Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Getting neither the message nor the massage

Posted by metaphorical on 25 January 2007

“Rolex? Omega?”

“You want massage?”

“Handbag, handbag.”

“You want Chinese girl? Very young. Pretty.”

A lot of people in Shanghai speak English, but not a lot of it. If you stay in the tourist areas you get by without too much trouble, but once you leave the shore, any step can be the one with the drop-off and suddenly the water is neck-high. It’s hard not to fear you’re about to drown in an alien culture.

I take cabs to all my appointments. I ask the concierge desk to write out in Chinese the address I’m going to, and even then, the bellhop at the door calls the cab and discusses the destination with the driver. The bellhop then nods to me that the driver understands, and off I go. I have the hotel’s card, which I use to get back. Tomorrow, I’ll go from one appointment directly to the next; the concierge will have to write out both for me and I’ll hope for the best on the risky middle leg.

The street behind the hotel is an enormous shopping strip that goes on for a kilometer or so. It has no curbs, and cars apparently can’t drive down it, though there are streets that are allowed to cross it. There are no curbs, but some traffic lights, and people walk everywhere; the cars and bicycles weave through the pedestrians who sometimes wait for the light and sometimes don’t. At night the main street is crowded with neon signs and brightly lit stores and hotels and shops. People walk and mill about by the hundreds. But the side streets that don’t have traffic lights are dark, narrow alleyways that you can’t see down and haven’t changed since the invention of the light bulb.

During the day, I get asked a lot about watches and handbags, but at night it’s mostly about massages. I’ve learned to keep walking, but they sidle up beside me, keeping pace, leaning in so our arms are brushed up against one another, and they ask incessantly. “You want massage?” “You want Chinese girl?”—one question per stride. I look straight ahead and keep walking. After about a dozen paces with no response, they drop off, looking, I guess, for the next white face in the crowd. Sometimes it’s women who are doing the asking, and I can’t tell if they’re asking for themselves. I want to look them over but I keep my eyes straight and keep walking.

Tonight I asked the concierge to recommend a place to eat. Up to now, I haven’t wanted to be bothered. For the first few nights, I wasn’t able to synch with the time zone, so I’ve collapsed at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, gotten up at 9:00, and then rushed off to the Royal Meridien hotel next door, which serves dinner until 10:00. The food there is pretty good, but with my weird and hard-to-match diet, there’s only a couple of things on the Chinese menu for me. The Italian restaurant has a single dish—an overpriced spaghetti in oil and garlic. It’s nice and garlicky, but with a glass of overpriced wine and a small bottle of Perrier that costs the same as the wine the bill is about RMB 300. Divide by 7.7 and you’ve spent $40 on a light dinner in what should be, at least for meal prices, still a third-world country. Two years ago, traveling with Jen Liu, we would routinely stuff ourselves at restaurants she knew for under RMB 100 total.

“You want restaurant?”

Two nights ago, instead of Rolexes or massages, a teenager asked about restaurants. He had a menu in one hand; with the other he pointed upward. Across the street, up on the third floor, I could see the windows of what might have been a restaurant. It was after 9:00 pm, and I was looking for a dinner, but it seemed a little weird—out on the streets of Shanghai, every sentence drips with double meaning and is tinged with risk.

The next day, I ventured back in the bright sunlight of lunchtime. The same teenager was there and this time I let him lead me up and elevator, through a department store, and into a Chinese restaurant. It was tasty and cheaper than the Meridien, but not third-world cheaper.

So tonight I asked the concierge. He wants to know what kind of food and I say Chinese. “You want Shanghainese food?” he asked. I have no idea what the differences are so I say sure. He writes out an address and a very crude map. It’s out the front door and only about a 10 minute walk, with only one turn. “41. Just look for the number,” he says. “41.”

When I get there, it’s not clear where to walk in. I see full-length glass windows but not a door. Two guys are standing right in front. They see me hesitate and whisk me toward an open doorway; the wall beside it says 41. “Upstairs.” One of them rings for the elevator and guides me in. He presses the third floor for me. As soon as the door opens, a young guy holding what looks like a menu leads me up a flight of stairs and down a corridor. It’s pretty clear I’m not in the restaurant, and I have a pretty good idea what kind of non-restaurant I’m in, but I’m feeling much more curious than threatened. The small rooms we walk past each have a couch and a low serving table.

Finally we enter one of them. Young Guy says to sit down and wait for the mama-san. That makes it crystal clear, if it wasn’t before. I’m still curious, though. How does it work? Is there really a brothel operating openly in downtown? I don’t want to leave, and I don’t want to stay, so I keep standing. That’s disconcerting enough to Young Guy that he won’t leave and get mama-san. He seems to want to ask me what the problem is, but doesn’t have the English to ask, and he probably senses he wouldn’t get the answer anyway. He asks me to sit down a few more times, and I say things he doesn’t understand. Finally he goes to get someone else. The threat level has gone up a notch, but it’s still pretty low. The new guy’s English isn’t much better. At some point I take the menu from Young Guy. I want it to list sex acts and prices, but it’s only beverages; at roughly cabaret prices. Old guy says to wait. I keep standing, looking puzzled, asking meaningless questions in English. Eventually we agree I should leave.

The glass door to the restaurant had been behind the two guys. I walk in and get seated right near the door by a woman who speaks no English, helped by a guy who speaks almost no English. I stare at a thick menu mercifully filled with pictures—of fish I don’t recognize, animal innards, vegetables I’ve never eaten, sauces I can’t guess the igredients of. Shanghainese food.

“You American?” There are two men at the table next to me. We strike up a conversation and exchange cards (of course). They’re tech journalists from Beijing. I order some broccoli with garlic, and corn with pine nuts. And a small rice. And a Heineken, at RMB 15, instead of 68 or so at Le Royal Meridien.

The one fellow speaks quite a bit of English but keeps apologizing for his mistakes. He’s missing a lot of nouns and adjectives, but remarkably conjugates his verbs nearly perfectly. Am I married? The Chinese can’t seem to grasp a person without knowing their family situation. His companion, who’s his boss, seems to understand quite a bit but not want to speak. They invite me to Beijing. I invite them to New York. We have each other’s cards.

Is this my first trip to Shanghai? What am I here for? Xie, who does all the talking in English, has been to New York, but it seems just on the way to Boston. He went there to learn about a company that writes software for the airline industry. Or that’s what they’re in Shanghai for. My food comes, two huges plates of it. And the beer must be 600 ml or so—it looks like 20 oz. How many U.S. states have I been to? 46. Xie insists on knowing which 4 I’m missing. I’m embarrassed I can’t remember how many Chinese provinces there are. 26? 38? It’s partly not my fault—do you count administrative districts like Beijing? Xie say it’s 30, and he’s been to… he takes the question very seriously and counts them out. 20. I can’t finish all this food. Xie is pouring the last of his beer in his glass; should I offer him the last few inches of mine? I tell him a colleague of mine has been to as far west as Chengdu, and another went to Three Gorges Dam. That stumps them. We work out what a dam is, but I’m at a loss to explain what a gorge is. Is it the waterfall? The cavern in the ground the waterfall flows into? Is a waterfall necessary? What the hell is a gorge, anyway?

My bill is RMB 58. They’re staying at the Sofitel hotel, which I’ve walked past in my past strolls down the mall street. We walk together as far as the Ramada, invite each other to Beijing and New York for the third or fourth time, and part. I should have asked them if they will be harried by the Rolex guys and the massage vendors, or is that just for white people? If I learned Chinese, would I become immunized? Or just able to ask the right questions when I’m whisked up to the third floor.

The first Shanghai massage-related post is here.

2 Responses to “Getting neither the message nor the massage”

  1. So just how was that massage?

  2. massager said

    Yep, its language is still a major barrier I faced in Shanghai. Half the time I’m not sure if they understand what I’m asking or they simply nod…

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