At one point during my flight to Beijing, a thought suddenly bugged my mind. I’m about to disembark on a new environment where English is not even a second language, where English is of little use. Where people are not very enthusiastic to learn the language. Where even a graduate student cannot speak the international language properly. Which means, what awaits below, is a great deal of com crisis.
My worry was validated immediately as the plane landed on some airport after only 3 hours of flying. Did I lost count of time (for I knew Beijing is a six-hour plane ride from Manila) or are we in another place. I turned to this elderly Chinese man sitting next to me to clear up if we are indeed in Beijing by now. The man just nod his head repeatedly without saying a word. I repeated my question and the answer did not change.
Again “So we are in Beijing now?”
Again, the nod.
Ok, so this is Beijing now. But when the plane taxied off from the runway, I looked out the window and read “Xiamen International Airport.”
The flight announcement has an English translation too, yes. But to be honest, I am really lost with the way they pronounce the words.
From Xiamen we flew for 3 more hours and finally reached Beijing. I was met at the arrival area with these young guys carrying a placard with my name on it. After a few hellos they walked me hastily into the parking lot and into a luxury van, shook hands with the driver and sped off to the city proper.
The two hour ride from the airport to the hotel was filled with a deafening silence. For an icebreaker, I started a babble: “How are you?” But the driver just smiled and turned his eyes back on the road. A moment of silence and then again I asked if I could light a cigarette. This time the driver smiled and point his index finger to his right ear as if saying he has difficulty hearing. So I rested my case and started shooting some scenery instead.
Suddenly, his cellphone rang and was very quick to answer.
In the evening, a sigh of relief as I met my first English-speaking acquaintance, Mister D.K. Vandi, a co-delegate from Sierra Leone. We were both looking all over the place for where the Welcome Dinner will be served. We stepped in to this fancy restaurant on the opposite corner of the hotel lobby and were warmly greeted with Chinese smiles, a large menu and an enticing aroma in the air. But first we need to be sure we are in the right restaurant since we do not intend to part our yuan especially when a free meal is assigned to us.
“Is this the place for CUFE guests?” asked Mr. Vandi to the attending waiter who, as expected, smiled and replied in Mandarin.
“We cannot understand you, go call someone else who can speak in English.” Mr. Vandi demanded while I echoed his line in a clearer tone to make sure the wide-eyed waiter gets the message. He got it.
The waiter left and came back with another man who was dressed in full effort to understand every word from Mr. Vandi’s question. To no avail. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by the whole restaurant staff, all in chorus with a language very alien to me and Mr. Vandi. I found some positive gestures in them that could be saying yes, we are in the right restaurant. So Ok, they are serving the Welcome Dinner here. Now we choose from the Chinese-written menu. I had a smart conversation with Mr. Vandi and we talked a lot about our flights to Beijing as we consume a bowlful of Peking duck (I presumed), a steamed beef and a huge plate of shanghai rice. After dinner we parted ways and retired to our assigned hotel room.
But in the very early morning, my doorbell rang. I opened up and a familiar lady stood outside with a piece of paper in her hand, with some Chinese characters written on it. The only figures I can read on the paper was the name of the restaurant where Mr. Vandi and I dined and.. an amount at the bottom: 197RMB!
In my three weeks stay in China I have learned some basic Chinese language. And I have come to realize why majority of these people (still) believe that if one desires to do business in this land, one should learn Mandarin rather than expect 1.4 billion people to learn English –because the Chinese language is one of the most beautiful in the world!
When in China, you may opt not to do as the Chinese do. But at least learn to speak a little of their tongue. Otherwise, if you will keep on pressing them with your international language, you will miss a big part of the adventure (or misadventure).