Monday, April 07, 2008

Report from Shenyang: The "California Beef Noodle King" is my only hope!

Nobody told me when I got to Shenyang that I would probably be the only person within a 500-mile radius that speaks English! Shenyang is the industrial capital of northern China and, unlike Beijing, is slow-paced and friendly. It's like 1950s America used to be -- only without the McCarthy part. Shenyang is a huge city, with miles and miles of downtown. The street across from my hotel is as big as Market Street in San Francisco, only it is just one of many streets that size.

I like it here.

If I'm not able to obtain my visa to North Korea on Tuesday and have to spend a week or so here instead, it will be okay. I found an internet cafe. What more does one need? "Food!" Oh yeah. That.

Because I don't speak any Chinese and nobody here appears to speak any English, how exactly do I manage to get fed? I went into a promising-looking restaurant at lunchtime yesterday but once inside discovered that their specialty was pigs' feet. Uh, no thank you. Then I went into the restaurant next door and tried again but couldn't think of what to do so I just stood there feeling foolish. I looked at the waitress and she looked at me. I needed to SAY something. But what?

"Gots any Kung Pao chicken?" I asked. "Or broccoli beef?" But it was no use. I pointed and pantomimed. She shrugged and sighed. Crazy American.

Here I am, right in the middle of the very HEARTLAND of Chinese food -- aside from Berkeley of course -- but I might as well be starving to death out in the middle of the Gobi desert for all the good it is doing me. Lots of food, no access.

Okay. I don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out. The language barrier is not insurmountable. I can do this. So I went into the next restaurant, smiled a lot, pointed at the kitchen, pointed at myself, pointed at some photos of food on the wall and looked pathetic, helpless and lost. And it worked. The cook himself brought me a gigantic order of potstickers. I'm saved. For now.

And then dinner time arrived. But this time I got a plan! As I walked back to my hotel, I saw a sign that read, "California Beef Noodle King". They will have to be able to understand me there. I'm from California!

But they didn't.

So I took out a piece of paper and drew a stick-figure of a chicken and some very scrawny-looking spinach. "Ah! Chicken!" said the counterperson. "Chicken!" Hurray. We had Communicated. And we both got what we wanted. She got a customer. And I got some food.

"Okay, Jane. This story is all very cleaver and and precious and entertaining, but what's your point?" My point is that if you want to keep obtaining the necessities of life with as little fuss and bother as possible, you need to learn how to Communicate. You need to learn to make mutually-understandable gestures toward others -- or at least buy a phrase book.

If you truly want to get what you need when you are abroad, you have to learn how to Use Your Words. You can't just waltz into a foreign country and grab what you want.

And you definitely can't just go into a foreign country and bomb people and steal their oil.