Lost in translation

They say non-verbal communication is really important, that it’s something like 80% of how we communicate. But when I’m travelling in a place where English is not the spoken language, it makes me question just how experts could give shared verbal communication only 20% of the credit.

To backtrack –

I had taken the train from Beijing to Xi’an, a trip that lasted five and a half hours. I surprised myself – I didn’t get up to use the bathroom once. The view outside was transfixing. While the sky remained light I took dozens of photos, capturing dystopic cityscapes bathed in a dusty orange. The sun appeared as a glowing coin through the haze. As the sun began to set we passed through a landscape that reminded me of the Grand Canyon.

By the time we arrived at Xi’an train station it was about 9:30pm. I followed the crowd to a taxi rank, where I stood in line for nearly half an hour. To pass the time I read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I’d swapped for a book I’d brought along with me from Australia. I don’t even remember what it was anymore. I recall that it was twice as thick and possibly half as interesting. Waiting in line, I also did that annoying coughing thing that non-smokers do when they’re downwind of a nearby smoker. China and its love of cigarettes.

As I approached the front of the queue I pulled my travel file out from my carry bag ready to show the relevant page to my taxi driver. This file consisted of itineraries, travel documents, accommodation addresses; even some commonly used phrases in the four languages of the countries I was travelling to (none of which I learned, apart from hello and thank you).

The funny thing is, I thought I had over-prepared. When I dropped into the seat next to my taxi driver, I showed him a map of the vicinity around my hotel (2 kilometre radius), along with the hotel name and address. He nodded. I sat back, watched Xi’an go by, and waited to be taken to my destination.

From examining the map of Xi’an, I had understood the main business district to be laid out in a rectangular formation. I understood where my hotel sat in the context of the rectangle, because I’d marked it out on my map. When we drove along a wall of skyscrapers, I felt that we were headed in the right direction. When we left the skyscrapers behind and entered an area that seemed more residential, where the streets had grown darker and the buildings much shorter, my hands started to grip my travel file more tightly. I grew increasingly convinced that I was being taken to some hotel the driver might’ve had a deal with or worse.

We stopped at a red light. ‘There,’ I held up my map and pointed at the address and then at the corresponding place on the map. ‘Are we going there?’

The taxi driver stared at the map, nodded, made some noise of comprehension. The light turned green.

We drove some more. The environment became more commercial again, but I wasn’t feeling any more at ease. It began to feel like we were driving in concentric circles. Now I wondered if he was trying to scam me by driving for longer than he needed to.

He chatted amiably on the phone. He hung up. I showed him the map again. He held it, studied it, kept driving. I stared hopelessly out the window. I had no idea now whether he actually knew how to get to the hotel.

Finally, I told him to drop me off at the Hyatt Hotel, which appeared to be just two blocks from my hotel. We arrived about five minutes later. Because I didn’t know how to say ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ when he removed my luggage case from his boot, I just said thanks. Xie-xie.

I walked straight up to the front desk of the Hyatt and sought directions. Fortunately I was met with much friendliness.

I stopped twice more for directions along the way. The second time was at another hotel, at another front counter. As I stood there waiting in line, I looked around me and sniffed at the tacky surroundings. I was glad that I wasn’t staying there.

The people at that hotel turned out to be really nice. Their bellhop insisted on taking me directly to my hotel, which turned out to be just around the corner. It was much smaller and far less well-appointed than the other hotel, making me regret my previous judgement. I thanked the bellhop profusely, expecting him to make his return to his hotel. Instead, he disappeared inside my one, probably friends with the people there.

After I checked in, I spent an interesting fifteen minutes trying to communicate with the night manager through Google Translate. If ever you’re wondering how accurate and useful its service is, you need only to be in a situation where you are entering one phrase in English, having it converted into Chinese, read, replied to in Chinese, which they press to translate into English, to find out. Requested directions to the nearest bus stop were translated into a message of death in English. Or something involving skulls and gold, at least.

The night manager eventually gave up and told me that I should report back in the morning, when the duty manager would be on staff. The duty manager, she said, speaks better English.

I hauled my luggage case up two flights of stairs and found my room. I swiped my card to let myself in. Home sweet home. For the next two nights, anyway.

Beijing railway

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