Friday, April 18, 2008

"Speechless" in China

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When I first traveled to China a few years back on official assignment, I didn't expect to encounter problems communicating with the locals. I was part of the media delegation that covered President Arroyo's visit and I knew I would be dealing more with the RTVM (Radio-TV MalacaƱang) people and the other reporters in the group. A short trip to the tiangge without a Chinese-speaking escort was not a problem - communicating with the vendors was done with a calculator.

When I returned to China a few days ago, I discovered that more Chinese speak English. It is now required in middle school - our equivalent of high school. We also had an escort from the State Council and a tour guide, who both spoke fluent English.

But speaking the English language is not a guarantee that communication would be easy. When my cameraman and I were shooting my stand-upper in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, we were accosted by several policemen and ordered to stop shooting. One of the policemen spoke English. I explained that we were invited by the Chinese Embassy in Manila and that my story was about China's preparations for the Olympics, but the policemen wouldn't hear any of it. The English-speaking policeman simply ordered us to stop and wait while he radioed his superiors. Several tourists gathered around us, curious as to what would happen to us. After several exchanges in Chinese over their two-way radio, the policeman gave us the go-signal to shoot.

Haggling for discounts at stores however was a breeze in all the places we visited - Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Even the peddlers on the streets understood the language although not all ventured to speak it. Some knew a few words in English but preferred to use the calculator.

The signs however were both amusing and confusing. Posted by the steps leading to a restaurant was a sign reading, "Be careful step."

At the entrance to the Great Wall, my companions and I had to think twice about buying souvenirs. The sign on the store said, "Your name carved in stone in 3 minutes." "Parang lapida," said one of the male reporters in our group. As we made our way to the first tower, we ignored a sign that said "Speaking cellphone is strictly prohibited when thunderstorm" because the weather then was fine. But rain or shine, tourists were advised to "pay attention to fireproof."

The tortuous climb up the Great Wall was followed by a sumptuous lunch of Chinese food. Ours was a set menu but the other patrons who decided to partake of the buffet were shown a sign that said, "Buffe breakfast, please take them as what you need in case of wasting, thanks for your cooperation." I felt the sign could also be posted in restaurants in Manila especially now that we are facing a rice crisis.

From Beijing, we traveled to Shanghai. We didn't encounter any difficulty finding the gate where we were to board, thanks to a sign that said, "12 minutes to the farthest gate. Please check your timings."

As precise was a sign in a museum in Shanghai that showed us the way out. "Go straight, turn left about 300 inches." It took the men in the group however a few minutes to compute how far they had to go.

Personalized postcards were also available in an exhibition hall. But the "system for individuation postcard" was not running during our visit. We were satisfied though with the photos we took with our digital cameras.

We also enjoyed our trip to the water village in Zhou Jia Jiao, about an hour away from Shanghai. Some residents sold silk products and we were assured these were genuine because a big sign was posted on the door, saying "Fakely penalize ten. Guarantee both quality and quantity." another store owner was even bold enough to stake her reputation on the products she sold by hanging a sign that read, "I'm sure of it's quality. Can be park of vacuum."

Back in Shanghai, we made a quick trip to a mall near our hotel in search of genuine apple ipods. We found an authorized Apple reseller but the only English sentence that the salesperson spoke was, "Sorry, no English." I was near frustration because I promised my daughters ipod shuffles to make them stop crying when I left for China. And this was the only Apple reseller I found so far. Then I noticed a customer glancing at our direction. When he turned to leave, I asked him if he spoke English. His name was Phillip and yes, he spoke English and would gladly act as interpreter. Not only did he do that, he told his friend to wait for him while he accompanied us to the cashier on another floor of the mall. From there, he went with us to the information desk to get the receipt so I can avail of Apple's international guarantee. And then he walked us back to the outlet and even double-checked if I had the receipt with me. He asked us several times if there was something else he could do for us. I said he had done more than enough and thanked him profusely. I told Phillip, "thank you so much. You're so nice," over and over again and I believe even the salesperson understood.

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