This week, I unfortunately got sick with a cough. My boss, being the super-health-concerned Chinese person she was, took me to a medicine shop where I walked away with an innumerable number of bottles for my ailing throat. I’ve since been recovering, thanks to a strict routine of oranges, hot ginger tea, and 5 different pills and syrups taken throughout the day, but because of my sick throat, I haven’t been out much lately. Although I can’t write about anything new or particularly exciting, I will tell you all a short story about one of one of the first people I met in Beijing.
During one of my first nights here in Beijing, I ventured outside my apartment in search of dinner. I found a small food court inside the nearby grocery store and decided to try my chances. At the time, I hadn’t yet started my Chinese lessons, so I had to be careful to go to stalls that had dishes laid out separately or at least menus with pictures that I could point at. I didn’t even know how to ask how much something was; I could only hope my 20 kuai was enough to pay for it. Being in a city where no one seems to speak English can be incredibly daunting.
Anyway, the stall nearby the door I entered had all of their dishes laid out, warmed, and most importantly “pointable”. The guy who attended the stall seemed relatively disinterested in his job. “Ni hao,” I said as I pondered over which dishes seemed most familiar to me. “Ni hao” was the only word I had in my arsenal of Chinese vocabulary and I had already used it. Any verbal conversation would stop at that simple phrase. I stood there for a while and finally settled on an egg dish with chives. Then I pointed to the dish, tapping on the glass above it.
The guy, perplexed that I wasn’t speaking any Chinese, said something to me, but I couldn’t understand it at all. Anxiously I pantomimed holding a bag, signifying my desire for take-out. He squinted at me, amused that I still wasn’t speaking any identifiable language but proceeded to bag up the food. He asked me something, chuckling. It was probably along the lines of “You’re not from around here are you?” But how could I have known that? All I could do was smile and get this embarrassing exchange over with.
Then, all of a sudden, he said something and looked at me, clearly expecting an answer. I shook my head and smiled at him. “What?” I said in English, in bewilderment. He reiterated himself and again I shook my head, not able to understand what he was saying. Then he said, “Mi? Mi?” Really slowly, I might add. He was clearly trying to convey something to me. He was even motioning his hands in some sort of eating fashion, but I still had no idea what the poor guy was trying to tell me. I just shook my head, scared that I might add something to the order I didn’t know. It was better to play it safe and just stick to my eggs.
Eventually the guy bagged up my order with some chopsticks. I handed him my 20 kuai, got my change, and left, quite hastily. On the way home, I eagerly typed “mi” into my translation app. Of course, “mi” meant rice. The guy probably thought I was a strange foreigner who insisted on eating her eggs without rice. That night, I disappointedly ate my dinner plain.
Over the next few weeks, I had started learning more Chinese, and every time after Chinese class I would go to the same stall in the food court and the guy would recognize me. He didn’t seem so disinterested anymore. I guess interactions with clueless foreigners can be exciting. My Chinese was improving, so my exchanges became a little less elementary. I eventually learned how to say “I want this,” “how much is it,” and simply “bag, please.” Most importantly, I learned how to say “I want white rice,” and I said the last part with emphasis. The guy was impressed that I was learning, and because I came every week, he knew what I wanted. He would pack up the food without be asked and tie the bag in a knot with chopsticks and napkins included. Sometimes he would accommodate me with simple answers. One time, when I asked the price, he said “one-one” instead of “eleven”. And sometimes I would introduce some new vocabulary, asking if something was spicy or had potatoes. One time he even tried to say “How are you?” in garbled English. I laughed and said, “I’m good, thank you!” in English and then Chinese.
One day, I understood enough to know that one day he asked where I was from. All I could manage to respond with was that I was from America and that I was an intern. He asked more questions, but I could only smile, shake my head, and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” He nodded and smiled in agreement as I walked away with my usual eggs. Someday, when my Chinese is good enough, I hope to hold a full blown conversation with him and learn his name, at least. Perhaps it’ll be possible by the time I leave. I’ve certainly come a long way in two months, from not knowing how to say “rice” to asking which dish with potatoes was the best. But for now, I guess I’ll have to settle with our pleasant 5-7 sentence exchanges every Thursday.