I landed in Shanghai with very little Mandarin under my belt. I had studied on my own during the New York school year as I concluded teaching my high school ESL classes. No harm though. Almost everyone in the Shanghai town I stayed in didn’t speak Mandarin. They spoke Shanghainese. It’s considered a dialect but, like most Chinese dialects, it’s far, far from Mandarin.
For the first time, I was in the same position in which many of my New York students find themselves; I couldn’t understand the locals, nor make myself understood in many situations. If I spoke Mandarin, some appreciated the effort, others not so much. When I asked one shop worker for “cha” (tea), she pretended she didn’t understand and told me the correct word was “ta.” It isn’t
Of course it didn’t help that, at the time, China and Japan were experiencing a conflict over a fishing island in which the U.S. supported its ally, Japan. This didn’t earn me any points with my neighbors. At one deli, a woman asked where I was from. When I answered, Meiguo (America), she turned and walked away in disgust. Another women stuck her tongue out at me on line at a supermarket. This made my Chinese friends uncomfortable, but I took it as a tremendous learning experience.
When I caught a cab driver running up my fare, I said, “Shensheng, zhe ge tai gui” (Sir, this is too expensive). He flipped, started screaming, and turned off the meter. They are very afraid of being reported. I overpaid him anyway and did not report him. The tuition for a lesson well learned. This was also happening to my Chinese friends when the cabbies thought they were from out of town. Sound familiar New Yorkers?
The one word that most aptly describes the experience of not being able to communicate with anyone when you need to is “frustrating.” This may seem obvious, but it is not easily understood. I felt it most acutely when I had to leave all my purchases with a security guard in order to go buy a bag in which to carry them. When I couldn’t find my way back to the guard, I was utterly lost. I couldn’t ask anyone, I couldn’t mime, and even though I had seen the English word “Information” written on a sign hanging over the Information desk (somewhere in this gigantic store), no one could understand the spoken word. It took an eternity to find my way.
Fortunately for most immigrants in New York City, there’s a community that speaks their language. Nevertheless, I am now more keenly aware of how many people are experiencing Shanghai in New York. And heaven help the cabbie or shop worker I catch being “unhelpful” to someone who doesn’t understand English.
by John DePonte