Lost In Translation
I've been in China for a week; and in that time, the thing I am most struck by, is the vastness of the place. I look out of my window on the thirty fifth floor of the Shenzhen Wyndham Grand Hotel, at skyscraper-scape as far as the eye can see. Or as far as the smog will let my eye see, to be exact: for the air here is thick with viscous, claggy matter, not so much pea soup as tiny iridescent particles that clog your airwaves and make you feel as though your head is wrapped in a warm, wet blanket.
Of all the things on offer here, the food is what really grabs my attention: so many options, so much variety, and so incredibly cheap. Just by the hotel there is an underground shopping area that stretches for miles; and every other shop is a food emporium. Food is cooked in front of you, often with ingredients you have chosen yourself; one particular favourite is a soup place, where you take a plastic tray, load it up with vegetables, dumplings, fish, meat, herbs, beans, noodles, in whichever combination takes your fancy, then take it to be weighed; your tray is then emptied into a broth of your choice to be cooked - I'd love to be able to tell you what those broths are, but I don't speak Chinese, and no one speaks english; so i'm reduced to pointing at a picture, and hoping for the best.
The best has been wonderful: spicy, slightly creamy and piping hot, so that the noodles cook instantly; and the fresh coriander infuses the soup with a delicious tang. It's not a dish that is easy to eat with chopsticks mind you, and maintaining dignity or good manners while trying to shovel it into your mouth, is a non-starter; but then as I realise, what we consider 'manners' in the west, is a completely different order of event here: I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that the more one slurps, the more one is indicating approval for the food; and judging by what I see around me, positioning the bowl just under your chin and shovelling the contents thereof into your mouth at high speed, slurping vigourously, is the way to go.
Then there is the place where you eat what I can only describe as Chinese tortellini. No, it isn't Dim Sum - the pieces are bigger, and the casing is very pasta-like. The chef likes to show his skill by stretching, twirling and reforming the dough into several different shapes, before cutting it into slabs, filling it with spicy meat, setting it afloat in a sea of chilli broth, and serving it to you.
All of this, I should add, costs £2. Or £3 if you go mad. I'm trying hard to imagine a comparator back home; and I'm failing - if Shenzhen is the Silicone City of this country, only thirty or so years old, then you might compare it with somewhere like Milton Keynes; but the idea that one might find indigenous food culture like this in The Great Gridded City, is suspending disbelief to a level I'm not capable of.
Today I collected my new glasses from a local optician: glasses here are half the price they cost in the UK, and if you are sensible, you bring your prescription with you and buy them from one of the dozens of opticians around. All this was going well when I made the original choice last week - prescriptions are universal, so no problem with that. The lenses are Zeiss, so no problem with that. The frames are free, and the waiting time a few days; but the problems begin when you try to have a conversation about buying a spare pair of frames.
It's very hard to deal with a total language block, especially when you are trying to deal with niche words like 'frame'. I tried pointing. I tried synonyms. I tried drawing a picture...but nothing worked. Eventually the two shop assistants found an app on their phones, by means of which I had to say into their phones what I wanted; and the app would then turn my words into Chinese. In theory.
I could tell this really wasn't going well when, after I spoke the words
'I want to buy a spare set of frames' into the phone, the English words
'I want a girlfriend' came up on the screen, closely followed by 'this is a criminal offence'. Shop assistant A, clearly puzzled by this, pointed to his screen for shop assistant B to see; but has her phone was showing the words 'where is my pie?' she couldn't help much.
Eventually one of them 'phoned a friend' - the very person who had sold me the glasses last week, and who speaks English. After a slightly convoluted conversation via loudspeaker with this person, my request was understood, and a spare pair of frames was found. And given to me for nothing.
This is one of the things I find most interesting here: the commercialism is obvious, and no surprise to any of us, because most of us are clad from head to toe in items labelled 'made in China'; but despite that, there seems to be a strong sense of 'the customer is always right', and I'm interested that the customer service ethic is really rather impressive
I've experienced issues with counter-intuitive cultural norms as well as language issues when trying to explain to the gym attendant that I'm not enjoying the sound of spitting emanating from the swimming pool, which is next door. Even through the barrier of headphones I hear a solitary man ploughing up and down the pool, clearing his tubes and spitting into the pool as he makes the turn at the end of each length. Yes, it's truly revolting; but it seems to be what men do here. Not in the pool usually, one hopes; but certainly all over the streets. I'm not sure that my horror was fully understood by the gym attendant; but the Guest Relations man was very apologetic, and I now have a bowl full of fruit in my room by way of apology.
Mind you, I still won't be taking a dip in that pool anytime soon...