Getting lost in translation is one of the most rewarding things about travel.
Getting lost in translation is one of the most frustrating things about travel.
Often both feelings go hand in hand. I honestly like having a guide and travel with a group. I have done it many times and the pros always outweighed the cons for me. Especially having a guide is something I find unbelievably valuable and yes, I am usually the one next to him or her asking all the questions that pop into my head, appropriate or not. In a country like China, I found the experience to have someone explain everything from the most important historical facts to pop culture and the politics of jaywalking invaluable.
In case you care to know, if you get caught jaywalking the police will confiscate your ID and make you stand on a busy street corner holding a red or yellow flag. You have to stand there for either two hours or until you catch another jaywalker and can pass the flag along. Don’t worry, foreigners are usually safe though I dare say that is one smart punishment.
Then again I like getting lost and figuring things out on my own too. There is little more riveting than managing the public transport system in a foreign city where you can’t read the street signs or ordering something from a menu you don’t understand. Especially if you end up getting something not only edible but delicious. Nothing makes my heart beat faster than having a silent moment with a stranger when we understand each other without speaking a word or finding a new favorite candy by randomly grabbing the prettiest box from the supermarket shelf.
Today, unfortunately, was not one of those days. Today was the worst kind of getting lost in translation. It started by me waking up tired in my swanky Hilton hotel bed and annoyed when there was a very loud wedding party screaming on my floor. While I wouldn’t have minded regular festivities, they were shouting to an extent I was scared to even poke my head out of the room lest someone would throw something at me or wrestle me out the room. Welcome to Different Wedding Procedures Around the World 101. Breakfast was a rather sad affair which shows it doesn’t matter how big your buffet is if the quality isn’t right. To make up for it I decided to go for a swim and was promptly stopped after three lanes to put on a bathing cap (yikes) and to sign in. While no English was spoken the message was quite clear. Why nobody could have signed me in or given me a bathing cap before I went in, I do not know, but let’s just say I wasn’t too pleased about the interruption.
At this point I just wanted to get out of the hotel and move to my hostel, dreaming of a cute garden terrace on a quaint street. Unfortunately, the street was so quaint because it was a pedestrian street and that entailed I’d have to walk a bit as the taxi would only be able to drop me close by. Close by is relative and I ended up dragging a now very heavy suitcase (noodles, toy pandas, Szechuan pepper, and winter clothes from Lapland!) for 20 minutes through the Chinese sunshine.
Upon check-in, it turned out that the room I had booked wasn’t available because the current tenant hadn’t moved out. I made do with another room but again I wasn’t pleased. To make everything better I decided to indulge in a Panda tour and a 90-minutes massage. Unfortunately, I was informed, there were no panda tours at the moment as the government had restricted visits to the national park to not disturb the pandas. I was considering renaming this blog The Midnight Blue Panda, but how could I possibly be upset with this argument? After all, the last thing I wanted was for the pandas to be as annoyed as I was today.
Massage it was. Now while the Chinese massage is famous, this ain’t Thailand and you will have to walk for your massage. Map in hand, I set out to have my day turned around and the knots in my shoulders eliminated.
Passing the Bell Tower I decided to have a quick stop at the Dumpling House for a late lunch snack. After all, I had come to China to eat ALL the food and after a dumpling banquette the previous night I knew I was in for a treat here. While there were pictures of the dumpling combos you could order, I recognized none of them. No little swans, no roses, no monkey faces. I timidly pointed to a selection of green, white and red dumplings, paid and found a spot in the cafeteria which was lacking any charm in the middle of the day. If you think me brave for choosing random dumplings without knowing their fillings, let me just say that any person who eats Chicken McNuggets is a lot braver. Also, chicken feet don’t fit in dumplings and I was pretty sure I could deal with anything else they’d mince up and put in my dumplings. And I did. While they were not as nice and delicate as the night before, they tasted good enough and managing the task of ordering all alone made me quite proud. I intended to repeat this little success with my massage.
But no such luck. Once again I got lost in translation. The place as described by my hostel was nowhere to be found and every person I asked just looked at me, incomprehension on their faces and on mine. Finally, I walked into another hostel and the girl at the front desk gave me the address of a massage place. Alas, I would have to take a taxi and no, the massage place in the neighborhood was no good. Relishing my chance to speak to a person in English I asked her to write me a note in Mandarin to tell the masseuse that my right food was hurt and should thus be treated carefully. She read the note back to me having written: My right foot does not feel well, please make it feel better.
As I was unsure about another taxi ride, I decided to still check out the neighboring massage parlor first. After all, how bad could it be and how would I even know the difference between Chinese massages? Let’s just say that it looked dodgy enough that even I was scared to go in. And as you know, I usually don’t mind dodgy places.
I made my way back on foot, feeling a bit lost and a disappointed. I ate a pineapple on a stick from a street vendor and didn’t care whether he washed it with tap water or not, I was just happy he understood what I wanted and I understood how much he wanted in return. And to make me feel even more understood, I bought two of the largest beers I could find. While the signage of 7 Eleven is not the same in China, the CI colors, the annoying ringing sound when you enter, and what they stock luckily is!
What is about getting lost that brings out the best and the worst in people? That can make you feel like king of
the world a new city or leave you to feel utterly defeated and scared? Getting lost in translation can be the best and the worst part of any trip and sometimes you just have to remember that both are part of the same medal, of the whole experience we call travel. After all, travel is not only noodles, sunshine, and toe selfies. Travel is and always should be learning – about a new culture, about yourself and how to translate lemons into lemonade.
My lemonade from today, in hindsight and after two beers: all Chinese people I met, whether they spoke English or not, were really kind and helpful. After all, anybody can point you in a wrong direction once in a while but to write a note to make a stranger’s foot feel better takes a certain kind of wonderful person.
Where were you when you last felt lost in translation?
What will help is a VPN so you can access your social media channels and the internet – check out this helpful post about a VPN in China by Patrick, the German Backpacker (sorry, only in German).