sinovision's WE Talk, a talk show exploring how celebs and artists have overcome big obstacles to pursue extraordinary dreams. Follow on Twitter and on her Facebook page.

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