The comfort of communication

by Benjamin Cranney (Australia)

Making a local connection China


Sometimes, the right word makes all the difference. I only had a handful in this language, so I’d look for the right one by miming, smiling and gesturing in what I hoped was a universal language. It was part fun, part stress and often a failure. But it’s what I had to try find a restaurant in Beijing’s hutongs, centuries old criss crossing alleys that were better for getting lost in than finding the right word. It wasn’t working. I needed more words. So I tried to match the symbols in the guide book with the names of the restaurants. Genius, I thought. Until I got lost. In my defence, the map was wrong. But so was my logic, which for a guy not used to these temperatures, was probably frozen. Because in a Latin script, there are a few dozen characters for this matching game. Here, there were thousands. And this was the land of calligraphy. Could that angled line in the book be the same as the curved one on the building? Is that dot superfluous? If I wasn’t careful, I’d be taken by the ice, frozen until spring. At least I would have time to contemplate the lettering. I stood outside what I thought was the place for an age. A patron leaving looked at me and jerked his head. ‘Go in’ he was saying, ‘it’s delicious’. I took his advice. A table of men were hunched over their meals, dropping cigarette ash and chicken bones on the floor. Would I have to eat like that too? I didn’t think I could comfortably use the floor as a bin and thought about leaving, until the waitress smiled. Her menu had pictures to help with the matching game. But you can’t smell or feel pictures, and the broccoli came cold. I figured that was deliberate and I wished I was somewhere easier to navigate. And then the stew I’d come for arrived. That smell. My taste bud arousal was surely universal. But despite the smell, the picture and the description in the book, I was still lost. I knew what was meant to be in it, but the murky broth made it a lucky dip. I picked up my chopsticks and reached in. Was this black and grey gristly thing once part of a chicken? I put it with the untouched broccoli. Then delicious potato and thick wheat noodles, with a taste to beat the smell. Then more potato. No, garlic! But too late, and the acrid clove overpowered my taste buds. Overwhelmed, I thought about leaving again. But then the power went off, and an almighty curse, the same as I might use in English, flew from the kitchen. I smiled and tucked in, because I suddenly felt more at home.