Lost in Translation in China


Arriving in Chengdu, after a long flight from Amsterdam,  I trudged through the arrival hall’s linea queues,  and made my way outside. I was optimistic at being able to find a cheap and easy way into town.  Feeling buoyed on by the fact that I was carrying my hotel name translated into Chinese, ‘this is going to be a breeze’, I’m thinking to myself.

Stepping outside of Chengdu airport you’ll find yourself falling into a cacophony of noise, smells, bright lights and general chaotic excitement. I fell into this excitement (deliriously happy to have arrived in China, and I was eager to soak up its rich, diverse culture).  Rushes of people jostled in charging swarms past me. Lines and lines of buses queued up. Taxis beeping away. Shouting. Coughing. Luggage trolleys crashing. Everyone’s trying to get somewhere quickly (and if they are not they’re stood around and getting trolleys whacked into their ankles – I’ve made a mental note that, next time, my ditherings will be done stood to the side where I can protect my ankles).

Walking out of arrivals you will find a long line of buses directly in front of you. If you already know what bus to take then head straight across to one of the many little kiosks that are adjacent to you, where you can buy your ticket.  If you speak Chinese this will certainly assist you (or if you’ve done a little research beforehand then knowing what bus to take will be simple, I hadn’t. Seamless.). My muttered pronunciations of ‘bus to Tianfu Square please?’ received blank looks in return, and I was pointed in the direction of the taxi queue. It was late, and after 30 dazed minutes I gave up trying to navigate the buses and headed over to join the taxi line. You’ll find this located to the right of the arrivals hall. Taxis in Chengdu are charged according to the meter; make sure that your driver switches this on when you get into the car to avoid a price haggle. Getting into town should cost you in the region of RMB 50 – 70.

I approached the taxi rank and took my place in a long queue of people. The queue was headed by an officious looking young man dressed in a  long grey trench-coat and matching hat who was yelling orders at the chaotic lines of taxis (whilst slowly turning a deeper shade of mad-red when cars stalled or taxi drivers failed to hear his shouts). A thirty second driver dawdle or an innocuous arrivee not getting into the taxi quick enough brought on pretty much a full scale meltdown. Whilst I generally love a dawdle, I hauled my backpack along the ground, checked that I was holding my hotel directions and got ready to move like Usain Bolt (to avoid falling foul of this guy’s apparent dawdle hatred).

As I approached the head of the queue, my taxi comes hurtling along screeching to a stop. The boot pops open and I quite literally throw my bag in, slam the boot down and jump into the back seat of an old 1970’s model (I want to say Pontiac but those who know me know I don’t know cars – so I have no idea what model it was but it was pretty beat-up, and it had white curtains in the back and plastic seat covers).

The female driver turns to look at me, eyeing me over. I smile and I pass her the hotel directions written in Chinese. She stares at them for a while, and shakes her head, waving the paper in the air at me. I point at the Chinese writing again and mouth out the words ‘Sofitel’. Further blank looks.

All the while a steady procession of cars are building up behind us. Horns begin to toot. I’m waving the paper, pointing at the directions. She’s looking at me, holding her hands in the air.  This gets the head honcho traffic guy’s attention. I’m thinking ‘shit’ as I see him slowly approach our car to investigate the cause of this blockage to his previous traffic equilibrium. Why is it that you become THE most conspicuous at the times you really don’t want to?!?  

So, he approaches our little car, and bangs on the driver’s window, which she winds manually down. She seems to be explaining to him that the directions I’ve handed over to her are nonsense (I subsequently learnt, when talking to a lady in Hong Kong, that the Sichaunese Mandarin dialect is completely different to the many other dialects spoken in China, of which there are hundreds (if not thousands) across a truly  enormous country with  population count (which blows my mind) of over 1.2 billion people). God knows what dialect I’d handed over.

Anyway, head honcho guy grabs the paper from her hands and studies it.  He also clearly can make no greater sense of my scrawls than what she could. He throws it back at her and points forward. From what I can make out, he’s telling her to drive (and doesn’t care that neither of us know where we are going). She argues with him. I open the car door and try to get out of the car (thinking maybe I should take another taxi). He frantically gestures for me to get back in. I get back in. There’s a real build-up of traffic now. Shouting, horns beeping. Head honcho begins to furiously survey the unfolding chaos and turns back to look at us both. He starts shouting, then bangs on the car roof 5 times gesturing forward, and with that we say adios and speed away into the smoggy haze.

We hurtle off down the enormous freeway into town. As you drive into central Chengdu, you’ll be visibly reminded that you are in Communist China as you pass through streets called ‘2nd Road East’, ‘1 North Street’, and past blocks of grey concrete apartments (these aren’t the romantic streets of Paris). Compare this against the rows and rows of inane top end designer shops that clutter up Chengdu city centre and you’ll find yourself locked into, and trying to make sense, of this amazing country and its  curious cultural and political dichotomy.

The driver turns to look at me, I can’t work out if she’s furious that she’s been landed with me as a passenger and doesn’t know where to take me. She talks at me in Sichuanese dialect.  I talk back at her in English. She smiles at me and shakes her head. We’re talking at each other now both desperately trying to sail across the vast ocean of language that separates us.  I continue to mouth the words of my hotel, stupidly thinking that if I pronounce the words more slowly then this will be the key to translation. I fail in this endeavour. She then whips out a truly massive walkie-talkie as we’re hurtling down the road at 60 mph. I’m pretty much certain that the walkie-talkie is bigger than her head, I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s shouting into it. I’m still saying things like ‘Tianfu Square’, ‘Sofitel’, whilst grabbing the car handle and hoping that she keeps her eyes on the road as we swerve in and out of traffic as she continues to shout into the giant device. She whips the paper out of my hand, again studying it (whilst continuing to swerve in and out of lanes, around traffic, on this giant highway). I’m simultaneously eyeing up the meter, which is steadily rising, cursing myself for not getting more money changed in advance and hoping I have enough money on me to pay for the journey.

Something is shouted from the person she is speaking to on the walkie-talkie and finally, she turns to me and shouts ‘Sooooooofitel’, eyeing me hopefully. ‘Yes’ I shout, ‘that’s it’!. She places a linguistic stress much more on an ‘oooooo’ sound of pronunciation than my sharp ‘o’ sound. We high five.  She’s laughing and shouting and repeating ‘Sooooofitel’ as we continue hurtling down the road.  I’m laughing. Together we rejoice in our triumph.

We had triumphantly broken through our language barrier, with words.  Our shared laughter, smiles, and high fives also broke down some of our cultural barriers. It doesn’t matter if you’re half way around the world, removed from all the normalities of your life, laughter transcends geography and brings people together.

Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is located approximately 10 miles from the city centre. To make for an easier journey, you may want to ask someone to translate your hotel address into Sichuanese in advance. Bon voyage!



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